Flying My First Drone

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For my 30th birthday, my parents decided to tap into the joy of childhood by purchasing me something that has been nothing but pure fun: my first drone.

This Chinese quadcopter packs a ton of technology into an incredibly small package at an alarmingly reasonable price. This Hubsan x4 Quadcopter includes a 480p digital video camera, 6-axis control and enough battery power for approximately 7 minutes of flight on each charge. The included wireless controller offers a “Playstation-esque” feel but offers superb control of the aircraft.

It is absolutely amazing to me that this aircraft, which weighs 0.98 oz (28g), can pack a payload of 16GB of memory. The pace in which technology has improved in my short lifetime is unbelievable. When I was 10 years old, it would take a shoulder-mounted VHS camcorder and a stack of VHS tapes to record this much video.

Today, while my wife and her friend took our dog to the park, I decided to take to the skies for my first outdoor flight session. Living in Dallas, wind is always an issue, so today my focus was on controlling the aircraft under steady winds, and I must say that it takes an incredible amount of focus just to keep the drone aloft.

With about 45 minutes of flying time under some moderate wind conditions I’m definitely glad that I am starting with such a small and inexpensive aircraft. This drone has taken a beating. Falling from 100 ft in the sky to the ground with not even a bent prop, this drone is prefect for the curious or novice pilot (like me).

If you’re curious about the world of unmanned aircraft and want to try your hand at piloting a drone, definitely start small, but with a high quality aircraft. Get used to adjusting the trim, calibrating the gimbals and keeping the aircraft oriented with your controls. Try to practice “hovering” and keeping the aircraft as steady as possible before you learn to zip it across the sky.

As you learn, you will undoubtedly “over-control” as you panic when the aircraft does the opposite of what you intend. These over corrections will likely cause for an abrupt crash landing making you glad you decided to start the hobby with an inexpensive aircraft.

After a few more months of mastering this quadcopter, I think I might be interested in investing in a more sturdy aircraft that will be less affected by the wind with a sharper camera and more precise controls. Until then, I’m going to work on getting my unmanned wings and snagging some great grainy video in the process.

Next time you’re bored, go fly a kite drone. It’s great to feel like a kid again.

Jump Starting My Electric Car

Just like your conventional internal combustion engine (ICE), my electric car has a standard 12V car battery that powers electronics when the main power supply is deactivated. Also like your car, this battery is susceptible to failure, as it proved to me on a cold Sunday morning.

As I was getting ready to run an errand on Superbowl Sunday, I was stunned when I went to unlock the door on my Nissan LEAF and nothing happened. I tried pressing the buttons on the key fob as well as the proximity sensor on the on the door handle. Nothing.

I pulled the conventional key out of the key fob and assumed that the key fob had a low battery. After sitting down in the driver’s seat, I pressed the power button. Nothing. No startup sound, no flutter of lights, no “No Key” warning light flashing on the dash. Complete silence.

I wondered if the car may have somehow discharged in the one day that I didn’t drive it, so I tried to release the charge port lid and realized that there was no way to release the lid without power to the vehicle. Sounds crazy, right?

After researching multiple web forums, I came to an alarming solution: I needed to jump start my electric car.

How a car with 24kWh of power packed under its chasis could not power its own on-board computer was beyond me. That 12V “accessory” battery under the hood was the only thing preventing me from getting on my way. After a short call to the roadside assistance, a technician was able to come and give me a “jump” to provide enough power to the 12V battery to initiate the on-board computer and bring the car “online.”

After the jump, I drove the car around to recharge the 12V battery for twenty minutes or so, hoping that the drive would put enough energy back onto the 12V to allow for an easy departure to work the next morning. Luckily, this morning when I left the house the car started with absolutely no problem.

I brought the car to the dealership after work and learned that the only certified LEAF technician that they have had called off for the day, so right now I am waiting for one of their ICE technicians to check the 12V battery, which I explained to to the service adviser, is no different from any other conventional car battery.

Even with the most sophisticated technology, there is always an Achilles’s heel. For your 4G smartphone, it might be the strength of your cell signal, or for your tablet it might be the absence of a WiFi connection. In my case, a completely battery powered car, fully charged with 24kWh of electricity couldn’t start, simply because of a failed 12V battery…

How to Get a New Phone for Free

As a technology enthusiast, I always like to have the latest and greatest devices. However, keeping up with the latest tech can be an expensive addiction.

Although most of us are only eligible to upgrade or trade-out our smartphones every year or two, there are a ton of things you can do with your current device to make it seem like a whole new phone.

Thanks to operating system updates (Android Jelly Bean/KitKat, iOS 5) software developers deliver a periodic fresh new look and feel to our hardware while showering us with new and innovative features. But, beyond that, there are a bunch of things we can do to declutter of phones and make them work for us.

Just the other day I was trying to record a video on my Samsung Galaxy S III when I realized that the audio quality was horrible. I returned the device to the store where they swapped it out for a refurbished model. Some of you might think that carrying a Galaxy S III puts me way behind the times, but when you think about it, I have most of the features of the newest smartphone, but with the added ability of having removable storage and swappable batteries (something you cannot do with the Google Nexus or iPhone).

A Factory Reset can breathe new life into your phone. Over time your device gets worn down by tons of applications, widgets and background processes that can chew through your data plan and your battery consumption without you even knowing it. Within a few months your device can get slow, bogged down and just not as fresh and fast as it was out of the box.

By backing up all of your contacts, photos, videos and apps (best done by using a Google account to store your contacts and Autobackup to store your photos and videos) you can easily reset your phone and get a fresh start in just a few minutes. The advantages of doing this are that you can review the apps on your phone, how you have your home screen configured and make your phone what you want it to be.

Take time to organize your device. By putting the apps and contacts that you use most at your fingertips, you will find that using your phone efficiently can save you a ton of time and extra thumb presses. As you can see from my updated home screen, I’ve put all of the things that I use most in my system tray. That way, as soon as I unlock my phone with one or two taps, I can get exactly what I need.

One of the annoying default settings of most phones is that when you install an app, it automatically places an icon for that app on one of your home screens. This can be really frustrating with Android, as it will just crowd your unused space with icons. By turning off that option, you can take control of what you want to keep on your home screens.

Use widgets to take a quick glance. Sorry iOS users, this one is only for Android. By using multiple home screens and some of the great widgets available, you can quickly browse the information you need from your favorite or most used app without having to load it each time.

Sorting your applications into folders can also help you quickly find what you’re looking for without trying to recite the alphabet each time you’re looking for an app.
Functionality trumps design (at least for me). Most of the time, when I see people post screen captures from their phones, I see beautiful background images and aesthetically pleasing icons and clocks, but what I don’t see is functionality. When I pull my phone out of my pocket, I want to complete a task as quickly as possible. Whether it is making a call to a love one (I use favorites in Phone), launching an app (sorted by folders) or glancing at my calendar or e-mail (widgets), I like to keep my phone set up to work for me and make my life easier. After all, that’s why we spend some much on this technology, to make our lives simpler.
After resetting your phone, reorganizing your apps and ridding your phone of the ones you never need, giving yourself a new background/lock screen, you’ll feel like you have a brand new device. The best part? It was all completely free.
If you have tips on how to make your phone work for you or how you give yourself an Android makeover, leave them in the comments below. I’d love to see what you’re doing to make your phone even better!

Safecast Sensors Track Radiation Levels Around the World

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Wondering whether or not it’s a good idea to move into that house next to the old nuclear power facility? Well, believe it or not, there’s an app for that.

Fellow +Google Glass Explorer +Chris Sewell tipped me off on a new open-source project called +Safecast which is centered around collecting information on radiation levels in communities around the world to increase citizen awareness.

The project took off in April of 2011, just one month and one day after the chain reaction resulting from a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, completely crippling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

According to the information on the website about the various devices available to collect and share the data, only 117 have been deployed in the field so far. You can learn more here.

My First Days with Google Glass

This is part 1 of a 3 part series.


A couple of months ago, you could have called me a skeptic. I didn’t really see the value in paying $1,500 and a trip to New York or San Francisco for something that was still in beta. If anything, I thought Google should be paying us to wear it. I watched some of the first explorers and noticed the issues they were dealing with (poor battery life, equipment failure, etc.). I wondered why anyone would want to spend so much money on something that had such limited functionality.


When the #ifihadglass campaign initially rolled out, I thought it was a really great idea, but felt I would need some groundbreaking idea in order to get an initial invite. As it turned out, you just had to have a somewhat good idea, $1,500 in your pocket and the ability to travel to NYC or SFO to pick them up. I watched a lot of my connections from Google+ score the initial invitations and watched with envy as they traveled to the closest coast to get fitted for their Glass.

As the Explorer program with +Google Glass continued to grow, I watched more and more people taking the device out in public, testing the sociological response form wearing Glass and attempting new and different applications. On the surface though, it just looked like a bunch of geeks (sorry, +Robert Warren) posting pictures of their driveway with the current temperature superimposed over it—something that could be easily accomplished with a smartphone five years ago.

As time rolled by, I convinced myself that getting Glass wouldn’t be worth it for it. I made myself think that I really didn’t need it and wouldn’t be able to do anything worthwhile with it. Then, out of nowhere, my good friend+Derek Ross gave me the opportunity to get in. No longer would I need to have to fly to one of Google’s offices to get fitted. All I needed to do was provide my payment information and wait by the mailbox.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force myself to pay $1,500 for something that seemed so useless to me.

Then one day everything changed. An acquaintance I met online, +Robert Warren, scored a pair of glass and we joked for months about me trying it out. Finally, we met for dinner with +Shaker Cherukuri and afterwards he let me try it on. I was absolutely amazed. I could not believe the clarity of the display, the clarity of the sound, the speed of the device and the many purposes that he was able to demonstrate in my short demo. In just a few minutes he turned a skeptic into a believer.

That night I got online and tried to turn over every rock I could find on the Internet to get myself an invitation code. Finally, after “begging” to the Glass Gods, +Chris Pick and +Kelvin Williams came along and threw me the invitation that got me into the Explorers program. I immediately jumped online and consulted with my family on which pair to buy. We decided Shale would be the best fit with my wardrobe and to “blend” in perhaps more than Sky or Tangerine.

So, now after a few days I’m starting to formulate some opinions on this new tool (not a toy) and how it is going to be beneficial for my life and my career…

This is the first of three posts which will tell you more about my experience. I wanted to start out with the backstory. Stay tuned tomorrow for the next part of the series and photos from today’s Glass Meetup.

How often do you unplug?

Chromebook in my kitchen

This morning I was sitting at the kitchen counter and enjoying a cup of coffee. For the first time in almost two weeks I was catching up on social media notifications and some of the people that I enjoy following on the web.

During the time that I was in Hamilton, Massachusetts, Brittani and I didn’t have much access to the Internet. Cellphone service was fine, but we were so busy and engaged with my family and each other that we didn’t have the time (or urge) to whip out our smartphones and keep up with the other going-ons of the world.

In a sense, it was kind of liberating. We live in a world right now where we are addicted to the satisfaction of “Likes” retweets and comments. Our brains are hooked on the positive emotion of seeing interaction on the content that we share, as trivial as some of it might be. For one long weekend, Brittani and I put all of that to the wayside and just enjoyed our time with the family.

After coming back home I was so tied up with work that I didn’t really do much social media. In fact, it’s been a couple of weeks since I have sat down at a computer outside of work to do anything other than pay bills.

What I have found in my abstinence of social media is that it really doesn’t help me enjoy life. Sure, it’s an easy way to see who is up to what, who is having a baby and who won the big game, but some of that news is delivered so impersonally.

As technology improves and we start to better appreciate focused and curated information I think we will see mainstream social media playing a much different part in our lives. Posting “status updates” and photos of culinary adventures will still have its place in the world, but I think in a much different context.

Yesterday while I was enjoying a Labor Day celebration with friends and family I was speaking to a local web developer that limits his “online” activity to his workplace. He’s deleted his Facebook account after spending years as a social media marketing manager. He said it was one of the most liberating feelings in his life. To top it off, he doesn’t even carry a smartphone.

Listening to him tell me that he was a web developer that was totally unplugged from the grid outside of his 9-5 was totally foreign to me. I didn’t even think it made sense, but then it struck me. Our vocations have been so centered around computers that “personal computing” is a lost idea. We spend so much time in our jobs focusing on a 20″ screen that we are losing the urge to do anything (even creative) once we leave the office.

The last two weeks have been great for me. I feel refreshed, accomplished, relaxed and ready for my next adventure. Maybe I should unplug more often?

What is the longest you have ever been unplugged? Have you stopped using social media recently? Do you think the way we use social media is starting to change?

What's in a blog?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet

Late last night I got into a discussion with +Mike Elgan about his “Google+ Diet” and the #blogsofaugust  challenge. Mike has been evangelizing the adoption of Google+ as a primary means of social media engagement for some time now. Because of his focused efforts (and inclusion in the SUL) Mike has grown a very large and interactive audience. As part of the challenge, Mike asked us to only post original content to Google+ and not our blogs or other social media channels. To ensure distribution across those channels, Mike allows everyone to syndicate content through tools like ManageFilter (http://goo.gl/whvLY).

This discussion got me thinking as to what really constitutes a blog. Initially a “weblog” was a self-hosted or otherwise hosted platform that allowed Internet users to share their deepest thoughts, experiences and whatever they felt compelled to write about. Blogs were popping up so fast that content management systems like WordPress, Blogger and others began to pop up.

As blogging culture grew, social media started to take front stage on the web. People were no longer intimidated by having to write long-form posts on their blog when they could now “micro blog” using services like Twitter and Tumblr. Pretty soon the whole notion of text was laughable and sites like Pinterest became popular.

I believe Google tried its best to marry those different communication vehicles (short text posts, images, video) into a network that a large number of us have grown to love and used to spread ideas and meet others with similar interests. The reason I believe Google+ has been so successful is that it allows you the content creator or curator to decide what and how you want to share. There aren’t huge limitations, there isn’t a “certain way” to do things, you can just share whatever goodness you have of your own or that you dig up elsewhere on the web and very easily. I think that’s the most important thing.

Maintaining a self-hosted blog with a content management system like WordPress is a lot more work than you ever think it will be. Sure the installation only takes three minutes, but the selection of themes, installation of plugins and tinkering with CSS will take the life out of you. With so much energy invested in trying to make things “look good” you lose a lot of the energy that you need to focus on the whole reason you’re creating a blog: to share something.

Now, of course you could completely abandon your blog, board it up and point your URL to your Google+ page like +Mike Elgan has, but then you stand a great chance of alienating people that don’t like the Google+ platform or are using an older hardware that can’t handle rich responsively designed sites like Google+. Furthermore, by limiting your sharing to Google+ you’re limiting yourself from the ability to categorize, sort, highlight, feature and better customize your content.

If you’ve ever seen a search result for one of your Google+ posts appear, you may have been disappointed with the long-string URL. Personally, I think when I search for my posts on Google and see the mess of alphanumeric numbers in the URL for Google+ posts, I get turned off. When I create a post on my blog I have a nice clean and easy-to-understand URL. While that might not be important for the search algorithm anymore, I think it is something people consider before clicking a link. The only way Google can fix that is to seriously change the way it shows URL’s for G+ posts or to change the way it generates them to begin with. Either way, something we probably can’t change.

While Mike encourages everyone to blog on Google+ and not elsewhere, he leaves out the fact that he is a paid writer and actually writes all over the web. Some of his Google+ posts (quite a few) are summaries of his posts across the web. Mike gets paid to write by companies that get paid by advertisers and that’s something you cannot yet do on Google+: monetize text content with ads.

So, if you’re afraid to leave your blog because of the money you’re making from AdSense or other revenue streams, I don’t blame you. You can, of course, always copy your content from Google+ to your blog, but if it gets consumed primarily here, you can’t count on making too much money.

Regardless of money though, if a “blog” is truly just a log of your thoughts and ideas, it doesn’t matter whether you post it on a privately hosted website or an update on a social media platform. The important part is that you are sharing your passion and interacting with those that are interested.

With that said, I have made a huge overhaul of my blog, PeterGMcDermott.com and I would love for you to check out its simplicity. Because not everything I post on Google+ is my best or most well thought out ideas, I don’t think they all deserve their place on a website dedicated to those ideas. Therefore, I only post the things that I feel are very important to my audience and that distinction, for me, is what makes the difference between a blog and a social media stream.

What do you think? Would you want everything you post on social media to end up on your blog? Is abandoning your website for a social media platform a good idea? Is RSS dead?

I will be copying this post over the my blog–as I will with the rest of this months posts–but afterwards I think I’ll get back to pushing you over there to read and interact. Would you be willing to visit?

http://www.petergmcdermott.com/

How I Ended Up Buying a Nexus 7

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I said I wouldn’t do it…but here’s what happened.

It all started last week when I was reading all of the hype about the Nexus 7 and how it was simply the best Android experience to date. As someone with way too many computing devices already littering the house, I was skeptical but I waned to go to Best Buy to check them out.

So, last week, Brittani and I ventured over to my favorite store to look at all of the shiny new things. Right as we walked in the door I was perplexed by an Apple Macbook Air on display with a clearance price of $539. Surely that couldn’t be right…

I whisked Brittani to the Apple display where–much to my amazement–we confirmed that last year’s module of the 11″ Macbook Air was selling for a rock bottom price. I insisted she buy one to replace her aging Macbook that has served her so well over the last 7 years.

We were in such a hurry trying to make sure we got the Macbook Air deal that we forgot to inquire about the Nexus. Admittedly, I left the store defeated for Brittani (the non-geek of the house) had gotten the deal of the century and I walked away, once again empty handed.

After buying the laptop I thought about making a return trip during the tax holiday to return and repurchase the laptop without the burden of sales tax (9.25%) and save ourselves an easy $45.

So today we returned to Best Buy and went to the register to make the transaction. As the clerk was ringing us up Brittani pointed out a large crowd gathered around the tablet computer display and said to me that they must be stupid because the tax holiday only covers laptops. The clerk stopped what he was doing and interrupted, “No, actually it covers tablets, too.”

What?! I could save an extra 9.25% if I made a completely unplanned impulse purchase today? My heart started pounding. I knew the chances of a Nexus 7 being in stock were slim, but I had to ask, “You don’t have any… Nexus 7’s…do you?”

“Good choice,” he said.” Let me see if we have any in the cage.”

My eyes filled with wonderment and my smile grew ear to ear as we stood outside of the storage room and I saw a glorious tower of blue boxes. “Is a 16GB okay?” he asked.

Shut up and take my money, I said… well not really. But that’s the story of how I ended up with my new Nexus 7.

Do you have one?