Now in my early post-Lytro days I've been wondering how I could achieve the same effect with better results, not wanting to wait the years it might take for them to come up with a suitable next generation model. Lytro's only real selling point at this moment is it's ability to take "living pictures" (their parlance), which really just means a photo which is interactive in as much as you can focus on different items in the picture by tapping those items. The technology may be capable of quite a bit more, but that's all it currently delivers, and it delivers that with poor resolution, graininess, and restrictive requirements on lighting/action.
Living Pictures without Lytro
Why couldn't I achieve the exact same effect with far better results using my existing digital camera? I could, and did! Here's my "living picture" proof, using just an ordinary digital camera and a bit of human assistance.
No Lytro was required for this "living picture", just an ordinary digital camera (in this case a Sony NEX 5). Click on different objects in this scene to change focus depth!
...and now for Lytro's version...
Lytro's "living picture"! Click on different objects in this scene to change focus depth!
It doesn't take an expert in photo analysis to see that the non-Lytro picture looks much better: sharper, higher resolution, less grainy, and more realistic colors.
Faking Lytro Manually
Making Cameras Support Lytro-Like Effects
Many cameras these days have a feature called "exposure bracketing" which takes reacts to a shutter button press by taking a series of pictures at different exposure settings. You then review the photos later and determine which photo looked the best. Why then could you not have a "focus bracketing" feature which does the same thing but with focus? The simplest approach would be to take multiple photos as the camera automatically walks the focus back from infinity to macro taking as many photos as necessary to achieve a desirable effect, perhaps as few as 5 or 10 would be needed to achieve a reasonable effect; with the aperture appropriately set any given picture's depth of field is wide enough to allow significant ranges to be sharply focused. You would then need some mechanism for assigning clickable regions to the photo frames which happened to be in focus in that region. This would likely be a fairly trivial software problem to solve. All of this could be done with minimal camera intelligence, since it would just be varying focus distance in a fixed manner. A far better but slightly more complicated solution would be to do automatic, intelligent focus bracketing using the camera's built-in autofocus system. Many cameras (particularly in phones) allow you to select a region of the scene which should be in focus. It would thus be easy for the camera to break down the scene into a search grid it would scan looking for objects upon which to focus, taking a single picture at each focus depth (one photo per range, according to the depth of field). The camera could record which grid location contained an object at a certain focal distance away, this being usable later to relate clicks on an image to a particular focused frame. The advantage of this approach is that it might be far quicker and more efficient, needing only as many frames as a scene objects' depths require. A scene which had two people in the foreground hugging and a church in the background would probably require just two photos to make a "living picture", people around a table at a birthday table with a cake in the center and a bounce house in the background may require 5 or 6 photos to make a Lytro-like image.
Working with Motion
These approaches share one significant weakness which is the fact that using multiple sequentially taken images negates the ability to capture any action-oriented scenes. While modern digital cameras take rapid-fire photos, and those with exposure bracketing take three or so shots in a half second, that's certainly slow enough to make any significant movement within the scene noticeable when switching between frames. Still, as action is easily blurred with the first generation Lytro, this hardly seems any sort of argument against this alternate approach. An interesting solution to this problem and that of the inability to easily alter most existing camera's firmware, would be to use a replacement lens that split a single digital frame into multiple differently focused reproductions of the scene. Just as I use a Loreo 3-D lens to merge the images captured by two lenses onto one digital frame, so to could one produce a system that would use four or perhaps nine lenses to capture one instant onto one digital frame through small lenses focused at slightly different depths. Software could then easily split apart the single digital image into its component frames and do an easy focus analysis to determine what regions in each were in focus, with viewer software showing those as appropriate in response to touch. The limitations of this approach would be related to the increased lighting requirements (or decreased action) as a result of the smaller lens, the expected poorer quality of each lens (related to cost and it being more a novelty manufacture than embraced by lens giants), and the reduced resolution (as your effective megapixel image would be the original value divided by the number of lenses within the lens). Many stereo photographer setups coordinate two cameras to take their photos in concert, getting around all these issues, which you could also do to solve this problem, though I can imagine nothing more cumbersome.
The Lomo Oktomat as seen on Lomography has eight lenses which it uses to 2.5 seconds of motion across a single analog film frame it has divided into 8 regions. The same multi-lens approach but used simultaneously, with each lens focused slightly differently, could capture motion with Lytro-like aesthetics.
Focus Bracketing leads to Focus Stacking (Hyperfocus)
As I began to look into the practicality of these approaches I was pleased to discover that "focus bracketing" was being done manually, though with an intriguingly different goal. Rather than produce a living picture where you can focus on different elements in a scene, a process called focus stacking is used to take and then (using software) merge photos taken at different focus settings to produce a single image in which everything in the scene is in focus. The software involved analyses each photograph in the stack, each of the identical scene where only the focus is varied, and uses the regions of each photo which are in focus to produce the combined image in which everything is in focus. This approach produces very impressive results. The only limitations to this system is the requirement for a still scene, and the strong recommendation (if not requirement) that you use a tripod when taking your shots so as little varies as possible.
Series of images demonstrating a 6 image focus bracket of a Tachinid fly. First two images illustrate typical DOF of a single image at f/10 while the third image is the composite of 6 images. From Focus Stacking entry on Wikipedia.
The aesthetic of a photo in which most things are in focus is quiet different from one in which only those things you select are in focus, but from a technical standpoint they are quite similar, since both situations require one possess the data pertaining to every element in a scene being in focus. And a viewer could (and likely would) be given the option of viewing such a photo as he/she wished. Do they want to see the photo traditionally (one, non-interactive focus point), as a "living picture" where they can choose the object in focus, or as a photo in which everything is in focus?
Focus Bracketing Available Today on your Canon PowerShot
A little further research led me to find a rather intriguing ability to add automatic focus bracketing to an entire range of camera models, via the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK). CHDK allows you to safely, temporarily use a highly configurable and extensible alternative firmware in your Canon PowerShot. And users have used this to add focus bracketing for the purposes of focus stacking, and included detailed instructions on just how you can do it, too.
Coming Soon as an iPhone & Android Camera App
This integration of camera and software is a natural fit for an iPhone and Android app, where the app can control the capturing of the image and intelligent variation of focus and then do the simple post-processing to make the image click-focus-able. While I haven't seen such an app, I'm sure it'll come soon. I'd write it myself if I had the time.
Until the Future Comes
The point is that until Lytro demonstrates just what can be done with a light field camera, beyond merely creating a low-resolution "living picture", there's really no technical justification for placing the technology in people's hands when the same problem could be solved as effectively with traditional digital cameras. If demand existed (and perhaps it will come) for this image experience, no light fields need apply. Hopefully traditional digital camera companies will see the aesthetic value and include support in their firmware (for intelligent focus bracketing) and co-ordinated desktop software, app developers will launch good living picture capturing app cameras, and hopefully Lytro will demonstrate the additional merits of capturing and reproducing images from light fields.
There are few musicians I react to quite like I do Andrew Bird. The notes coming out of his instruments I enjoy quite a lot, but his lyrics I find distractingly infuriating. His lyrics remind me of the comments a teacher's pet might make after being called upon in a high school physics class. His goal is to convince everyone, and probably first and foremost himself, that he's smart. Andrew Bird's lyrics drip with this unnatural self-congratulatory alleged cleverness, weaving supposedly big words with arcane references. He reminds me a lot of the columnist George Will, who seems to feel compelled to include in every column at least 5 - 10 words no ordinary citizen of Earth has heard within their lifetime. We get it, you guys want us to think you are very smart! Congratulations, someone give them a f-cking prize. Now, please get on with the business of being understandable and understood.
For some reason Andrew Bird reminds me of San Francisco. I've only visited a few times, and while I loved it, I couldn't help but feel that the city is a whole is just a bunch of hipster people trying to out-cool each other while everyone else is left to do the real work of running the nation while they smile and take all the credit (see Apple and iEverything, Google and gEverything).
Oh, and a similar-ish musician who I think does it just right, being a musical super genius without trying to beat you over the head with it, see Beirut.
I pre-ordered the Lytro back in October, excited by the stunning live demos on their site. A camera that captures a focus-less light field and allows you to do the focal interpretation later was just too amazing not to buy. The potential and real advantages were immediately obvious: stunning "live" photos, potential for effective single lens 3-D capture, potential for faster picture taking with no need to wait for auto focus, no out of focus pictures, ability to take better pictures in worse light conditions, ability to capture subtler image detail across the objects photographed.
My Lytro was one of the first to be shipped and it arrived just three days ago. Sadly Lytro's absolute requirement that you have a Mac with version 10.6.6 or higher to view your photos, it wasn't until today that I could actually try it out. My initial excitement that had become frustration rebounded at the chance to see just what this camera could do! Sadly upon viewing the photos I'd taken it beat a hasty retreat.
The Lytro is cool, but I cannot imagine myself actually using this thing in my daily life. It can take amazing pictures, as proven by the stunning live demos on the Lytro site. But I now appreciate just how many pictures must have been sifted through to pick out those hypnotically good ones. If you've got the time and the artistic inclination I have no doubt you can and will do amazing things, but the vast majority of my shots look awful.
Here's what I discovered:
- The camera's effective resolution is low! Your pictures are 1024 x 1024.
- The lens requires a lot of light*! Unless conditions are right your images will be extremely grainy.
- Everything must be still*! Motion, both your own and other people's, must be minimized otherwise your photo will likely be blurry.
- Mac and only Mac! Unless you normally use a Mac daily (which I don't) you're just going to be annoyed by the absolute necessity of the Mac software. You cannot view images or export images without using the Mac software.
* Obviously capturing a scene sharply involves a trade-off between light and motion; less light is fine if all is still, and more motion is fine if there is enough light. I'm just saying that in "ordinary" life situations where people move, where light can be low, and where your hand isn't stabilized, this camera can be trouble.
My experience of my Lytro has, therefore, been pretty disappointing. I imagined myself taking this camera with me everywhere, eager to capture "living pictures" to use their lingo, freezing moments in a manipulatable form. But now I imagine carrying this thing around would only breed frustration as I could never rely on images I took coming out right. Some would stun but all too many moments would be unenjoyably grainy and blurry. As it stands I'm better off with the clearer dimensional realities captured by my ever-present Evo 3-D and where appropriate my Sony NEX 5.
And so my Lytro is now up for sale on eBay. If it were more amazing or much cheaper I'd keep it for those special moments where I could afford to experiment, but at $499 I don't want to be a guinea pig.
My bleeding edge Lytro light-field camera arrived today and thus far it's been an awful experience! And I haven't even used the camera yet! So what's gone so wrong?
- The packaging is scary bad! It's designed to be like a watch box or something where you lift off the bulk of the box to reveal the beauty of the Lytro camera. But unlike a watch box the Lytro isn't secured to its base, so if you happen to pull off the top while the box is at an angle the Lytro will come tumbling out, as mine did! By some miracle I happened to be sitting on a soft pile carpeted floor at the time, and my Lytro fell unharmed a mere 2 inches. I have to believe others aren't finding themselves as lucky. I pity those poor folks who've waited for months to get this thing and then see it damaged before they even got a chance to turn it on.
- A huge shock was to discover upon connecting it to my PC that you you cannot even view or export any images without Mac! The official notice merely says that Windows support will be added in 2012. I did not realize what this meant when I ordered the camera, nor can I conceive of how this is even possible. Every camera I've ever owned can be used on any computer I've ever owned. Sure, some cameras include custom OS-specific software for managing photos, uploading firmware, etc. but the software was always optional. You could always just plug in a USB cable and view/copy the photos, whether you were running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. But not so with Lytro! Unless you have a Mac running OS X 10.6.6 or higher your photos will never leave your camera! There's not even an HDMI out. Surely the entire point of having a camera is to take pictures you can show others. If they have some means to share Lytro photos, which includes the image processing necessary, why on Earth do they not allow you to upload the raw files? I really think they should have done a better explaining this limitation as it defies all logic and historical precedent.
- I happened to have an old Apple Mini from my brief foray into iPhone app development a few years ago. I dug it out, hooked it up, and discovered that the Lytro software requires 10.6.6 (Snow Leopard or Lion), and my Mini was 10.5 (Leopard)... I figured I'd be able to easily upgrade online, but nope! Snow Leopard (10.6) can only be ordered as a physical DVD. And, to make things even more frustrating, Lytro software requires 2 GB memory, whereas my stock Mini has 512 MB. Ah well, I figured I'd just run to Best Buy or the Apple Store buy what I needed and be able to use my Lytro by nightfall. Nope! No shops sell OS X 10.6, not even the Apple store! So now I've got to wait at least two days for my Amazon orders to arrive.
Ah well... My Lytro day one experience was a rotten one!
I've always been a big fan of Amazon, not only have they defined the best of the best in cutting edge, consumer-focused internet commerce, but they've developed marvelously innovative tangential products and services (e.g., mechanical turk, Amazon S3 and Elastic Cloud servers, and their Kindle e-reader. So it is against that legacy of fondness and respect that I discovered my first real beef with Amazon. Last night I discovered that Amazon now sells Kindle Edition books which do not actually work on the Kindle devices they sell. And, as if that weren't infuriating enough, they do almost nothing to disclose this unexpected, monster caveat on their kindle edition product pages. The key phrase to watch for is "Print Replica" which indicates the e-book is merely a page-by-page scan of the original book, which for user experience reasons (not technical reasons) they refuse to let you download to your Amazon Kindle device. The only devices which are compatible with these "Print Replica" Kindle Editions are desktop PCs and an iPad running the Kindle app. It is not that I don't understand the logic behind this decision, I do, but I see it as a dangerously frustrating precident. I can no longer feel all that safe buying a Kindle Edition of any book. If they are willing to sell this incompatible version giving as the reason its incompatible format, what is to stop them from selling another Kindle Edition which is incompatible because of some other feature such as embedded interactivity or video clips? Making matters worse there is no text anywhere which truly discloses this huge issue. The page does indicate the Kindle Edition is compatible with PC, Mac, and iPad but that is a very long way from saying it is NOT compatible with their own Kindle devices, which is our default assumption. Further frustrating the issue, there is no way to get a refund via the "actions" menu of the Manage Your Kindle page, as the help documents states. I contacted support only to have all this confirmed. They have as yet not refunded the item, only telling me to download the PC version of the software. To see an example of an incompatible Kindle Edition, check out Campbell Biology.
If you're like me you're a decent law-abiding citizen who feels that privacy is a fundamental right, not merely something we enjoyed by default because technology had not yet found a way to eliminate it. Fortuntely, technology brings us both problems and solutions. One such solution is JonDo, a popular and somewhat proven anonymous proxy service. This article will show you how to create a secure, anonymous browsing platform to ensure your right to free thought and inquiry preserved.
Create the Virtual Machine
First we need to take the ISO of the JonDo Live CD and turn it into a virtual machine. I'll walk you through those steps. It's important to note that we are not creating a persistent install here, that's beyond the scope of this article and with JonDo still being beta I'm not sure I'd recommend it. The install we are building will let you make changes to the file system but those changes would be lost when the virtual machine is rebooted. We're going to cheat a little and use VMware's snapshot feature to lock in any file system changes we want, and use VMware's host-guest shared folders to let us make some file system changes effectively persistent. But all that is to come after we do the basics!
- Download the latest JonDo Live CD
- Verify the hash of the file you downloaded with the MD5 hash listed on the download page. I recommend Hash Tab for Windows or Mac users.
- Create a new virtual machine in VMware.
- Choose Typical
- Set the "Installer disc image file (iso)" as the JonDo Live ISO file you downloaded. Click Next.
- Choose Linux as the guest operating system and Debian 5 as the version. Click Next.
- Choose the name of your virtual machine (e.g., "JonDo Live")
- Choose the location where you want the files to be. Click Next.
- Choose a small maximum disk size, I choose 1 GB. With my current setup I don't even use it. Click Next.
- Click "Customize Hardware".
- I increased the memory to 1 GB
- I added a second CD ROM drive, defined as an ISO pointing to the VMware Tools (e.g., C:\Program Files (x86)\VMware\VMware Workstation\linux.iso (if you do this you may need to set the drive as initially not connected otherwise VMware might try to boot off this cdrom device instead of the one with the live image, depending on how VMware orders the drives, you will then just need to connect the drive from the VMware lower toolbar once you've booted into the OS)
- I removed the floppy drive
- I set the Network Adapter as Bridged with replicate physical network connection state.
- After leaving the customize hardware screen, uncheck the power on after finishing option.
- (Optional) I now "Edit Virtual Machine Settings" and on the Options tab I go to "Shared Folders" and create a share which is "Always enabled"; I called my share "shared". Reminder, this Live CD VM is not a persistent install, so this is where you can keep files/settings/etc. you don't want to risk losing.
- Power on this Virtual Machine
- When you get to the boot menu choose the "486" option (not failsafe, not 686, and not anything with PAE)
- When you boot it may say you have no network connection, click the network icon in the task bar and choose "Auto Ethernet". You should now have a network connection.
Begin Using JonDo
Your JonDo Live VMware virtual machine is now ready to use!
Before you go and do a lot of anonymous browsing you really should install the VMware Tools, it will greatly enhance your overall experience of this virtual JonDo machine.
Install VMware Tools (optional)
You are perfectly free at this point to use your JonDo Live virtual machine, but the beauty of VMware is its ability to allow you to flit between host and guest operating systems, effortlessly moving your mouse, sharing your clipboard, exchanging files, and resizing the display.
These steps are a little annoying but a few hours of my working through the issues will hopefully make it easy enough for you. The reason we can't just directly install the VMware Tools is because it has dependencies which are not fulfilled by the JonDo Live image as delivered.
- Go to a terminal window (click the terminal icon on the bottom task bar).
- Type "sudo bash" to get a root shell.
- Type "apt-get install make"
- Type "apt-get install gcc-4.1"
- Type "apt-get install linux-headers-`uname -r`". If you get the error "can't find any package" then the linux headers for your kernel version may no longer be in the repository, you'll need to find a repository that has it and add that to the /etc/apt/sources.list. If you got an error related to not finding something needed for the install then run "apt-get update" to update its list of packages and re-run the install of linux headers. (See below for more info if you are having trouble with finding the appropriate kernel header sources.)
- Type "apt-get install psmisc"
- On the Desktop right click the "VMware Tools" CD icon and select "Mount". Its contents will now be located as "/media/VMware Tools"
- Type "cp /media/VMware Tools/VMwareTools-8.4.8-491717.tar.gz /tmp" to copy the tools archive to the /tmp directory (modify the file name as needed to accommodate future versions)
- Type "cd /tmp"
- Type "gunzip VMwareTools-8.4.8-491717.tar.gz"
- Type "tar xvf VMwareTools-8.4.8-491717.tar"
- Type "cd VMwareTools-8.4.8-491717"
- Type "./vmware-install.pl" to begin the installer
- Choose the defaults for everything they ask (just hit enter/return each time)
- When it is finished type "/usr/bin/vmware-user" to start up the VMware Tools
Congratulations! You now have the VMware Tools installed.
Your shared folder is available inside the JonDo VM at "/mnt/hgfs/shared".
Additional Kernel Header Sources
On a recent update of my JonDo Live environment I found that the kernel headers were removed from the default repository and I couldn't seem to find it anywhere... After some hours I figured out how to solve the problem. You can manually find the Debian packages for linux headers and then manually install them. The site which has these archived repositories http://snapshot.debian.org, which you can use to see into the past by specifying a date/time combination to navigate the archive.
The way I located the files I needed probably isn't the best, but here's what I did. First, I navigate to the root of the dated repository. For example, http://snapshot.debian.org/archive/debian/20120806T041225Z/ shows the repository state on August 6th, 2012. This date was soon after the release of the kernel version I had (found with uname -a). There are two Debian packages for Linux headers, the "common" and then the architecture specific one. You will need to manually download both of those files and then manually install them.
First I found the Packages.bz2 file which lists all the various packages. You'll need to download, uncompress, and view this file. My dated one was located here: http://snapshot.debian.org/archive/debian/20120806T041225Z/dists/wheezy/main/binary-i386/Packages.bz2. Manually search that file for a package called linux-headers-3.2.0-3-486 (substitute your `uname -r` entry for the OS version I mention). You will see a path there that corresponds to a location off the root (e.g., http://snapshot.debian.org/archive/debian/20120806T041225Z/). That package has a dependency on the "common" header library, so we now need to find that one. Looking again in Packages.bz2 I found the entry for "linux-headers-3.2.0-3-common" (modify for the version you have) and then download the package from the location indicated. Once you have them downloaded you manually install them. Install each by running the "dpkg -i PACKAGENAME.DEB" command, start with the "common" package.
Once you install both packages you can proceed to step 6 above!
Making your Environment Persistent (Optional)
After you've gotten everything configured, including importing your existing JonDo account info or creating your premium account, you want to save the configuration work you've done so you won't lose it if the virtual machine reboots. All you need to do is use the "VM" menu, click the "Snapshot" menu item, then choose "Take Snapshot". As you likely know, this allows you to return to this exact state of the machine at any future time, complete with the file system, memory, display, etc. exactly as it was at this moment. Instead of booting or rebooting your JonDo VM you can just revert to this snapshot. Any files you wish to be persistent and not see reverted or erased you should put in the shared folder you could have optionally created. For example, I keep things like downloaded files, bookmarks, my JonDo exported credentials, etc. in this shared location (e.g., /mnt/hgfs/shared).
Securing your Data Locally (Optional)
To further ensure your privacy you can (and probably should) make sure your virtual machine files (the files VMware uses to store your VM data) are encrypted, either the files themselves (using Windows built-in encryption option) or, better still, by placing the entire directory inside an encrypted virtual drive, with such products as the free TrueCrypt. Be aware, however, that when you use your virtual machine its RAM will be held in your real, physical RAM and as such it can and will be stored in the host's Windows pagefile.sys, where it could potentially be recovered much later, having been written to disk. The solution in this case is to encrypt your entire system disk with TrueCrypt, such that the swap file is also encrypted or to use an encryption product like Jetico's container encryption which includes swap file encryption as an option.
It is sad that it's come to this, that we honorable, law-abiding citizens must defend ourselves against the unreasonable invasion of our thoughts and study of our activities, but wishing it was not so accomplishes little. Hopefully this little guide will have helped you take back some of your privacy.
I was sad to hear about Steve Jobs death, but not as others have been. Most call him a visionary genius, but to me he was little more than a benevolent dictator leading a technology cult. The awe Apple seems to create is not through revolutionary features but through the stripping out of function in deference to form. Apple reduces every complex problem down to an overly simplified interface, satisfying only the least common denominator crowd, hipster aesthetic purists, and a small few who either break the ties that bind their device or mindfully accept technology on Apple's terms. Apple and Jobs have been adept at making the old new again, at creating the perception that they intended what long had been, albeit inelegantly.
I had more fully featured MP3 players years before there was an iPod. I had smarter phones years before there was an iPhone. I had a more capable tablet years before there was an iPad. I had more powerful multitasking personal computers years before it was possible with a Mac. Apple did not come up with these ideas nor the technology that realized them, all they did was package other people's invention in a form that ensured popularity through the careful crafting of a limiting experience. And in that capacity Apple has excelled; their products have deserved their reputation of being easier for novices to use and better at their limited tasks. Tightly controlling what your users are allowed to do, what your software is allowed to do, and what hardware they are allowed to do it on has a magnificent impact on ease of use and stability, ask any Windows or Linux/FreeBSD user who plays in a less regulated ecosystem. And yet to my perpetual surprise, cultural perception seems to credit Apple with being the father and mother of all these technological wonders: the smart phone, the MP3 player, the tablet. Steve Jobs' legacy seems not about invention or innovation but marketing, selling the people on the idea that less is more, that their way is the way, and ultimately (if unintentionally) that they were there first.
I don't like Apple, and I never liked Steve Jobs, but I, too, mourn his untimely death, for his passing is a horrible reminder that though our understanding and mastery of the universe has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few thousand years, all the money in the world cannot linger us many more days here on this good Earth. Steve Jobs had literal access to billions, literal access to every master of every scientific, technological, and medical arena here on Earth, and yet he was little more protected from the vagaries of fate than the least of us. How so very horrible and frightening that is, that in the end it mattered not the man he had become, but the every man he remained.
Having renewed my interest in airguns (i.e., bb guns) I realized how cool it would be to do away with the costly, static paper targets and have a cheap, dynamic digital target to shoot at. This is the idea I'm currently prototyping, it's a large bb/pellet trap which uses a pico projector to show targets displayed via computer. A large touch pad will register the strikes and be able to instantly provide visual feedback and, with a bit more coding, score keeping/etc. The large paper roll is an optional feature I'm trying out, thinking that rather than require the material deflecting the bb/pellet shot to remain pristine, showing no marks from all the hits, I can instead use disposable paper as the reflective surface for the pico projector, and merely pull up the paper when it's full of holes. The trick will be to have just the right balance of materials in front of the touch screen, to allow the bb/pellet impact to be reduced to a mere touch, instead of a touchpad shattering blow; I'm just waiting for the touch pad to be delivered for this phase of testing to begin.
If you have any thoughts/suggestions, let me know!
Today I spent an hour testing the strength and resiliency of the various materials I gathered by shooting BBs against them with both my Uramax Walther CP99 pistol and my Drozd Blackbird maching gun. The results were surprising, but not shocking.
The materials I had gathered included:
- Fiskers Self-Healing Cutting Board
- Duraplex Extra Strength Acrylic Sheet 0.08 inch ("50x stronger than glass")
- Lexan Polycarbonate 0.093 inch ("250x stronger than glass")
- Thick Rubber-ish Floor Mat
- Not-As-Thick Rubber-ish Floor Mat
- No-Name Kitchen Cutting Sheets
I did all my shooting from about 10 meters.
Impact Survival of Material Combinations
The first thing I discovered was how much faster my Blackbird fires BBs than my CP99. Every material withstood the CP99 shots with no significant damage. The worst anything showed was a slight dent or scratch. This led me to falsely imagine that I'd picked great materials and that I wasn't going to have any trouble. I redid the experiment with my Drozd only to find that it was able to punch a hole through every single material I used except the Lexan sheet, in which it simply left a minor dent. The next step was to try to combine materials, knowing that much of the damage being done was because the material being shot had nothing firm behind it to reduce the distortion of the material.
The goal of the material combinations I was playing with is to come up with something that can withstand single or sustained bb fire (from my pistol or bb gun) allowing the transfer of enough energy to trigger the touch screen without damaging the glass touch screen and without the protective materials sustaining damage themselves. With the touch screen costing almost $200, I can ill afford to include it in the tests until I am fairly certain it will be completely undamaged. I'd rather err on the side of caution initially and struggle to have a "touch" detected than have it register only one touch before it shatters into a thousand pieces.
Because the touch pad is glass I suspect there are three primary things I need to worry about. The most obvious is excess physical distortion, having a BB cause the pane of glass to be deflected beyond its breaking point. I assume there is also a shock force to worry about, that even without being hugely deflected the glass could be shattered by the sudden, brief introduction of a dislocating wave of mechanical energy. And finally I assume that the two previous items could combine in a sense by the latter element introducing small fractures that could grow as a result of the former.
The first step is to find material combinations which stop the bbs without being damaged or worn down. The next step would be to narrow those results down to a combination which appeared to impart just the right amount of "touch" to an object behind them.
The real puzzler is trying to figure out how to ultimately test my best guess material combinations without risking the touch pad. To this end I gathered some scrap window pane glass from a local window installation shop.
I made a mockup in cardboard to check the model in the real world. Most importantly I need to know if the ShowWX+ laser pico projector would be bright enough with the current design and its blocking of ambient light. Sadly the results were not encouraging. Even with a cloudy sky an hour or two away from sunset the projected image is extremely washed out and difficult to see. I added some additional cardboard to further reduce the ambient light, and while that did made a difference I don't think it was enough to justify the use of the ShowWX+. It's inadequate brightness, combined with its horrible green ghosting, made worse by its curious tech support mechanism (fill out a contact form which has no place to indicate the problem you are having and just says you'll hear something in a couple of days), and lack of user community forums, mean it'll be returned in favor of some other, better product; what that is, I'm not yet sure.
[more to come]
I just finished testing the MicroVision ShowWX+ laser pico projector for a project I'm working on. About the size of a small smart phone this little projector can throw an image from several inches to many feet across at a resolution of 848 x 480. Just connect it to an HDMI source or Apple iPhone/iPod/iPad. Being a laser based projector the image this unit produces is miraculously always in focus, even when shown against curved or angled surfaces. If you don't mind the dimness, the difficult to look at sparkly whites, the noticeably slow refresh, and the low-ish resolution, it's a pretty amazing little product.
One major issue I experienced is the significant and annoying green ghosting which occurs when the image being displayed is primarily dark. The MicroVision site had nothing helpful to offer, other than suggesting it could be a color or image alignment issue; it is neither. I could only find one other person mention the issue in an Amazon review, but so few people seem to talk about this projector that I'm not sure whether this is a problem in a few units or all units.
I did find a way to work around the problem, most of the time. If you see significant green ghosting and you are using it with a PC or Mac go into your graphic card settings and for the projector's monitor profile adjust the color settings. Increase the gamma setting to ~2.0 and decrease the brightness to ~-14. The green ghosting will completely disappear in almost all dark scenes with as little overall brightening/color washout as possible.
If anyone else has had this problem please let me know and tell me if this or other solutions fixed it.
With my 40th birthday fast approaching and my recent move from urban Los Angeles back to rural Pennsylvania, I found myself nostalgically yearning for the playthings of my early teens in the acreage of my dad's old farm house: a bb gun. And while I had loved my Crosman 1377 pistol, and before it my Daisy Model 105 rifle, what I had always really wanted was the 4,000 rounds per minute insanity of the freon-powered Lark International M-19A machine gun, featured routinely in the advertisement section of Popular Mechanics. I knew at the time I would never be able to talk my parents into letting me buy such a thing, and I don't think I even knew how to talk myself into buying such a thing; it just didn't seem to have a lot of arguably positive qualities. A regular bb gun was about marksmanship and having responsible fun. A fully automatic bb gun capable of shredding a newspaper in under a second from 100 feet away just seemed inherently wrong. On the eve of turning 40, though, I think I finally understood just how right it really was, and I wanted one.
It turned out the Lark M-19A was old news, long outmoded by other superior alternatives. I Googled my way through the small but impressive handful of commercially available bb machine guns and ultimately decided on the Russian made Drozd Blackbird. Where the Lark M-19A was little more than a crude mechanical device for throwing gravity-fed bbs in front of a stream of escaping freon, the Drozd is a modern marvel, using a circuit board to coordinate the ballet of motor-fed bb delivery system and solenoid actuated CO2 valve, firing each bb as it is delivered to the gun barrel.
But the stock Drozd Blackbird marks only the starting point of a long and winding path of mods one can purchase and/or create to make this good thing better.
Modding the Drozd
There are a number of amazing mods for the Drozd and Drozd Blackbird, with some very intelligent, creative, and skillful modders producing prototypes as well as commercial products. The options include chips to add features to the existing circuit board, replacement barrels and stocks, and alternate air systems.
The de facto home for the Drozd modding (and user) community is Drozd MP661K BB Machinegun Owners Group. The forum is extremely helpful and the best modders and mods are all to be found there. Sadly the forum software is painfully antiquated, poorly configured, and buggy. Particularly frustrating, the posts are in reverse order (relative to the norm), so "Page 1" is the most recent page of posts and the posts are listed in reverse chronological order. Also, pages are often outdated after a recent post and you need to click around various page features to trigger the forum software's display of the latest. Still, the people and information can't be beat.
Publicly Available Mods
Full Auto Mod Chip
The Drozd as it comes from the factory is not actually continuous fire; a selector allows it to fire 1, 3, or 6 bbs with every trigger press. Most people who buy the Drozd immediately replace a chip on the controlling circuit board to make the 6 bb per shot firing mode a continuous fire mode. That chip comes in several flavors which can increase the selectable firing rate, replacing the 300, 450, and 600 shots per minute default options with 600, 900, and 1200 shots per minute options.
CO2 and High Pressure Air (HPA) / Nitrogen Systems
The Drozd Blackbird can use several types of propellant, which can come from several different sources, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
As it is shipped the Drozd is only set up to use three 12g CO2 cartridges (three at a time) or one Crossman AirSource 88g CO2 cartridge (the JT 90g CO2 works perfectly fine, and is actually priced 35% lower than the Crossman, at least at Walmart which sells the JT for $5.50 a piece versus $7.50 a piece for the Crossman). Optional accessories allow remote paint ball CO2 canisters (such as the common 20 oz CO2 bottles) and even the increasingly popular High Pressure Air (HPA).
In the chilly conditions of late October I begin to understand why the HPA option is so popular. CO2 is greatly affected by temperature. Colder temperatures mean fewer shots and weaker shots. And not only is the ambient temperature important, there is the more serious problem that with each shot the CO2 vessel itself becomes colder. Firing multiple times in a row drops the CO2 canister temperature dramatically, lowering its pressure sharply. The temperature becomes so low that guns can literally freeze up. HPA is free of these issues, at least to any serious degree.
It didn't take me long to realize the 12g CO2 option is laughably unworkable. The three 12g cartridges were only providing me about 20 decent shots, with a handful of anemic ones after that. Replacing the cartridges is not hard but requires unscrewing the three canister holder, replacing the spent ones, installing the new ones, screwing in the holder, and then screwing in the cartridge holder to puncture the CO2 seals. The procedure becomes almost immediately tiresome. I quickly switched to using the 88g CO2 canisters (actually the JT 90g canisters, since they are 30% cheaper than the Crosman 88g ones). Not only are there more shots per canister, the replacement is quicker; unscrew the old CO2 canister and just screw in the new one. It only took a few more hours shooting to realize that this, too, is a bit tedious. Despite websites saying I could expect 400 - 500 shots per 88g cartridge (with the Drozd Blackbird) I doubt I was getting any more than 100, with a dozen or so after that that could barely make it to the target. And none of this includes much of any automatic firing, most of this was me firing single shots a few seconds apart. At ~$6 per 90g JT cartridge, with so few shots, it doesn't take long to see the folly of using this form of CO2, at least with my usage and in my climate.
While I could upgrade to HPA, I opted instead for the remote CO2 option, using 20 oz CO2 bottles. HPA is a very expensive initial investment. Each large HPA bottle (~1000 shots) costs $170. While you can refill it yourself from a larger tank, such as a SCUBA tank, it'll cost $400 - 600 for the tank and adapter. HPA may be more popular now, but it's still a bit harder to come by than CO2. Going with CO2 means that I get more shots (in theory) per equivalently sized tank, and at only $40/bottle, I can buy two or three and shoot far longer before needing to travel somewhere for a refill. And as I don't expect to do that much full auto firing, the problems with CO2 won't impact me as much as they do others who generally opt for HPA. If my interest keeps up I'll likely go the HPA route as well.
Weaver / Picatinny Rail Options
For those that don't know (like myself only a few days ago), there is a mounting standard for modern gun accessories. The standard has two main variations, Weaver and Picatinny. The only meaningful difference between them is that Picatinny accessories expect larger "recoil grooves", grooves cut transverse into the rail to prevent the scope, laser, light, etc. from sliding forward or back as the gun recoils. For this reason accessories for a Weaver system will usually fit on Picatinny rails, but not the other way around.
The Drozd has one Weaver / Picatinny rail mounted on top of the gun. For many, one rail is not enough to hold all their intended accessories. To solve this problem you could add something like the flat top Weaver tri-rail mount which essentially adds vertical Picatinny rails on either side of a Weaver rail, or you can install a short Weaver / Picatinny rail underneath or on the sides of the handguard. Placing one underneath the handguard is particularly useful if you want to install a bipod. While installing the rails is not particularly technically difficult, it requires little more than picking a rail of appropriate length and using adhesive or screws to secure them, all your efforts will be for nought if you don't mount them straight.
Wanting both scope and laser, and not wanting (at this moment) to install a rail or worry about whether the scope I might choose would clear the laser I might choose, I opted instead for the NcStar 4x32mm Mark III Tactical Scope with Laser. It does a decent job, though I'm sure separate lasers are much brighter, and I've heard the green ones particularly visible during the day.
If you want to ditch the original barrel and the cheesy fake plastic suppressor, your best option is one of JimC's barrels. You can pick between his Tactical Rifle Kit, the SMG kit, the Carbine Kit, or the SMG Fake Suppressor Kit. All of the highest quality.
I went with the Tactical Rifle Barrel replacement in an effort to improve the already decent accuracy and boost the already decent bb fps. Admittedly the purchase was also an aesthetic one, as I think the cheap plastic fake suppressor diminishes what is otherwise a quality airgun.
Sergey's Amazing Replacement Board
While the generally available replacement chips can get you full auto and higher firing rates they can't get you 2,000 rounds per minute and they don't let you adjust the fps of your projectiles. An ingenious Russian named Sergey Pismensky has made and is selling a board that lets you do all these things. The board is a bargain at $120, but installation isn't easy. Unlike the other electronic mods to the Drozd, this one has three buttons and one LED, all of which require careful, clean CNC (or other) cuts in the handguard. I've heard that Ray at DrozdMax will do a great job for you, but I'm not sure what it costs.
For details on the board (including talking to and buying from the man himself), follow this thread (and the one that preceeded it). And check out this great video with explanation of its features and use.
It should be noted that while the board can deliver 2,000 rounds per minute the stock magazine motor can't keep up for long. Modders have identified some replacement motors, including the Nichibo motor, but you'd better read the threads to see where research currently stands.
Barrel Attachment Adapters
While it's not my thing, modder Netstamp has made available an adapter which lets you connect 14 mm (paintball) barrel accessories (such as mock suppressors and muzzle brakes) to the end of the stock Drozd barrel. You can read more here.
Notable Prototypes and Ideas for Prototypes
High Capacity / Drum Magazines
A few people have done some amazing work creating drum (or at least drum-looking) magazines for the Drozd. One of the nicest looking is by "Camracer". Unless I'm mistaken it's not a drum magazine in a functional sense, it just stores the bbs in a drum-like holder where bbs can be fed into a semi-traditional hopper. Camracer has a great YouTube channel to show off all his Drozd creations and setups.
I had hoped to avoid annoying the neighbors by adding a genuine suppressor/silencer, perhaps even make my own, but within a few dozen Google searches I realized just how bad an idea an airgun silencer would be. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms does not regulate airguns, but they do regulate silencers for use on firearms, and the BATF considers any silencer, regardless of actual use, as requiring a firearm license if it could be made to work, even once, on a firearm. Any silencer made for an airgun could arguably be adapted for use on powder based firearm, and the punishment for that crime is potentially 10 years in jail and $250,000 fine for manufacturing a silencer and an additional 10 years and $250,000 for possession of an unlicensed silencer. And these are not idle threats, a recent case sent a person to prison for at least 15 years for having mailed an airgun which included a silencer built specifically for that airgun (the sound dampening material would not survive the shot of a firearm). It should be noted, though, that the individual in this case had a prior felony and as such was not allowed to possess a firearm. Airguns are not firearms but in the view of the jury (and the BATF) the silencer is a firearm. I have seen no mention of whether his sentence was based in any part on his status as a previously convicted felon.
While it is possible to legally own/operate a silencer (in 47 out of our 50 states), the process is not guaranteed to work and can take 3-4 months and $200; you also need to get your local police chief to sign off on the form (I believe there is some other alternative to this). If silence was a greater issue for me, perhaps I'd explore it just for the curiosity factor.
A bb machine gun is a somewhat purposeless device. It exists in that space between a firearm capable of defending your home/family/country and an orange-tipped toy suitable for a 10 year old. Within that space, however, is the potential for wild, but tempered and costly, amusement.
The costs do add up quickly. A $299 semi-automatic (technically fully-automatic but in bursts of 3 or 6 bbs) gun suddenly becomes a $375 truly fully-automatic gun with your choice of basic mod chip installed. That gun suddenly becomes a $550 fully-automatic bb machine gun with a tactical barrel. And that gun becomes a $660 full-auto tactical machine gun with laser and scope. And that gun becomes a $735 full-auto tactical machine gun with laser, scope, and a 20 oz remote CO2 supply. And there is ample room to invest even more in something whose only dividends will be smiles and the confetti of shredded targets.
My standard justification for all such costly habits, "Well, it's cheaper and better for me than crack cocaine would probably be." as if in each situation crack cocaine was the only other available option. There's something to be said in favor of the straw man argument when you're trying to talk yourself into something.
So, if you're looking to join we fools who own and enjoy a Drozd, I can heartily recommend Ray at DrozdMax for sales/service and the aforementioned Drozd MP661K BB Machinegun Owners Group for all your questions, chat, and ideas. Hope to see you over there.
My own Drozd Blackbird, as of 11/5/2011, includes the following:
- Mild Full Auto Mod Chip
- JimC Tactical Rifle Barrel
- NcStar 4x32mm Mark III Tactical Scope with Laser
- Bulk Remote CO2 Kit