Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What's inside the box, Pandora?

As you have probably seen splashed all over the internet, Microsoft announced its Xbox One today. Here's the video that went with it:



There is a good summary of all the features here. The stuff that stands out to me--at least in terms of trying to position a product to hit as much of the market as possible--is how gaming actually seems almost like a secondary function to all the multimedia stuff it's rigged for.

It doesn't just look a little bit like a Tivo box, it's meant to BE a Tivo box, more or less. Television, music, other streamed content, Web browsing and Skype are all part of the voice-controlled package. And, of course, you can play games, although there is a little controversy about how that will work and whether there will still be a market for used games.

I have an Xbox 360 (now eight years old, somehow), but I don't play a ton. To me, video games are entertainment in the same vein of television or movies... something to do in a spare moment but not something to do all day. Mrs. Blog, who doesn't enjoy many games you can't dance to, is much less of a fan.

But she is exactly who Microsoft is taking aim at. Not only is the box sleek and unobtrusive, it is arguably more of a multimedia reciever than a gaming console. And that's an easier purchase for a non-gamer to embrace. If you can make the case to someone that they need this because they can eliminate other devices and streamline content access, then you're in good shape to expand your consumer base. There is even talk of a subsidized system, where you pay a greatly reduced price for the gear, but pay a monthly fee for Live access (and presumably streamed content therein). That, too, feels at least psychologically like a cable bill and not a means of online gaming.

Anyway, the bottom line is that Microsoft, like Apple and Google, is trying to create a device ecosystem. Whether it works depends largely on how people like Mrs. Blog react. But it should be noted that the motion-sensing Kinect is geared toward dance games.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Calling the ball

A follow-up to my paean to our future automated overbeings: the X-47B has now almost landed on an aircraft carrier without a human pilot:


What you just saw was two simulated wave-offs--when an aircraft setting up for a landing is told to break off the approach and go around for another try--and then two "touch-and-go" landings. Those simulate what is called a "bolter," when an aircraft landing on a carrier misses all of the cables designed to catch its tailhook and bring it to a safe stop.

Yes, it's a beautiful day for flying and calm seas, but note that the X-47 nails the centerline. After watching this, an actual landing seems like just a baby step for robotkind.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

Quick aviation dork post. The X-47B, the world's first stealthy, carrier-borne, semi-autonomous drone will make its first catapult launch at sea today. The cat shot is a big deal, and also a first. To date, the only seaborne drones are small and don't operate from aircraft carriers like, say, an F-18.

The key difference between the types is, of course, the pilot. And that's why it's such an impressive milestone. The X-47's processor and software fly it off the catapult and, more important, land it on the carrier... a feat that is arguably the hardest in aviation.



See what I mean?

An airliner's autoland system is proven technology, but there are a lot fewer variables. For example, the runway is bigger... and it's not moving in three dimensions. To date, landing on a carrier deck is something only a highly trained pilot could pull off; instinct plays almost as big a role as processing all the information from instruments and eyes and translating it into control inputs.

And yet. Look at this:


And this:



Granted, these are occurring on dry, unmoving land. But what you see there is a plane launching from a catapult and landing using an arresting wire in a space the size of a carrier deck without a pilot at the controls... onboard or on the ground.

if Northrup-Grumman and the Navy pull this off at sea on Tuesday, it represents a huge leap forward. Or, depending on how you look at it, another step on the way to Skynet.