New Game of Thrones Clips Tease the ‘War to Come’

New Game of Thrones Clips Tease the ‘War to Come’

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6 Things You Should Know About the VR Horror Film Catatonic

A still from the VR horror experience Catatonic. A still from the VR horror experience Catatonic. Keith Coleman

There are few things scarier than insane-asylum horror. The creepy corridors, the twisted psychiatrists, the subtle sense that maybe the crazy one is you; it’s all just too much. But there’s one thing that could make it spookier: putting it all in virtual reality.

Director Guy Shelmerdine’s Catatonic does just that. The experience, currently making the rounds at South by Southwest events, straps you in a wheelchair and takes you on a five-minute tour of a 1950s mental institution, steering you through the psych ward and eventually into a chapel where you…well, where you die.

“As the story goes along the route becomes more and more disturbing,” Shelmerdine says. “There are some supernatural things that happen and then you end up basically being medicated to death and actually find peace.”

Sounds fun. And totally horrific. (If there’s one place the intense intimacy of VR should tread lightly, it’s horror, which is scary enough when you still have the ability to cover your eyes.) WIRED asked Shelmerdine, previously a commercial and music video director, how he came to make a horror film in VR and what surprises Catatonic has in store. Pro tip: Don’t blink or you’ll miss the masturbating guy.

Shelmerdine Made Catatonic on a Dare

Ask the director why he wanted to make a scary experience for VR and he’ll be the first to tell you horror isn’t his go-to genre. But shortly after he joined Chris Milk’s team, Milk’s business partner Patrick Milling Smith challenged him to come up with a horror film for VR. Shelmerdine hadn’t been impressed with any of the live-action VR filmmaking he’d seen, so he decided to take the dare—and do it right. “If you’re going to go to the trouble of giving somebody a VR experience, you’ve got to throw them into a world they’re not used to,” Shelmerdine says. “So I liked the idea of horror because I could give them something that they don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis.”

Shelmerdine Built a Special Wheelchair for Catatonic, Complete With ‘ButtKicker’

The wheelchair being used for Catatonic. The wheelchair being used for Catatonic. Keith Coleman

For optimal asylum impact, Shelmerdine designed a wheelchair to better immerse people in the experience of being pushed around by an orderly. The rig comes complete with a customized “ButtKicker“—aka those things that rattle your seat when you play racing videogames. “When you watch our film the wheelchair vibrates,” he says. “So you get the feeling that you’re in motion.” Those not at SXSW will be able to experience Catatonic soon with the VRSE app and Google Cardboard—but alas, no ButtKicker functionality. (If you’re trying this at home, maybe try a rolling desk chair and a vibrator?)

The Insane Asylum Looks Spooky, But It’s Just Pasadena

When considering shooting locations, Shelmerdine had originally envisioned a mental hospital he knew of in Prague. But he ended up shooting closer to his current home base of LA. “This used hospital in Pasadena had an incredible psychiatric wing,” he says. “Just the right amount of decay.”

Keeping It Short Was Liberating

There’s a lot of talk in VR filmmaking circles about how long is too long to ask someone to stay in the goggles. “Obviously, Hollywood is getting really excited by VR, but it’s not there to have a 90-minute experience,” Shelmerdine says. But even at five minutes, it felt like an indulgence for a guy used to making commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola and VW. “Five minutes is a luxury to me,” he says. “It was fantastic.”

Casting the ‘Masturbating Guy’ Was…Awkward

Like many asylum films before this one, Catatonic has a “masturbating guy.” So, um, how did he find his? “Are you going to write about this in WIRED? I’m going to get shot by somebody,” he jokes. “My casting director, as casting directors do, put out [a call] and we had some people come in. It wasn’t like we were sitting there watching guys masturbate, it was just like one guy came in and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And we trusted that he was going to do it, and he did.”

Catatonic Isn’t Trying to Scare You That Much

As scary as his short film is, Shelmerdine says he was smart enough to be careful not to freak people out too much, or, for that matter, make them sick. “There’s a health and safety aspect for anything in VR,” he says of the danger of simulator sickness (not to mention catching an eyeful of “masturbating guy”). “You have to be really careful with what the camera does. We did speed tests and turn tests. We ended up having to really slow down the pace of how fast the wheelchair was being pushed.” Ultimately he thinks the film will make people’s skin crawl more than it will make them jump out of it. “If you’re in a theater it’s one thing; in a headset it’s a different experience,” he says. “I think it’s more creepy than it is scary.”

Windows 10 Upgrades Will Be Free, Even for Pirates. No Joke

Windows 10 is coming this summer, Microsoft has confirmed, and will be free to anyone using Windows 7 or better. Even people who didn’t pay for it.

That’s right, even Windows 7 and 8 users who don’t have a valid Windows license will get a free bump up to Windows 10. The release timing and new upgrade scheme were revealed by Microsoft operating system chief Terry Myerson at the WinHEC technology conference in Shenzhen, China, Reuters reports. Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s a surprising move given the importance that Microsoft has placed on Windows license revenue in the past, and the lengths Microsoft has gone to to prevent the spread of pirated copies of the operating system. But the company has spent the past year reinventing itself in many ways, including going so far as to announce a free version of Windows for devices with screens smaller than nine inches.

Meanwhile, operating system pricing expectations have also been changing. Apple has offered free upgrades to OS X since 2013, and mobile operating system updates have long been free. Apple can make up for some of this lost revenue through increased hardware sales, and Microsoft is trying this strategy as well with its Surface tablet/notebook hybrid and other new devices. But Google offers its Android mobile operating system for free, making money off mobile advertising and app sales in the Google Play Store. Microsoft may similarly see a free Windows 10 as the gateway to alternate revenue streams.

The company now offers a range of cloud services, including Office 365, Skype and OneDrive, that Windows users may be more likely shell out for, even if they didn’t buy an operating system license. And even if those customers don’t end up buying cloud services from the company, at least they’re staying in the Microsoft ecosystem. Last quarter Microsoft’s revenue from consumer licensing — including both Windows and Office — accounted for only 16 percent of the company revenue, down from 23 percent the previous year. With Apple and Google Chromebooks slowly eating into Microsoft’s market share, the company could be thinking that a non-paying customer is better than no customer at all.

The company could also be worried about leaving millions of machines running outdated operating systems and software. Unpatched systems can spread malware and viruses, and releasing security updates for decades old platforms is costly. Microsoft has been campaigning to get users to retire Windows XP and the Internet Explorer 6 web browser, but China has been particularly slow to upgrade both. To make matters worse, the Chinese government, which has long clashed with Microsoft over piracy, even banned the use of Windows 8 on government computers largely due to concerns over upgrade costs.

The move to simply give away updated copies to pirates could ensure that Microsoft doesn’t end up in the same situation again. But regardless of the reason, it’s certainly a change of direction for the company. And welcome news to those who acquired Windows through less than legal means.

Woman Repped by Pao Lawyers Is Suing Facebook for Sexism

A man walks past a mural in an office on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif., June 11, 2014. A man walks past a mural in an office on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif., June 11, 2014. Jeff Chiu/AP

A former Facebook employee is suing the social networking giant for gender discrimination, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment—and she’s using the same lawyers as Ellen Pao.

Chia Hong filed the suit Monday in San Mateo County Superior court. She claims that she was harassed during her three years at the company and that bias played a role in her termination.

According to her suit, Hong was “belittled at work” and asked to complete tasks that were not part of her job description, such as “organize parties and serve drinks to male colleagues.” Additionally, she was “admonished” when she took time off to visit her child at school, which she says was her right under company policy. And when she was eventually fired in October 2013 after more than three years at the company, she “was replaced by a less qualified, less experienced male.”

Hong said she received positive feedback roughly every six months during her time at Facebook, intimating the termination was a surprise.

Pao Case the First of Many?

Hong is being represented by Lawless & Lawless, one of the firms that is representing Ellen Pao in her closely-watched sex bias lawsuit against her former employer, influential venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The trial in Pao’s case, now in its fourth week, has generated enormous interest in Silicon Valley and beyond—attention that may embolden more individuals in minority groups to air their own grievances against the diversity-challenged tech industry.

But most discrimination suits, including Pao’s, are usually complex and layered, and rarely ever slam-dunk cases. Bringing the case to light is only the first step—Hong will still have much to prove if the case goes to trial, as the complexities of Pao’s case have shown. Facebook, for its part, has adamantly denied the allegations.“We work extremely hard on issues related to diversity, gender and equality, and we believe we’ve made progress,” a spokesperson emailed in response to an inquiry from WIRED. “In this case we have substantive disagreements on the facts, and we believe the record shows the employee was treated fairly.”

The IT Culture War: The Struggle to Adopt DevOps

At the surface, DevOps might be easier defined by looking at what DevOps is not. DevOps isn’t tools or services that you download from the cloud, the title you give a newly hired engineer, or something you can purchase or find on a balance sheet. I can go on and on about what DevOps is not, but the three statements above are common myths and misconceptions, so it’s important to point them out early when trying to help others understand DevOps.

DevOps is better defined as an ideology, a culture of collaboration and sharing aimed at bringing the software development and operations teams together to help eliminate constraints and decrease time-to-market. But, there’s a clash happening inside of organizations today that is preventing the full adoption of this culture to be realized.

There’s a shift taking place within companies — a change that impacts IT. The culture of IT is moving in lock step with the changes happening in the larger workplace, but the discussions around this change are harder to find than those discussions about the overall transformation of the modern worker. The culture within IT is shifting dramatically, positively, and that has everything to do with DevOps.

Historically, lines of business (e.g. marketing, IT, operations, etc.) were siloed, not interacting with other business units until absolutely necessary. This separation was typically created by perceived responsibilities and the lack of a desire to work outside of these drawn lines. As a result, there have been naturally formed groups of people that don’t talk to each other yet are working toward the same goal – delivering a better product, creating value in their market, solving problems for people.

This is the culture in many businesses and it becomes even more noticeable when you start looking closely at IT departments. Traditionally, IT was an isolated group. Engineers write code and build the product and “throw it over the wall” to a different set of engineers for quality and testing, then it makes it’s way to a production environment managed by a team that has little-to-no knowledge about the code residing on their infrastructure. Marketing and sales then take over and start the promotion and selling side of the equation. Rarely do the groups collaborate with full transparency and respect for each other’s roles. They certainly interact, but it’s the collaboration piece that is often much more difficult.

We are now seeing the internal structure of businesses evolving. There are traditionalists happily working within boundaries of responsibilities and modernists that want to be plugged into what everyone is doing. Another way to look at this is generational — Gen Xers or Baby Boomers historically like well defined roles and responsibilities while millennials traditionally seek out roles that have more loosely defined responsibilities.

We are hearing more about DevOps because of this evolution. DevOps shifts the tradition of how IT is organized, how engineers interact. It brings a set of best practices that guides how engineers and IT works that is markedly different than a traditional set of principles. It’s a culture of automating, measuring, and sharing in the name of increased efficiencies throughout the software development life cycle.

One of the primary principles of DevOps is empathy. Empathy from developers toward the system administrators (i.e. Operations), Operations for the developers, and even empathy across non-technical teams of the company. In most organizations the mandate of a developer is merely to produce a piece of software that works — if it worked within an engineer’s development environment, then someone else must be able to make it work in production, right? Ideally, developers must care how secure their apps are, how hard they are to deploy, how hard they are to keep running, because our colleagues on the Ops side are typically paying the price for issues once the product is released to the public, not the developers who built it.

Having more empathy for each other’s role in delivering better products and solving problems is the destination DevOps is driving forward for organizations. Until that point, DevOps adoption faces real challenges. A cultural war of sorts.

DevOps represents cultural change. Whether it’s the change of resistant engineers that don’t want to be on-call or the change of Operations teams to have more empathy towards their counterparts writing code, to the willingness of executives to embrace a culture of automation, measurement and sharing. Organizations must overcome the culture war to be able to approach the agility and productivity that organizations following a DevOps model gain. The faster they can get there, the faster these organizations can take the competitive edge away from traditional enterprises.

Jason Hand is a DevOps Evangelist at VictorOps, organizer of DevOpsDays – Rockies, and author of “ChatOps for Dummies.”

This Screen May Be Terrible for You, and Now We Know Why

For more than 3 billion years, life on Earth was governed by the cyclical light of sun, moon and stars. Then along came electric light, turning night into day at the flick of a switch. Our bodies and brains may not have been ready.

A fast-growing body of research has linked artificial light exposure to disruptions in circadian rhythms, the light-triggered releases of hormones that regulate bodily function. Circadian disruption has in turn been linked to a host of health problems, from cancer to diabetes, obesity and depression. “Everything changed with electricity. Now we can have bright light in the middle of night. And that changes our circadian physiology almost immediately,” says Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut. “What we don’t know, and what so many people are interested in, are the effects of having that light chronically.”

Stevens, one of the field’s most prominent researchers, reviews the literature on light exposure and human health the latest Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B . The new article comes nearly two decades after Stevens first sounded the alarm about light exposure possibly causing harm; writing in 1996, he said the evidence was “sparse but provocative.” Since then, nighttime light has become even more ubiquitous: an estimated 95 percent of Americans regularly use screens shortly before going to sleep, and incandescent bulbs have been mostly replaced by LED and compact fluorescent lights that emit light in potentially more problematic wavelengths. Meanwhile, the scientific evidence is still provocative, but no longer sparse.

As Stevens says in the new article, researchers now know that increased nighttime light exposure tracks with increased rates of breast cancer, obesity and depression. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, and it’s easy to imagine all the ways researchers might mistake those findings. The easy availability of electric lighting almost certainly tracks with various disease-causing factors: bad diets, sedentary lifestyles, exposure to they array of chemicals that come along with modernity. Oil refineries and aluminum smelters, to be hyperbolic, also blaze with light at night.

Yet biology at least supports some of the correlations. The circadian system synchronizes physiological function—from digestion to body temperature, cell repair and immune system activity—with a 24-hour cycle of light and dark. Even photosynthetic bacteria thought to resemble Earth’s earliest life forms have circadian rhythms. Despite its ubiquity, though, scientists discovered only in the last decade what triggers circadian activity in mammals: specialized cells in the retina, the light-sensing part of the eye, rather than conveying visual detail from eye to brain, simply signal the presence or absence of light. Activity in these cells sets off a reaction that calibrates clocks in every cell and tissue in a body. Now, these cells are especially sensitive to blue wavelengths—like those in a daytime sky.

But artificial lights, particularly LCDs, some LEDs, and fluorescent bulbs, also favor the blue side of the spectrum. So even a brief exposure to dim artificial light can trick a night-subdued circadian system into behaving as though day has arrived. Circadian disruption in turn produces a wealth of downstream effects, including dysregulation of key hormones. “Circadian rhythm is being tied to so many important functions,” says Joseph Takahashi, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern. “We’re just beginning to discover all the molecular pathways that this gene network regulates. It’s not just the sleep-wake cycle. There are system-wide, drastic changes.” His lab has found that tweaking a key circadian clock gene in mice gives them diabetes. And a tour-de-force 2009 study put human volunteers on a 28-hour day-night cycle, then measured what happened to their endocrine, metabolic and cardiovascular systems.

Changes over 24 hours in metabolic and endocrine function in people with aligned (green lines) and misaligned (red lines) circadian clocks. Changes over 24 hours in metabolic and endocrine function in people with aligned (green lines) and misaligned (red lines) circadian clocks. Scheer et al./PNAS

Crucially, that experiment investigated circadian disruption induced by sleep alteration rather than light exposure, which is also the case with the many studies linking clock-scrambling shift work to health problems. Whether artificial light is as problematic as disturbed sleep patterns remains unknown, but Stevens thinks that some and perhaps much of what’s now assumed to result from sleep issues is actually a function of light. “You can wake up in the middle of the night and your melatonin levels don’t change,” he says. “But if you turn on a light, melatonin starts falling immediately. We need darkness.” According to Stevens, most people live in a sort of “circadian fog.”

Just how much health risk can be attributed to artificial light rather than sleep disruption? If breast cancer rates jump 30 percent in women who work at night, and prostate cancer rates nearly triple in men, what proportion of that circadian disruption comes from artificial light rather than sleep cycle problems? And just how much blue light must be absorbed before things get risky: a few minutes a night or a few hours, a few years or a few decades? These are now pressing research questions, yet it may be difficult to know for sure, says Stevens. Conclusively settling the matter would likely require studies both rigorously controlled and terribly unethical. In the meantime, it might make sense to let a little nighttime back into your life.

These Tiny Model Motorcycles Look Just Like the Real Thing

In the small Spanish town of Molins de Rei lives Pere Tarragó, a motorcycle builder of quite extraordinary skill. His bikes are completely unrideable—but that’s only because they’re 1:5 and 1:6 scale models.

These are nothing like the Revell or Tamiya kits you played with back in the ’70s. In photographs, Tarragó’s creations are virtually impossible to separate from the real thing. In many ways, Tarragó’s process is similar to that of a regular custom builder: It involves lathes, milling and welding. But normal tools are often useless for this kind of detail work, so Tarragó has made his own.

Pere Tarragó is a motorcycle builder of remarkable skill—you just can't ride anything he builds. Pere Tarragó.He starts a build by taking photographs, making drawings and copying decals from a full-scale bike. The subjects are usually classic Spanish machines like Bultaco, Montesa or OSSA—although there’s the occasional venture further afield, with Italian marques such as MV Agusta and Moto Guzzi. And the odd Henderson and Indian from across the Atlantic.

Once he’s satisfied with the blueprint, Tarragó returns to his workshop and begins construction, using authentic materials such as steel, aluminum, brass and soft-tempered Nappa leather. Weeks later, he’s ready to make a test assembly of the model, and check the operation of the brakes, clutch, wheels and transmission. Yes, the controls are usually functional.

On some builds, operating the brake lever will move the brake pads in the drum, and the front suspension will operate via friction plates and leaf springs. Tarragó then takes the model apart and applies the finishing touches—polishing, plating with nickel and chrome, and painting. The final assembly takes between 250 and 400 hours.

This post originally appeared on Bike EXIF.

PlayStation Vue Is A Slick (But Pricey) Streaming Service

It’s safe to say that live-TV streaming services—the kind that let you cut ties with your cable company—are booming. Earlier this year, Dish Network launched its $20-per-month Sling TV service, which streams live network and cable programming at a significantly lower price than most cable packages. Apple is rumored to launch a similar service later this year. And PlayStation Vue, which launches today in three major markets—New York City, and Chicago—gives cord-cutters yet another viable option. If only it weren’t so expensive.

After spending a short time with Vue, I can say it has plenty going for it. First on the list is a slick interface that puts most cable boxes and smart platforms to shame. While it only provides IP delivery of live and on-demand shows from major channels to PS4 and PS3 owners for now, Sony says the service will soon launch on the iPad as well.

Compared to Sling TV, the Vue service is both more extensive and more limited, in different ways. The good news: The base package of channels includes 55 networks and sports channels, including CBS, NBC, Fox, TNT, TBS, Fox Sports 1 and 2, NBC Sports Network, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, MTV and MTV 2, FX and FXX, and Food Network, among others. Sony says AMC programming will also be available in April. Sling TV, by contrast, starts you out at 17 channels, with package upgrades that can fill out your lineup to 47.

Step-up packages include regional sports cable channels delivered via streaming, such as the YES Network in New York and Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia and Chicago. A full-tilt Elite package gets you more than 80 channels, including regional Fox College Sports channels.

There’s another big plus with Sony’s new service. Compared to Sling TV—as well as many set-top boxes and smart-TV platforms—the Vue interface is sharp and reacts fast. There are several ways to organize and navigate your content beyond the channel guide. Based on what you pick as favorites, Vue creates a video playlist that acts like your own custom channel, playing a bunch of your favorite shows in a row. There’s also a cloud-based DVR that won’t eat up your storage space, and on-demand viewing for many shows. Vue also lets you filter shows based on their content rating, and there’s a slick search interface that eliminates a lot of typing after the first few letters. All of these binge-friendly features should play well with couch potatoes. Sling TV, meanwhile, lacks a DVR feature altogether, and its interface is competent but basic.

Those are the great parts of Vue, but there are a few major limitations as well. First and foremost, it’s only available on the PS4 and PS3 at launch; it’s optimized for a PlayStation controller, and the service is only available in those three cities at launch. It’s planning to expand, but Sony wouldn’t say how quickly or how far. And while the total number of channels is impressive, there are some huge gaps in the arsenal. There’s no ESPN and no ABC, for example, which means Vue stops well short of solving many cord-cutters’ biggest dilemma: how to watch live sports.

The biggest reservation about Vue, though? This cable-cutting service costs just as much as cable. The base package, though extensive, costs $50 per month. The step-up “Core” package with YES Network or Comcast SportsNet is $60 per month, while the full-monty “Elite” package, with all 80+ channels, will cost $70 per month. In other words, it’s not really cable-cutting in terms of price; it’s just paying for cable over IP—without all the extra channels. By contrast, Sling TV starts at $20 per month—including ESPN—going up to $45 for the full 47-channel slate.

If you squint, there are a few tiny benefits over cable. You can run everything through a single box, and PlayStation owners won’t have to wait for someone to come install or fix their service. According to Sony, it’ll also act as a cable service in other ways: You’ll be able to use your PSN login info instead of selecting a cable provider when watching “TV anywhere” apps on other devices. The company says it is exploring including the service on other devices in the future, such as set-top boxes and TVs themselves, but launching on the PS4 and PS3 gives them immediate access to around 20 million potential users.

Expensive and limited as it is, the tech is promising. It’s also a major advance for the entire nature of streaming services. For years, TV watchers have been able to get by with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, but live programming—especially sports—was the glaring gap. Now, streaming services are closing in on cable companies in terms of live content available, and cutting cable requires far fewer compromises. But in this case, even if you happen to live in one of the cities Vue exists and own a recent PlayStation, the price is perplexing.

The good news is, both Vue and Sling TV come with free seven-day trials, so you’ll be able to see for yourself which—if any—over-the-top TV service is right for you (and your wallet).

No, Phones Aren’t More Accurate Than Fitness Wearables

A study recently appeared in JAMA that essentially claimed that your smartphone was as good or better at tracking your activities as a wearable fitness tracker.

Unfortunately, it took just a little bit of reading to discover that the study was flawed. The devices the researchers tested were ancient. They used a Samsung Galaxy S4 and an iPhone 5s, both nearly two years old, and the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit One, both two and a half years old. Slightly better is the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone UP24 which are both about a year and a half old. They also tested a Nike Fuelband, a notoriously inaccurate piece of dogshit which skewed the results considerably, and the Digi-Walker SW-200, which is something I’ve never heard of.

That didn’t stop tech journalists from some of the world’s biggest outlets from jumping on the data, parroting the study’s findings as facts, and declaring dedicated fitness trackers to be essentially redundant and useless. But that’s rather far from the truth. Technology in the wearable and mobile spaces is evolving too quickly to judge its efficacy using outdated devices.

We decided to do our own—admittedly less scientific, but more true to reality—test using much newer devices. For our phones, we picked the Apple iPhone 6 and Google’s Nexus 6. I strapped on four current wrist wearables; a Fitbit Charge HR, a Basis Peak, a Jawbone UP Moov, and a Garmin Fenix 3. In my pocket, I slipped a Withings Pulse O2. Here’s what we found.

Get to Steppin’

The original study measured the wearables’ and the phones’ step-counting abilities, so we did the same. I walked long circles around the perimeter of a baseball field, carefully counting out loud to 1,000 steps. We found that it didn’t seem to matter too much whether the device was a dedicated fitness tracker or a phone. Here are our numbers:

What’s interesting is that the Nexus 6 was off by so much. We actually ran (walked) this test twice, and the first time through the Nexus 6 fared much better, with only a 2.8 percent discrepancy. In that same test, the iPhone came in with a 1.8 percent discrepancy. This suggests to me that the accuracy of trackers you wear in your pants is subject to variables, such as the position of the device in your pocket or whether your pants are loose or tight. We had to throw out the results from that first test because I gesticulated too much between recording the baseline steps and where I started walking, which resulted in the wrist worn trackers showing false positives. Speaking of…

Your Wrists Aren’t Your Feet

Fitness tracker detractors love to make jokes about how 15 minutes of self-love would fool that tracker into thinking you’d run a marathon. Ha ha, very funny, dad. Turns out, they’re not too far from the truth. Five minutes of whittling completely and utterly fooled the wrist-worn trackers.

That’s bad. Really bad. And one might be tempted to conclude that since the phones were pretty accurate in the step test and they’re not subject to the same false positives as wrist-worn devices, they must be better at tracking your physical activity. Indeed, that’s pretty much what the original JAMA study claimed, with lead author Meredith A. Case saying, “We found that smartphone apps are just as accurate as wearable devices for tracking physical activity.”

But here’s the thing: Steps are just one small item under the larger umbrella of physical activity, and I would argue that it’s a lousy metric for getting a picture of your overall health and activity levels. Steps are just steps. They could be hard steps or easy steps, fast or slow, balletic dance moves or popping and locking.

There’s one big reason steps have become the de facto metric for measuring heath: they’re easy. Basically all it takes to count steps is an accelerometer, and accelerometers are dirt cheap. This is why every company and their mother company is making a “fitness tracker” right now. But really, the bulk of these things are just glorified pedometers.

So if steps are a bad metric, what is a good one?

Burn, Baby, Burn

I would argue that the most important metric an activity tracker can provide is caloric expenditure. If your goal is weight loss, weight maintenance, or if you’re hoping to increase the ratio of muscle to fat in your body, an accurate estimate of your caloric burn is one of the most important metrics available. It gives you actionable information.

Because the wearables with heart-rate-monitoring abilities can see how hard your ticker is working, they’re almost certainly the most accurate devices among all these options for measuring your real life, daily caloric burn. Even if they aren’t perfect, they’re the best we’ve got. You have to pair that knowledge with a food-tracking app like MyFitnessPal (or one that’s built right into the Fitbit or Jawbone apps) to budget your calories. It’s kind of a drag to log all your meals, but you’ll learn at lot as you go, and that knowledge will stay with you even after you get bored of using these apps and devices.

I did some testing with the heart-rate monitoring (or “HRM”) devices, wearing them while performing some non-step activities. This is what was recorded by each one during 20 minutes of cycling:

I also did some sit-ups and abdominal crunches. The phones and accelerometer-based fitness trackers had no idea what was going on, but the Fitbit Charge HR and the Basis Peak could see my heart rate steadily increasing.

I should note that we were not stressing the Garmin Fenix 3 to its full potential. This watch really belongs in a different category from the other devices because it’s a dedicated training watch that just also happens to work as a fitness monitor. For the bike test, I could have flipped GPS tracking on and connected the watch with an HRM chest strap, and it almost certainly would have given me the most accurate readings of any of them. The thing is, Garmin’s watch starts at $500 (or $550 if you want a HRM with it), which really puts it into another bracket. So, for the sake of this test, we were just looking at how it does as a fitness tracker. Just know that for real training, this thing kicks ass.


We learned a few things from these experiments. First, a smartphone app isn’t really any more accurate than a wrist-worn or pocketable fitness tracker at step-counting. Even if a phone was dead accurate, step-counting is a pretty garbage metric for measuring your true health. Caloric burn is where it’s at. And for that, phones are non-starters. What you want is a wrist-worn tracker with a built-in heart rate monitor. From my testing, the Basis Peak works OK, but it’s prone to occasionally losing track of your pulse. The Fitbit Charge HR was the most accurate, and at $150, it’s very affordable. We’ll see how upcoming entrants like the Jawbone UP3 and the Apple Watch compare once we can spend some real time with them, but for now the Charge HR looks like the best of the bunch we tested.

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Poisonous Symbiosis: Scientists discover mechanics of poison production in Crotalaria

A working group at Kiel University (CAU) centred around Professor Dietrich Ober has discovered that symbioses between plants and bacteria are not only responsible for binding nutrients, as previously assumed, but can also be responsible for the production of plant poisons. The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Many plants require nitrogenous soil to grow. However, these soils are not available in all regions. Some species therefore form a symbiosis with soil bacteria, allowing them to bind nitrogen from the air," explains Professor Dietrich Ober from the CAU's Botanical Institute. In return, the bacteria get nutrients from the plants. This symbiosis allows plants, such as peas or clover, to grow on nitrogen-poor soils -- and in agriculture it replaces artificial fertilisers. The nitrogen is bound in what are known as 'root nodules', symbiosis structures, similar to organs, formed jointly on the root by bacteria and plant alike.

"Our working group studies the evolution of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These are poisons, produced by some plants as protection against herbivores," says Ober. One example for such a plant occurring here in Germany is the infamous ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), which appears in the media again and again, because it leads to foodstuff contamination in teas and salads. However, the working group's research interest lies in different regions: "We are particularly interested in the tropical and subtropical plant genus Crotalaria, at home primarily in Africa," says Ober's associate Dr Elisabeth Kaltenegger. And: "This genus, comprising over 600 different species, not only produces the poisonous alkaloids, but also lives in symbioses with bacteria to bind nitrogen."

However, the Kiel researchers noticed that Crotalaria grown in their greenhouses is free of alkaloids -- and also free of the typical root nodules, which indicate the symbioses with bacteria. In numerous tests to induce alkaloid production in the greenhouse plants, for example by adding artificial nitrogen, it became clear that the plants were missing the symbioses with the correct bacteria for producing the poisons. During the further course of the study the researchers 'infected' the plants with the same rhizobia that occur in the Crotalaria's area of spread. Ober: "A comparison of infected and non-infected samples revealed that only the infected plants produced the defensive substances." At the end of the study the results show that the plants produce the poison themselves, but they only do this in the root nodules populated by the bacteria.

Ober: "Just last month the rhizobia were awarded "Microbe of the Year 2015" because of their growth-promoting properties by the Association for General and Applied Microbiology (VAAM). It now emerges that the influence of the bacterium on the plant's survival capabilities is even greater than was previously assumed."

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The above story is based on materials provided by Christian-Albrechts-Universitaet zu Kiel . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Mesmerizing 3-D Printer Forms Objects Out of Ooze—And Fast

Even if you have little interest in 3-D printing, you’re likely to find Carbon3D’s Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology fascinating. Rather than the time-intensive printing of a 3-D object layer by layer like most printers, Carbon3D’s technique works 25 to 100 times faster than what you may have seen before, and looks a bit like Terminator 2‘s liquid metal T-1000 in the process.

CLIP creations grow out of a pool of UV-sensitive resin in a process that’s similar to the way laser 3-D printers work, but at a much faster pace. Instead of the laser used in conventional 3-D printers, CLIP uses an ultraviolet projector on the underside of a resin tray to project an image for how each layer should form. Light shines through an oxygen-permeable window onto the resin, which hardens it. Areas of resin that are exposed to oxygen don’t harden, while those that are cut off form the 3-D printed shape.

In practice, all that physics translates to unprecedented 3-D printing speed. At this week’s TED Conference in Vancouver, Carbon3D CEO and co-founder Dr. Joseph DeSimone demonstrated the printer onstage with a bit of theatrical underselling, wagering that his creation could produce in 10 minutes a geometric ball shape that would take a regular 3-D printer up to 10 hours. The CLIP process churned out the design in a little under 7 minutes.

You can see the printer in action below; it’s sped up a bit, but still ridiculously fast for a 3-D printing job with this many layers and level of detail:

You might also notice that it’s a small printer, which means a small output. The Carbon3D printer showcased at TED can create objects no larger than one foot tall and up to four inches wide. But just because it would fit in your kitchen doesn’t mean you should expect it there anytime soon. Carbon3D’s CLIP process is designed for commercial printers, not just because of its speed, but because it supports a wide range of materials.

“A lot of what we’re showing [at TED] are polyeurethane-class materials that range from elastomers to really hard, tough materials for automotive and other commercial applications,” DeSimone explained to WIRED.

The company’s CMO and CSO, Rob Schoeben, says that the technology can also create materials on the other end of the elasticity spectrum. “Some of them will be hard, to make engineering-quality parts,” says Schoeben. “Some will be, which is really unique, rubbery. When I say rubbery, I don’t mean rubber, but rubbery.”

According to Pete Basiliere, Research Vice President for Imaging and Print Services at Gartner, that doesn’t make it the most versatile 3-D printer in the commercial space. Basiliere points out printers such as the EOS and MarkForg3D can run anything from titanium and stainless steel to carbon fiber and Kevlar. Carbon3D also may not be able to lay claim to fastest either; Basiliere says other commercial printers are being used to print dental molds and hearing-aid shells at counts of up to 5 million units per year.

“That’s mass customization,” says Basiliere. But Carbon3D’s ability to combine versatility and speed could still give it plenty of value beyond just looking cool. “Carbon3D could have a place in marketing and engineering departments where very rapid prototyping and production of concept models is important,” according to the analyst. “Of course the part can be painted afterward, offering additional uses in the movie and television industries, too.”

A report in Re/Code states that dentistry could be a primary application for Carbon3D’s small-but-versatile technique, and there are competing technologies in that market and others as well. Gartner’s Basiliere says EnvisionTEC’s printers are being used for dental molds. And it goes beyond printing, too: Some dentists use CNC-milling machines such as the Roland DWX-4 to create crowns onsite within about 15 minutes, although the Carbon3D method could cut that time in half.

Last year HP announced a new 3-D printer with “Multi Jet Fusion” technology, which it says will allow full-color 3-D printing at a rate about 12 times faster than laser-sintering or traditional material extrusion.

But beyond dentistry and other fast forms of 3-D printing, Carbon3D has another competitive technology in its crosshairs.

“We’re really focused on injection molding,” says DeSimone. “That’s got scale and it’s incumbent. Our ability to compete with that—we can match the properties of injection molding, we can print parts with different geometries and different orientations and they look like injection-molded parts. In manufacturing, we think of that as a direction for us to go.”

While Carbon3D is a startup without a printer on the market just yet, it certainly has some powerful players behind it. The Redwood City, Calif.-based company has raised $41 million in funding from firms including Sequoia Capital and Silver Lake Kraftwerk. No pricing or size has been announced for the company’s first 3-D printer yet, but Carbon3D’s DeSimone plans to have a shipping product within a year.

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