Simple Time-Telling: Time Balls

Yesterday we talked about Weather Balls; today let's follow the Wikipedia "See Also" link and dig into the exciting world of Time Balls!

The best known time ball these days is the one that drops in New York City's Times Square to indicate the passage of another year. We're all familiar with how that ball works: when it hits the bottom, the clock has hit midnight, marking the division between old and new year. But past time balls dropped far more often: designed to help boats at sea calculate their longitude (which required accurate timekeeping), the balls typically dropped every day at 1pm (though in some places around the world, the time differed).

In a reversal of the modern New York City ball, early time balls started counting the time (say, 1pm) when they started dropping, not when they finished. To get sailors ready, the ball would only be raised a few minutes before the day's drop.

The earliest such ball was installed in 1829 in southern England, and others followed along the coastal UK shortly thereafter -- including the one shown at left, at the Greenwich Observatory. The balls initially got their time right by astronomical observations of the sun; the reason for the traditional 1pm drop was that astronomers were busy measuring the sun's position at noon and needed some time before dropping the ball. Later balls used telegraph signals to get Greenwich Mean Time, thus obviating the need for local sun observation. Time balls finally fell out of common use in the 1920s when radio began broadcasting time signals, though many time balls still remain in the UK and Australia.

For more awesome Time Ball info, check out the Deal Timeball Tower Museum located in Deal, Kent.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
The 'David Bowie Is' Exhibition Is Coming to Your Smartphone
 Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images

"David Bowie is," an exhibition dedicated to the life, work, and legacy of the pop icon, concluded its six-year world tour on July 15. If you didn't get a chance to see it in person at its final stop at New York City's Brooklyn Museum, you can still experience the exhibit at home. As engadget reports, the artifacts displayed in the collection will be recreated in virtual and augmented reality.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the curator of the exhibit, and the David Bowie Archive are collaborating with Sony Music Entertainment and the sound and media studio Planeta on the new project, "David Bowie is Virtual." Like the physical exhibition, the digital experience will integrate visual scenes with the music of David Bowie: 3D scans will bring the musician's costumes and personal items into the virtual sphere, allowing viewers to examine them up close, and possibly in the case of the outfits, try them on.

"These new digital versions of ‘David Bowie is’ will add unprecedented depth and intimacy to the exhibition experience, allowing the viewer to engage with the work of one of the world’s most popular and influential artists as never before," the announcement of the project reads. "Both the visual richness of this show and the visionary nature of Bowie and his art makes this a particularly ideal candidate for a VR/AR adaptation."

"David Bowie is Virtual" will be released for smartphones and all major VR and AR platforms sometimes this fall. Like the museum exhibition, it will come with an admission price, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

[h/t engadget]


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