The Squirrel’s Up on Glass in the Aquarium

I used to work for Technicolor Videocassette back in the day. We’re talking about 1990 here. Back when the videocassette was king, and the Intel 486 pretty much ruled the world. In those days Technicolor made about 70% of all the VHS cassettes in the world (including all of Disney’s stuff).

Anyway, we were flying out to Westland, Michigan every week, doing our development work on their videocassette packaging and shipping pipeline that they were integrating with Walmart for what’s called “JIT” delivery (“Just In Time”) services. This meant they’d get the order for the specific video tapes, pick them from inventory and ship just the ones the store had requested.

So we were working on a database driven system that fed a monstrous device called the A-Frame, which was little more than a big conveyor belt from which video cassettes were picked from the stacks standing along its pathway. The cassettes would be selected by computer, be popped off the bottom of the stack, hit the belt, and end up in a box at the end. It made the job of finding the cassettes in the warehouse for each order moot, and saved a lot of steps for the people who had to run around and fill the individual orders. We had spent months on the project, and were working in a small long room with windows in one side that had previously been a shop floor production office. We called the thing The Aquarium because it resembled nothing more than a big fish tank, about the same proportions and glass on the one side, you get the idea.

We had sort of a pointy-haired IT manager, who shall remain nameless (partly because I don’t remember his name, so it’s just as well). We put a sign in the window of the Aquarium that said Do Not Tap On Glass, just like you’d see at a pet store, but when he saw it he didn’t get it at we had to explain it to him. Not the brightest crayon in the box, this guy.

The real story was the database server. Today everybody talks about SQL servers, and they’re commonplace, but back then it was brand new and nobody really had a good handle on what they could do and how they worked – except this one guy in his early 20’s we’d hired away from Microsoft, because he was an expert in SQL. You pronounce it “sequel”, but back then nobody could agree on how it was pronounced, and this ex-Microsoftie called it “Squirrel”. It was as apt as any other pronunciation, and we liked the confused expressions people got when we talked about it in front of them, being the incurable geeks that we were, and so for us, it stuck.

Then came the problem of connecting the SQL server to the A-Frame. In those days we had pretty bad networking. The best you could get was something called ARCnet, and the cards cost about $300 each, and that was in 1990 dollars. They failed a lot, and these days your average cable modem outperforms it by about ten to one or more. So to cover the great distances involved in the warehouse where we were, we needed something better. There was no wifi then, but there was optical fiber.

This was the glass stuff. It was expensive, and fragile. Once a forklift ran over a cable and broke the fragile strands, and a thousand dollars worth of this glass cable had to be restrung. Finally, the networking problems and the SQL server and the A-Frame were all connected together, and we ran our first communications test. We all held our breaths, and sent the message from the control station. The A-Frame responded.

We had been working for months getting to that point. you never saw a bunch of programmers whooping and hollering with excitement as we did that morning.

While all this was going on, the Pointy Haired IT manager happened by and asked what all the commotion was about.

“The Squirrel’s up on glass in the aquarium!” we happily exclaimed.

Mr. Manager just looked quizzically confused, and not wanting to admit that he had no idea what we were talking about, gave us a vague, slightly open-mouthed smile, and excused himself.

-- Gene Turnbow

– 30 –

Chicken Steadicam

Chicken Steadicam

But Only If You’re A Chicken.

 

This video has been around for a while, but there may be something to learn from chickens yet. Watch in amazement as this chicken’s head remains precisely located in space regardless of the motion of its body.

Then be amazed that you sat and watched a chicken for a full minute with your mouth open.

–Gene Turnbow

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Warp Drive – One Step Closer

Warp Drive – One Step Closer

The main problem with developing working warp drive apparently isn’t the math. We’ve figured that part out. What we need, though, is an unimaginably monumental supply of energy to power the thing.

The spokesman for CERN’s ALPHA experiment—Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark—says that trapping these atoms was a bit of an overwhelming experience:

What’s new about Alpha is that now we’ve managed to hold on to those atoms. We have a magnetic bowl, kind of a bottle, that holds the antihydrogen […] For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter. It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter.

Well now we’re one step closer.  At CERN, scientists have successfully captured antihydrogen and can hold atoms of it for study in a magnetic bottle.  They know they’ve got antihydrogen, because when they release it, the expected annihilation takes place.

You’ve just gotta see this.

Why have I been writing about leaps in scientific knowledge and technology lately?

Because I feel that Humanity is reaching for its future with both hands, and that if we can solve the mysteries of the universe, it’ll make it easier to solve the problems of your everyday garden variety human beings as individuals. It is an exciting time to be alive. We are on the verge of a new frontier, and it all begins right here, right now. Our perspective and perceptions are shifting as our awareness and understanding of the very nature of reality itself expands.

On seeing the Enterprise’s warp engine while visiting the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation (where he would briefly play himself in the 1993 episode Descent, Part I), Stephen Hawking smiled and said: I’m working on that.

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. I can hardly wait to see what’s under the tree.

— Gene Turnbow

 

Links

Warp Drive – One Step Closer

Pics AND It Didn’t Happen

A new technique developed by Germany’s Technische Universität allows elements to be removed from video images in real time.  They’re purportedly working on a version of this that runs in Android, so I may be able to try this for myself on my Droid phone soon.

Watch the YouTube video and be amazed.

— Gene Turnbow

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Warp Drive – One Step Closer

First Synthetic Life Form Created

Those of you who have read and enjoyed speculative fiction all their lives, take note of this newest development.  The J. Craig Venter institute has created the first synthetic self-replicating species whose parent is a computer.  It carries the names of its creators and its own web site encoded directly into its DNA.

It is interesting to me that while the endless discussions as to whether or not it would be ethical to create life from scratch were taking place, starting with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, the scientists were quietly and methodically making it happen.

I offer no opinion on the ethical questions this represents, other than to note the occurrence of one of the most momentous accomplishments in human history.  Those who wanted to wait until we’d figured out the ethics of whether or not something like this ought to be done before we, as a species, created a synthetic life form, are going to have to deal with the fact that this particular ship has sailed.

The link: http://www.ted.com/talks/craig_venter_unveils_synthetic_life.html

— Gene Turnbow

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Code

Code

A very very small OpenGL engine.

I wrote this thing ages ago for a commercial project for the now-defunct subsidiary of Sony, Sony Development.  We were trying to make a giant pinball machine where you tilted the entire machine to play.  To test the physical controller hardware as they worked the kinks out of the design, they needed a little 3D engine to hook up to them so they could see what it would do.  So in about a week, I wrote one.

It’s a little odd as engines go in that it loads Lightwave 6.x (or greater) scene and model files and renders them, and then lets you fly a camera around and look at them. It lights the scene according to whatever lights you put in the scene, but all lights are translated as point lights. I never got spotlights or area lights working. It does respect global ambience settings in the scene, though, as well as maintain the hierarchical relationship between all the scene elements (i.e., parenting of scene elements is preserved at runtime.
It eventually ended up being listed in the news section on the now defunct Flay.com, one of the world’s more important Lightwave 3D web sites, and OpenGL.Org also had my listing. I even found a web site in Japan that linked to the original page.  Too bad I can’t read Japanese! The engine has been downloaded tens of thousands of  times since I posted it after SIGGRAPH 2001.

The engine does do texture maps, but only UV textures, and there are a few ways to apply the textures in Lightwave that don’t actually work. The best approach seems to be to convert whatever conventional texture mapping you might have on your models into UV maps using the “Make UVs” tool in the “Map” toolset in modeler. Since the loader doesn’t handle DMAP chunks, models using cylindrical or spherical mapping need to have the vertices split at the seam, or you’ll get mapping errors.

The source code will compile under either Windows, using Microsoft Visual C++ 6.x or greater, or under Linux using GCC. Yup, it’s cross-platform code!

Download the source code, binaries and sample data here. It’s pretty tiny by modern standards – only 3 megs, even though it includes all the model files and textures and whatnot that you get with it. It’s a fairly modest example of a 3D engine. Once I got the object and scene loaders working, the rest of the engine was done in about five days. It does give some good example code for reading objects in native Lightwave LWO2 format, though. By the way, in the ‘credit where credit is due’ department, I started with the example ‘C’ loader code written by Yoshiaki Tazaki at D-Storm.

Once you’ve gotten it to compile (it shouldn’t be difficult if you know how to use the compiler at all), run it by giving a parameter of either a model file or a scene file. If you give it a scene file as a parameter, it’ll assume all the assets are right there in the same directory with you, even if the scene file says otherwise. If you give it a model file as a parameter, it’ll just load the model file and let you spin it around and look at it from different angles. If you can’t compile the project or don’t want to bother, binary executables are included for both Linux and Windows.

A comment: this project was set up to compile from KDevelop in versions prior to 2.x. If your version is more recent than that, you’re going to have a few problems getting to compile as a project using KDevelop. I’ll may revisit this and make a newer version with new project files (thought I can’t promise when.)

Interestingly, the Linux version runs significantly faster than the Windows version does, even though it’s exactly the same code. I think Linux just works better from the standpoint of interfacing the OpenGL API with the hardware. I know I could do a lot more about optimizing the rendering pipeline, though. Right now the only thing I do is sort the polygons by material; this cuts down on having to use the GL material commands for every single darned polygon, and it sped things up a lot. It’s still not a really quick engine as engines go, but it’s quicker than it first was. I never even  implemented tri-strips, and that would have sped it up at least double.

I’ve absolutely got to offer a caveat here as well: I wrote this engine as an exercise, and I stopped before I finished it. There are leftovers and leavings of various ideas in it that I never implemented. The object and scene loading classes themselves are fairly clean, however, and I did my best to keep that functionality as encapsulated as possible so they could be reused by somebody else if needed.

Could I write the same code now?  No. If you don’t use linear algebra for 3D for a few years, you forget how.  Could I learn to write the same code now?  Absolutely.  I did it before.  I can do it again.

Update: It Runs on a Raspberry Pi

My Raspberry Pi 4 running OpenGL code I wrote over 20 years ago and ported to the Pi in August of 2016. The fastest of these windows is running 120 frames per second, and the CPU is barely warm to the touch.

For a lark, I decided to try compiling this on a Raspberry Pi, and to my great surprise, apart from a small tweak to one of the headers, it worked! Thinking on it, the Raspberry Pi is actually much more powerful than the big bruiser of a desktop machine I developed it on in the first place, yet the computer is no bigger than a pack of cards and draws only about 15w of power. The lightbulb in your refrigerator, if you still have one that isn’t LED based, probably draws more.

 

— Gene Turnbow