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Look, Ma: No Hands! Pilot Drones With Just Your Torso

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Drones are in, but joysticks are out.

Scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a modern, intuitive way to pilot unmanned aerial vehicles—using your torso.

Perhaps a little odd to watch, the immersive—and seemingly effective—process leaves your head free to look around, “much like a bird,” according to the research institute.

“Our aim was to design a control method which would be easy to learn and therefore require less mental focus from the users so that they can focus on more important issues, like search and rescue,” Jenifer Miehlbradt, of EPFL’s Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory, said in a statement.

“Using your torso really gives you the feeling that you are actually flying,” she continued. “Joysticks, on the other hand, are of simple design but mastering their use to precisely control distant objects can be challenging.”

(Not for children of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, who grew up on television, computer, and arcade games.)

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The team placed infrared markers across the upper body of 17 willing participants, monitoring movement and muscle activity during simulated drone flights.

As patterns emerged, researchers realized only the four markers on the torso were necessary—in flight simulators and real-world obstacle courses.

Not only did the human body outperform joystick control in precision and reliability, but it required minimal training sessions, meaning anyone can jump into the hot seat if necessary.

“Data analysis allowed us to develop a very simple and intuitive approach which could also be used with other populations, machines, and operations,” Bertarelli Foundation Chair Silvestro Micera said. “The approach significantly improves the teleoperation of robots with non-human mechanical attributes.”

Moving forward, researchers are working to make their torso strategy completely wearable—something like the Fly Jacket, developed by Carine Rognon, a researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems.

The lightweight garment translates the torso strategy into control commands, without external motion detectors; it allows pilots to control a drone intuitively by leaning forward or backward, and pivoting their upper body.

“The Fly Jacket not only produces an immersive and intuitive flight control experience, but also frees the human hands for other tasks,” co-author Dario Floreano, head of the Laboratory of Intelligence Systems, said. “This could be very useful for firefighters or rescuers to quickly and precisely identify locations where help is needed.”

Results of EPFL’s study were published in this week’s issue of PNAS.

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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Taps Performance Capture Tech to Elevate Effects

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Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling mix of powerful cyborgs, post-apocalyptic cities, and gory fights. The sci-fi movie’s action sequences are courtesy of an advanced innovation: performance capture technology.

The futuristic flick, which hits theaters on Feb. 14, follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg who becomes a fierce warrior to fight corrupt forces. This plot would be hard to accomplish with basic animation, however, performance capture technology enabled the movie’s team to generate lifelike special effects, PCMag reported.

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“This is the tech we’ve been developing. In an earlier test shoot, for [a movie that never got made, based on the novel] Brother Termite, when aliens were arriving, we had an actor perform with an umbrella rig around his head—12 cameras—everywhere,” Jon Landau, the producer of the film, told PCMag. “We saw a future where we would use that facial performance capture to drive performance rather than animating it.”

To make this digital vision possible, Alita: Battle Angel’s team partnered with Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand. Unlike other animation systems, this performance capture technology doesn’t interfere with actors’ performances.

Rosa Salazar as Alita in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (Photo Credit: PCMag)

“The giant system [we have today], when it loses a data point, it’s still able to solve for the skeleton and what the muscles do,” Landau added. “[In our partnership with] Weta Digital … we’re now [able] to create Salazar’s performance from the inside, driving the performance from a muscle base—not putting a mask on the actor through animation—to make sure we are living up to the performance that Salazar is giving us.”

According to Weta Digital, performance capture technology notes details of an actor’s face performance, analyzes how their muscles move, and then maps these motions onto a virtual character. (For example, see Salazar above with dots on her face during the filming process.) What makes this technology cool is that it provides animated figures with human-like reactions, so directors can keep a good shooting flow without stopping to map every facial movement.

“I’m pretty technically proficient and I usually do my own visual effects supervisor role, but now I get to geek out with [Weta Digital],” Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel’s director, told PCMag. “We can take it to another level having them and their knowledge.”

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General Motors Starts Taking Orders for Its First Electric Bike

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General Motors is reimagining future transportation with its first ARĪV electric bike brand.

In November 2018, General Motors held a global crowdfunding campaign for its new eBike brand. After fans submitted potential names, General Motors decided to call the brand ARĪV, which is pronounced like “arrive.”

The brand includes two connected eBikes: the Meld compact eBike and the Merge folding eBike, which will each retail between $3,106 and $3,782 in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. General Motors, which is taking preorders for the eBikes now via BikeExchange.com, said it will start shipping orders in a few months.

General Motors didn’t provide too many details on the eBikes, however, it said that the eBikes’ motors can reach speeds up to 15.5 mph and contain four levels of pedal-assisted power. There are also key safety features, including a rechargeable front, rear LED lights, and oversized break rotors. Plus, the eBikes’ batteries can be charged in approximately 3.5 hours and receive up to 40 miles of ride time on a single charge.

ARĪV Merge Electric Bike (Photo Credit: General Motors)

Connectivity is another key feature for both eBikes: They can connect to an app that provides users with key riding metrics, including distance, motor assist level, remaining battery level, and speed. Each eBike comes with a Quad Lock mount as well, so users can safely secure a smartphone to the handlebars during rides. General Motors also said it’s working on additional app features, including, “a mode that will use a proprietary algorithm to help riders arrive at their destination sweat-free.”

General Motors did not disclose if its new eBikes will be available in the U.S. and other countries, however, more details on specs and pricing are available on Bike Exchange’s website.

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NYC Author Ditches Smartphone for a Year to Enter $100,000 Vitaminwater Contest

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A New York-based millennial is giving up her smartphone for a year to try to win $100,000 from Vitaminwater.

In December, Vitaminwater introduced its phone-free challenge on Instagram and Twitter, which asked the social media community if they would ditch their smartphones for 12 months in exchange for the ultimate reward: $100,000 in cash.

On Friday, Vitaminwater, which sorted through more than 100,000 entries submitted on Instagram and Twitter, named its chosen candidate: Elana Mugdan, a 30-year-old filmmaker and young adult fantasy writer who lives in the New York City area, CNBC reported. Mugdan, who submitted an informercial-style video on Twitter, impressed judges with her humorous perspective on smartphone addiction.

Mugdan will trade her iPhone 5S for a throwback cellular device from Vitaminwater: A Kyocera flip phone without modern smartphone amenities like social media apps, direct messaging, and photo editing. For the next year, she won’t be allowed to use any smartphones or tablets, however, she can use desktop computers and laptops.

If she wins the challenge, Mugdan plans to donate some of her funds to charities and financially support her writing career. With the challenge, she aims to show other millennials that it’s possible to enjoy living in the moment without having a smartphone.

“I have this fantastic once a lifetime opportunity. You know you only get one chance, right?” Mugdan told CNBC. “So I want to use it for something good — I want to make a difference, make an impact, and get people talking about important things.”

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