As I mentioned in my previous column, my son and I want to explore robotics as a hobby and a learning experience. We don't have an unlimited budget, so I wanted to do some estimating of what it would cost to do it using different technology standards. In the first part, I explored Lego Mindstorms, but the open-hardware (and free software) Arduino system has been getting better and better. So I want to consider that possibility in this column and make a comparison to see which is a better option for us.
My son has expressed an interest in getting into robotics as a hobby/learning exercise, which is pretty exciting to me, too. I want to get us set up to do some fun stuff, and I don't want things to be too hard so that we never really get started. One of the obvious choices for this is the Lego Mindstorms system, but the software that comes with it is designed only for Windows and Macintosh systems. Fortunately, there are free software alternatives. What will it cost in time and money to set up using our Debian GNU/Linux computers, and what will we get for that effort?
Inkscape is a shining star in the free software graphics world. I've covered creating a simple ribbon in an earlier tutorial, so let's step things up a little. As part of my work I have often had to create icons for various situations. One of the more popular requests has been to create icons with a glass effect. This effect is surprisingly simple to achieve with something like Inkscape.
Unless you've been hiding in a cave for the last few years, you probably know about the free multimedia codecs with the fishy-sounding names from Xiph.org: Ogg Vorbis (for sound) and Ogg Theora (for video). You might be less familiar with other family and friends, including FLAC (lossless audio), Skeleton (metadata stream), and Kate (subtitles). However, together this collection of codecs can be used with the Ogg container format to provide all of the functionality of a DVD video file -- multiple soundtracks, full surround sound, high definition, and selectable subtitles. Having created the various streams for a prototype release of "Sintel" in my last few columns, I'm now going to integrate them into a single video file and test it with some players.
One of the most exciting technological trends in recent years has been the rise of "3D printing" technologies for rapid prototyping of arbitrary shapes. I've written about this before for Free Software Magazine, but this month I finally got to try the technology out for myself -- in order to create "study models" (a fancy name for "toys") for my video project, Lunatics. In this column, I'm going to walk through the complete process, from creating 3D models to receiving the final product in the mail.
Installed home surveillance systems can cost thousands of dollars, they are expensive to maintain and costly to upgrade. Lying around your house right now you've probably got all the ingredients you need to create your own video surveillance system for next to nothing - all you need are a couple of old web cameras, a PC and some new free (as in freedom) Windows software called iSpy.
One of the more interesting aspects of Ogg Video is that it allows an essentially unlimited number of subtitle tracks to be included. This is especially useful for free-culture videos, since they are generally released globally, and there are often contributed subtitles. In fact, for "Sintel", I was able to find 44 subtitle files. I will be including them all as Ogg Kate streams in my prototype "Lib-Ray" version of "Sintel", and in this column I will demonstrate the use of several command line utilities useful for this, especially the
kateenc tool for creating the streams.
Ogg Theora is the codec of choice for free-licensed, patent-free video, and so that is the one I'll be using in my experiment in creating an alternative format for distributing high definition video. The original, full-quality animation for "Sintel" is provided as a series of PNG images representing each frame, and so I'll need to turn that into a high-quality Theora video stream for my prototype "Lib-Ray" version of "Sintel". In this column, I'll show how I do that.
Recently I've seen a resurgence in chatter about Tilt-shift effects in photography. I think it has stemmed from the use of tilt shift in the introduction videos for the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. Here I outline a brief tutorial in achieving tilt-shift miniaturisation effects using GIMP
Another alternative to using kate subtitles in an Ogg video would be to use the existing SRT subtitles in a Matroska video container. I don't believe the SRT format is patent encumbered (its really simple with just timecodes and text, so I'd hope that no one was give a patent on something that obvious), and the Matroska (or MKV) container format is an amazing, all-purpose container. From wikipedia:
I'm donning my flame-proof suit for this post. Vim is arguably one of the two most popular text-editors used in the free software world: built on vi (its name stands for VIiMproved) it will be found as a default package in many GNU/Linux distributions. The other popular editor is EMACS (although I am sure there are those who will argue that EMACS is much more than a mere text-editor). I use Vim a lot in my work and have found it to be a little like chess: a moment to learn a lifetime to master.
A new optical disk technology offers a fundamental new capability -- which is storing offline archives in a format with a shelf life of many decades (or even centuries). The key is in the pits: unlike commonly available dye-based CD-R and DVD-R media, the Millenniata writer actually laser etches physical pits into the writable layer of its "M-Disc" DVD-ROMs. Because the pits are physical structures, like the pits on pressed media, they have the same kind of shelf-life -- but in a way that is economical for low-copy archives. The niche here is for digital archives of "time capsule" data: family photographs, historical records, original manuscripts, video footage and masters, and so on. Perhaps more remarkably, the drives and disks, are affordable enough for the target applications and available commercially right now.
Apple is doing it again: they are releasing an app store for OS X on the 6th of January. Just like the iPhone app store, and the Android app store, this is going to be a hit: the OS X ecosystem will get a giant boost from it, and we are left -- once again -- with a lot to learn. Before you mention that GNU/Linux doesn't need an app store because it's free software, and before you even say that GNU/Linux already has an app store through one of the many software managers (Synaptics, Ubuntu Software Center, apt-get), please read this article.
Previously, I demonstrated creating an animatic using Kino. That was an interesting exercise, but Kino is not really up to that kind of job. Blender, on the other hand, has a very nice "video sequence editor" built into it, and it turns out to be very well adapted for this kind of task.
My DVD set for the Blender Foundation's latest open movie, "Sintel," arrived this month. Considering the size, expense, and duration of the production, it's a truly amazing short film. There's much more emotional weight here than in "Elephants Dream" or "Big Buck Bunny." More of interest here, though, is the huge amount of supplementary material included in the set. This is more than just the sources for the movie. There's also a lot of tutorial information for Blender users and of course, an array of personal commentaries on the production process.
There are lots of options for creating 3D characters for animation, and they are often made from scratch by mesh-modeling artists. But it's obviously a very often-needed task, using a lot of common elements, so you'd think someone would come up with a tool to make it easier. And you'd be right. The free-software tool of choice for this task is MakeHuman. I had looked into a much earlier version of the software before, but today it is rapidly approaching the first real release, version 1.0 (currently it's at 1.0-Alpha 5, with plans to go through several more alphas still). The progress is remarkable, and this is going to be a really important tool for 3D modeling in the future.
Last night, I spent about 3 hours finally gaining "root" for my Motorola Backflip (starting from midnight...). As far as I am concerned, last night my Backflip wasn't actually mine. Now, it is. I can finally run programs that require root access, and -- more importantly -- do tethering.
When 37Signals created Basecamp, they filled a huge void in the project management market: the world was full of people who needed to actually manage projects and communicate, rather than learning the black magic of project management and its complex terminology. Free alternatives to Basecamp took a long time to develop: ActiveCollab was released around 2006, a good 2 years after Basecamp. Right now, the most established free alternatives are Project Pier and FengOffice. There are tons of non-free alternatives to Basecamp out there. They are all page-reload applications that mimic Basecamp's interface quite closely. Amongst the non-free ones, there is one I'd like to see as free software: Apollo. More about Apollo later.
Counting your blessings is good for the soul -- not to mention for convincing yourself and any investors that your project will succeed. Free culture is highly conservative, because it's possible to simply reuse ideas (and sometimes actual artifacts) with little to no cost. Here's seven things I'm really glad I don't have to worry about in designing the production model for our free culture animated series Lunatics.
Sometime back I gave a pretty strong pan review of a couple of "toys" that were not compatible with GNU/Linux -- with open standards really, since the community ensures that free software is compliant -- and were therefore nothing more than a disappointment to my kids. Recently, I fully expected to repeat this depressing experience when my brother-in-law gave my son a "Flip" digital video camera, but I was pleasantly surprised: it works exactly as it should. That seemed worth a column in itself.