Interesting Discoveries


I’ve been reading for a while now about just how great Tasker is. But every article or mention of Tasker states that it’s not user-friendly and not great for noobs, but if you can be bothered to put the time into learn it then it will transform your Android experience.

The other day I read an article ‘How to supercharge your Android device’s abilities with Tasker‘ and it tipped me over the edge. It’s only a couple of pounds, why don’t I just buy it and see how I get on. I must admit, it’s been my spare time obsession ever since.

What is this Tasker thing?

Tasker is an app. But it’s not an app in the usual sense, because most apps have a purpose when you boot them up. Tasker basically does nothing out of the box. Once you install it you actually have to decide what you’re going to do with it. And depending on your phone, your capabilities and your operating system, there’s a world of possibilities open to you.

Basically the clue to what Tasker does is in its name – it helps you create tasks for your phone. You’re programming it to do certain things according to your whim. At first this doesn’t sound that great but bare with me as I explain the relatively simple things I’ve done with it and the possibilities I’ve noticed while I’ve been testing an investigating.

What does it do?

Tasker basically runs a set of commands based on a set of ‘tasks’ you’ve set up. You can choose what starts those commands and then how your phone reacts as a result. Let me give you a simple example to demonstrate the possibilities.

youtube

I created the above profile. Now if you’re anything like me, you try to save battery by keeping auto-brightness on (or brightness low) when you’re not using your phone or you’re doing things like browsing or emailing that don’t require high brightness. Media volume is also low to prevent accidentally playing music out loud when you didn’t mean to. But then when you open Youtube to watch a video, you have to go and turn the brightness up and turn the volume up before you can enjoy the video – then remember to reverse the procedure when you’ve finished.

This profile means that I no longer have to do that as my phone does it for me. But how? First the profile is setup with a condition. The condition here being if I launch Youtube, Netflix or Google Play Movies to do a certain set of things. Simple enough so far. In the above screenshot you can see that condition on the left. On the right (with the green arrow) is the task(s) to be completed and (with the red arrow) the tasks to carry out when the condition has stopped (i.e. when I’ve stopped watching videos).

So what are the tasks?

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These steps are carried out in order and they happen as soon as I launch the app(s). Tasker goes through and completes each task. Auto brightness is turned off (if it’s on (if you don’t have this step, the brightness cannot be changed in step 2 if it’s on)), turns brightness all the way up and sets media volume at just below maximum. So my phone is now optimised for video viewing.

Clearly I don’t want full brightness on all the time as it’ll only drain battery, so then I needed to setup some ‘exit’ tasks.

exit task

 

Adding the above tasks as an exit task list means that auto brightness is turned back on and volume is turned back down (so it doesn’t blast through my office by accident) and my phone is back to its optimised state. Of course there’s a lot more potential depending on what settings you like to use.

Getting more complicated

The above is a pretty simple task and not an example of the limits of Tasker. But it might have got your brain whirring about the potentials the app opens up. I’ve been trying to think about ways to optimise the way I used my phone to make my life easier and so far I’ve come up with a few different profiles.

tasklist

 

There’s a list of my current profiles and I’ll detail them to give you more insight into the possibilities:

In Car

  • Condition – (State) connected to Bluetooth (my in car CD player)
  • Task ‘Car Mode’:
    • Keyguard off – this turns off the pin code requirements to access the phone (great if you’re in an accident and someone needs to call an ambulance from your phone)
    • Auto brightness off – same logic as with the above, turns this off so we can turn it up/down.
    • Load App (Waze) – boots up Waze so I can navigate with ease.
    • Display brightness (level 255) – turns brightness all the way up
    • Notification volume (level 7) – turns notification volume all the way up
    • Media volume (level 15) – turns media all the way up so I can hear any info from the app
    • Ringer volume (level 15) – turns ringer all the way up so I know about incoming calls (no one ever rings me though)
    • Load App (Ingress) – boots up Ingress so I can collect XM on the way home.
    • Display Timeout (1 hour) – stops the screen from timing out and the phone from locking
  • Exit Task ‘Car Mode Off’
    • Keyguard on – turns the lock back on so I don’t accidentally leave my phone unlocked when I’m out and about.
    • Kill App (Waze) – shuts the app down as I’m not travelling any more.
    • Notification Volume (level 0) – I’m probably at home or in the office, I don’t want loud notifications!
    • Ringer Volume (level 0) – see above
    • Vibrate on Ringer – turns vibrate on.
    • Auto brightness (on) – optimises display

So the above profile is quite simply designed to boot up some apps and make my phone brighter and louder when I’m in my car. Then do the reverse when I’m not. I could do all this myself, but it would involve remembering to do it (something I’m not great at) and spending time doing each setting and app. So by creating this profile I’ve optimised my life.

Sat or Sun

  • Condition – day of the week = Saturday or Sunday
  • Task ‘Wifi On’:
    • Wifi on.

This one is simple. If it’s the weekend, I’m usually at home so I want Wifi on. Otherwise it can be off.

Headset In

  • Condition – headset plugged in.
  • Task ‘Spotify’:
    • Load App (Spotify) – boots app for listening to music.
  • Exit Task ‘Spotify Off’
    • Kill App (Spotify) – turns Spotify off. I don’t want it running if I’m not using it!

Another simple one that boots the Spotify app when I plug my headset in.

Even more complicated

Once you’ve got to those sorts of profiles you start to realise the possibilities even more. For example, you can optimise your settings (e.g. wifi on/off, bluetooth on/off, GPS on/off) based on so many different states it might make your mind boggle – day of the week, time of day, location based on GPS, location based on nearby Wifi, location based on nearest cell tower or a mixture of all of these. You then start to think about streamlining your profiles to make them work better. For example, I had a profile ‘Commute to Work’ (you can see it in the above screenshot turned off) that basically did everything the ‘In Car’ profile does but it required it to be Mon-Fri, between 07:00-09:00 and for me to be connected to the bluetooth in my car. I quickly realised I’d over-optimised that profile. I could just set it to work when connected to the bluetooth and nothing else.

Help from the internet

I’ve been watching a series of useful videos on Tasker. Watch them if you have time and you’ll see the range of possibilities available.

But you can also check out the wiki for cool profile ideas and downloads to install for easy setup.

http://tasker.wikidot.com/profile-index

 

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A potentially disturbing story caught my eye the other day – an article titled ‘Google acquires artificial intelligence firm DeepMind, likely to aid its robotics project‘. Now having only just recently read about how Google had acquired Boston Dynamics (a robot company), I couldn’t help worry that Google might be thinking about building Skynet.

If you watch the videos below, there’s already something thoroughly disturbing about the Boston Dynamics robot designs.

I guess we can only hope that Google’s ‘Don’t be evil‘ philosophy prevents them from building the machines that will lead to the downfall of the human race.

 

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I was musing the other day with a colleague on how standalone satellite navigation systems are pointless in the modern age – modern smartphones do it all. Why do you need a separate device. This is especially the case with Google Maps navigation, where you can trust the maps are up-to-date and you don’t have to pay through the teeth to ensure they stay that way. But one thing that came out of it was how you can get celebrity voices on Sat Navs. I got to wondering if you could do the same for your Android phone.

A little Googling and you’ll soon discover that the voice behind your Google Maps navigation (or anything else that reads aloud) comes from the TTS (Text-to-Speech) engine within the device. It’s a device wide voice for reading important information aloud. Google has it’s own TTS and many carriers also have different ones (Samsung for example) but there’s nothing really exciting with these. From my research, I couldn’t seem to find any celebrity voices, but if you don’t like your standard navigation voice and are looking for a change, there’s hope.

A Google search revealed this rather useful article ‘The 7 Best Android Text-to-Speech Engines‘ and in that, I found that there was a couple of apps worth trying to add some variety to my life.

The first is SVOX Classic which offers some good features, but if I’m honest I think I prefer the lovely (more human sounding) voices of Cerepoc. They cost a smidge over £1 each, but the good news is you can preview the voices by watching/listening to a short Youtube video clip. So there’s no danger of accidentally buying and installing a voice that you’re going to loathe more than the standard TTS voice.

Cerepoc also supply a couple of free voices that include Idyacy Lancashire (Claire) and Idyacy Dodo Glasgow, but frankly this really is one of those moments where you get what you pay for – you’re better off investing in a voice if you want to try it as the free ones aren’t as good quality.

For just messing around, once you’ve installed the voice you can then go into the app and get the voice to speak whatever text you enter. This has some minor entertainment value, but there’s plenty more to be had with the actual practical use.

tts

 

Once you have the new TTS installed, it’s important to remember to activate it. To do this you need to goto you accessibility settings. So it’s usually something like System Settings >  Accessibility > Text-to-Speech Output.

On that screen, simply select the new voice and tweak if necessary.

TTS Accessbility

 

Congratulations, you now have a new voice to enjoy. Just don’t forget you’ve done it (like I probably will) and get confused next time you boot up your navigation app!

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I’d previously read some stuff about Sugru on Lifehacker, then completely forgotten about it. For some reason I came back across it with this video (which I’d recommend you watch):

And I have to admit that video made me order some.  Well, that and I actually had something that needed fixing – my earphone cable is fraying, exposing the wire underneath and since Sugru is apparently a good insulator it seemed like a good way to fix them headphones or at least put-off their ultimate destruction at a low cost. I placed the order directly on their website and it arrived relatively quickly, despite the Christmas post.

sugru

 

I’d ordered some mini packs which contain 8 x 5 gram pieces of the stuff, sealed in their own containers.  At just £12 it seemed reasonable. From one packet we managed to fix my headphones by attaching a piece at each end (i.e. three pieces to cover the weak points) and managed to make a hook on my desk to hang a wire as well – that shows how far this stuff will go. You don’t need much for it’s really cost-effective (especially when you consider my earphones are £70 to buy new).

Now we’re trying to think of new uses, my wife thinks some would make a good handle for saucepan lids to prevent burns as our current ones are rubbish, but I’m determined we can find a better use somehow, somewhere.

Sugru have a user gallery of how people have put Sugru to use in their lives. Apparently the best ones get to win some more free Sugru. So that’s an added bonus – though I’d imagine you’d have to think of something new and clever.

Interesting facts about Sugru:

  • It’s both durable & flexible once cured, so it’s tough stuff!
  • Packs are said to last for 6 months (i.e. you need to use them within that period) but pop them in the fridge and they’ll be good for up to 18 months!
  • It’s heat and cold resistant from -50°C to +180°C!
  • It’s waterproof and bonds with all sorts.

If that little list doesn’t get you excited, here’s some images of the stuff in use from their Twitter background.

Sugru

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3D printing has been receiving an increasing amount of press of late, from advancements in technology which continue to reduce the cost of these new-fangled printers, to the more notorious attempts of and the subsequent lgeislation of printing firearms.

 

Whether we like it or not (and there are those who feel the potential dangers outweigh the positives), 3D printers will soon be a common device in most households, even those with a more modest disposable income.

 

Whilst I’m not lucky enough to own a 3D printer of my own and likely won’t for some time, a relatively new mobile app, Sculptio, which caters to owners of 3d printers, recently caught my eye.

 

Sculptio allows designers to submit their own 3D models via the app so that they can be downloaded by other 3D printer owners and subsequently printed from their machine. In addition to user uploads, the Sculptio database is continually updated with models from the top commercial 3D designers, giving 3D printer owners an ever updated supply of high quality models ripe for printing from home. And of course, even talented designers who don’t own a printer may create their own models for upload. Think of a potter launching a profitable pottery business that comprises some of the world’s most sought after pieces, but creating them without the use of a wheel.

 

The result is an ever-evolving database of 3D models at consumers’ fingertips, all of which have been designed specifically to be printed in 3D without having to leave your home or pay for delivery to your door.

 

Designing 3D models via the Sculptio app.

Aside from the 3D printing aspect which inspired the creation of Sculptio, you may be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing particularly novel about the idea of sharing 3D designs through a mobile app. And, at the outset, there isn’t; the app simply borrows the idea from the standard online sharing model and adds the 3D printing stamp to it.  However, it’s the growing potential for opensource collaboration that makes 3D print sharing apps like Sculptio an exciting prospect, and which inspired me to write this article.

 

Stylish furniture – will we soon be printing our seating from home?

Firstly, a new breed of entrepreneurs is likely just around the corner – those who can fill a niche creating and uploading technical or artistic 3D designs that cater to a large demographic. For a nominal fee, they can be downloaded and printed at home or on a business premises. Need a chair with ample back support for a new member of staff? Download the design and print one. Lost the lid for your coffee pot? Go right ahead, someone’s likely got that design covered for you.

 

Physical store owners should take note, for if they feel that ecommerce websites have led to a decline in the performance of their bricks and mortar stores, then they’re in for an even nastier shock within the next few years once the 3D printing entrepreneurs make their mark.

 

The notion of crowdsourcing projects always excites me, but none more so than potentially immense projects that have been realised by tens, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people. The European Space Agency’s Gaia project is one such example that tickles my fancy – mapping over a billion objects in our galaxy through its namesake satellite, ESA is inviting scientists and astronomy enthusiasts from across the globe to help process the 200 terabytes of information that will be generated during the mission’s tenure. The result will be the most detailed map ever compiled listing all known objects in our galaxy, as well as a huge collection of smaller, previously undetected bodies. The mass collaboration will allow for the extremely fast cataloguing and processing of those objects, thanks to the efforts of thousands of participants.

3D Printed Jewellery. Image credit: Atelier Ted Noten / Artwork: Atelier Ted Noten

 

But now turn your focus away from the idea of data processing on a global scale, and instead to the notion of crowdsourcing in general – the idea of pooling together the skills and resources of many people from across the world.

 

But what does all this have to do with 3D printing, you may ask yourself? How can the 3D model can be brought into the equation – the idea of introducing real-life, physical 3D structures to a crowdsourcing model – and what are the potential applications?

 

Websites like Kickstarter have inspired a generation of would-be entrepreneurs and designers who lack the funding, expertise and tools, but through the power of crowdsourced funding have allowed them to realise their projects thanks to the input of those that do. I believe that apps like Sculptio are no exception – crowd-sourced development projects will almost certainly play an increasing part of modern society, and with the addition of 3D printing – the fabrication of tangible, physical forms – who knows where the future could lead us.

 

Whether they realise it, the developers of 3D printing apps like Sculptio could actually be paving the way for large-scale construction projects that comprise the input of artists, engineers and scientists from across the globe.  The finished design could be something simple and unassuming, such as a large static sculpture whose numerous parts have been designed by its many collaborators, or a far more ambitious project such as a car or a functional piece of architecture, the various elements of which were designed by the respective experts in that field. Traditionally, such projects typically require either hefty government funding, or a wealthy backer who believes strongly in the project from the outset. Both these things are incredibly hard to acquire.

 

With crowdsourced 3D collaboration, and with the relevant advancements in printing technology which are just around the corner, the various parts of a project designed by each respective designer could all, in theory, be printed at a dedicated 3D print-house, and then assembled to complete the finished design.

 

Imagine the designs that could be possible to realise in the next decade: structures that could theoretically be launched into earth’s orbit, eco-friendly housing parts, robotic devices – there really is no limit to what crowd sourced 3D printing designers could achieve once metal 3D printing becomes more readily available and the full potentials of the technology become available to a wider audience.

 

While we’ll have to wait and see as to what extent apps like Sculptio will change the way we live, I’m almost certain those changes will begin to take place in 2014.

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I was browsing my Google+ feed this morning when I spied updates from a Google employee on ‘exciting’ updates they were making to the Translate app.

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I like the idea of having real time translated conversations via my phone but have always been skeptical as to the accuracy of the translating power. I’ve never had the chance to try it properly, yet.

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I have however marvelled at the power of Translate to do things like translate foreign languages via a photograph or to convert written word into another language then speak it out loud.

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You can also translate SMS now, so if you happen to know someone who speaks another language you can always talk to them in their own language.

Some sort of hangouts integration should be the next step if anyone was to ask me.

Get Google Translate now.

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