Sunday, June 26, 2016

Soltrackr product review

As a mobile device sensor community insider, I couldn't resist doing a premarket review on one of the coolest gadgets coming to the market. Disclaimer: I know way more about how this product actually works than I can say on my blog, and it totally kills me not to be able to actually tell you all the amazing science that goes into this thing. However, as a random nonspecific example, I happen to know that some of the algorithms used in the device use custom built solar models engineered by NASA space mission contractors. By partnering with the best in mobile sensing hardware and science, Soltrackr brings serious firepower to their product.


Soltrackr Product Review

Target market: Skiers, hikers, swimmers, surfers, beach goers, campers, runners, coaches, parents, health conscious individuals, tech lovers

Overview: Bluetooth sensor key fob featuring combo UV sensor and photoplethysmography (PPG) heart rate sensor with an intuitive and insightful app that delivers personalized, relevant health information for lifestyle management.

Conclusion: Few devices will actually change your life by changing your habits. The Soltrackr sensor accessory is one of those products.

Soltrackr has some of the hottest sensor tech to ever go into mobile devices, but you aren't buying just jazzy hardware, you are getting a health management app that combines the best in solar science and cardio health. The user interface doesn't just spout a single number like UV index that means different things to different skin types. Soltrackr will teach you how to make personalized decisions about sun exposure that actually benefit your health. It doesn't just measure your  heart rate, it shows you how to lower your stress. Soltrackr heralds the emerging trend in Sensor 2.0 devices (sensor+service), going beyond measurement to lifestyle management.

 During hardware qualification, in a globe-spanning, three month side-by-side test, the hardware-software hybrid UV sensor tech in Soltrackr outclassed several meteorological grade UV Index instruments costing thousands of dollars. And, the heart rate sensor is FDA grade. But what excites me most about this product is the user experience. You actually get useful help:

-When should I go out to get vitamin D without burning?
-What is the UV level at my location?
-Can I get enough vitamin D before I burn if I wear a t-shirt and shorts?
-What is my burn time with SPF50 sunscreen?
-How long can I be outside with my skin type?
-How does the sun condition affect my skin aging?

This is stuff the growing health conscious population actually cares about. No longer do you have to go off of a generic UV index weather prediction for an entire region. You can measure it where you are with the Soltrackr UV sensor, automatically taking into account local effects like altitude, cloud cover and the varying UV reflectivity of local terrain such as sand, cement, snow and water. I look forward to using Soltrackr to help me protect my kids from harmful UVA and UVB rays, while allowing me to get the vitamin D I need to keep my immune system in balance. Vitamin D is critical in managing MS and other autoimmune conditions, and research is continuing to indicate the positive benefits of sunlight for managing depression and the unsung mobile-device enabled insomnia epidemic. But, too much sun can can negatively affect your skin. Knowing the right amount of sun exposure is easy when you have a product like Soltrackr that delivers metrics based on your individual skin type and locale.

Biofeedback is another feature I am excited about. When I'm stressed, my multiple sclerosis symptoms (like losing feeling in my right hand) are much worse. I value having the ability to see my stress level and actively reduce it using biofeedback.

Once my Soltrackr has been delivered, I will update the review with notes on battery life and cross platform bluetooth functionality.

The Soltrackr team boasts talent from some of the most innovative sensor teams in silicon valley, with veteran developers of advanced hardware platforms for mobile phones including sensors and power management ICs in some of the highest volume smart phones on the market. As the first company to take this level of technology and make it accessible to both Android and iOS mobile device users, Soltrackr is taking a step toward making a difference in health for active people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My Favorite DIY Suppliers

I rapid prototype several new sensor and hardware concepts each week. My productivity at the concept stage for medical sensor devices leans heavily on open source platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

Open source hardware hubs like SparkFun and Adafruit are always on a techie's radar with their easy-to-use, well-documented examples and active developer communities, plus instructional videos, project ideas and tech support. These are great places to get started and to challenge yourself with new projects.

Adafruit's NeoPixel products and code examples are fun way to light up your projects with inexpensive LED color strips.

I also like the inexpensive and versatile 3.3V 8MHz Sparkfun Adruino Pro Mini microcontroller boards.  The Pro Mini is useful for programming a device that works by itself and doesn't need to talk over serial to a computer. 3V operation means you can talk to most low power sensor ICs over I2C without a level shifter. Without the on-board USB connector it's a little cheaper than options like the Nano or Due. Don't forget to order the FTDI board, or you won't be able to program it. (Avoid the buggy Pro Micros, though.)
If you are just getting started with DIY and hardware projects, there is nothing better to start with than the Arduino Uno. You will find examples aplenty plastered all of the internet and most of the code you find will work on your Arduino Uno without modification. You can get them from the standby's mentioned above, or if you are cheap try these alternative suppliers:
China based and dirt cheap, UCTRONICS may have what you need at a fraction of the cost of a US-based supplier, like Arduino Pro mini's for $2.38! (vs. $10 at Sparkfun and Adafruit). If you can wait a few weeks, UCTRONICS will be your lowest cost source of sensors, development boards and microcontrollers, plus they source sometimes hard-to-find hardware like Arducam's NOIR camera module for Raspberry Pi with infrared sensitivity. Be sure to stock up on jumper wire and headers, but don't expect any documention for development boards! You are on your own--but at least you have some extra money left over in your project budget. is a US-based supplier of hardware and tools. Pic up cheap power supples, soldering irons and other accessories. If you save up and get an order over $50 or $100 MPJA often runs specials and you can land yourself a free multimeter or cordless solder iron--pretty sweet. Faster than UCTRONICS, but not as rock bottom cheap, head to MPJA when you need it faster than snail slow, but still want to save a penny. has much more than just hardware for projects. Get kits, gadgets, personal electronics and other geekware for dirt cheap. Fast delivery, low prices and so much to choose, from robot parts and apparel to DIY supplies and car accessories--even makeup (!?). With roots in China, but US stock, DX is like a geek-worthy overstock warehouse with stock products, too--truly the best of both worlds. Fair warning: if you spend all your birthday money at DX on drones and drone parts, don't blame me for not warning you!
Removable Arms, Excellent Flexibility, 360-degree Rolling, Three-level Speed Control, Headless Mode

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Game of the Week: Pass The Pigs

 Pass the Pigs, or its slightly less reverent earlier version called Pig Mania, is, without argument, one of the best party games ever invented. Instead of dice, players roll rubber pigs and collect points depending on their orientation. (See the box cover below for Pig Mania for typical combinations.)

Players roll the pigs until they either pass, or get a "Pig Out" and lose all their rolled points for this turn. If the pigs are touching, you lose all your accumulated points and start from zero. In Pig Mania this was called "Makin' Bacon". In Pass the Pigs, they call it something more benign.

In expert play "Hog Calling" is allowed, where players attempt to guess the next roll of the pigs by yelling "Soooeee" and then prognosticating the next roll. This is where the game gets really crazy. In a recent game, the infamously unlucky player who was firmly in last place hog called her way to a tie for victory after rolling like 10 Pig Outs in a row.

The holy grail of all pig formations is the "Double Leaning Jowler" where both pigs are balancing on their snout, the tip of one ear and a foreleg. In my entire extended family of over 200 people, only my Uncle Mark Allen, a famous cognitive psychologist, claims to have rolled a double leaning jowler.

I should have gone to Johns Hopkins...

However, something even stranger occurred at a recent cousins game night, when my cousin Katie rolled a never-before-seen pig combination. It was a kind of leaning razorback, like an upside down leaning jowler.
Photographic proof of the elusive "leaning razorback".

 Notice the pig at the top of the picture has only one ear touching the table.

Miraculous. Astounding. I felt like I was watching something out of Charlotte's Web.

If you have never played Pass the Pigs with a group of rowdy people, you owe it to yourself to experience the joy, the drama and the zany fun of the greatest pig rolling game ever invented.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Game of the Week: Pente

One of the easiest and funnest games for kids and adults is Pente. Watch the video below to get the basics. I introduce our latest devious variant: 3 player Pente. You will love the depth, nuances and social interaction that comes from turning a two-player game into a collaborative game where  players have to both work together and against each other.

Recently, 9 year old Micah threw down the most insane 3-player Pente victory anyone has ever seen, in a game against his older brother and an unnamed adult participant who is too embarrassed to use his name.

Micah (blue) plays in the square marked by the red circle, simultaneously creating two win opportunities, and eliminating two pieces creating another 2 win opportunities--a quadruple threat win.
Micah has four places he can win, but the opponents (red and white) only have 1 move each to block. The losers quickly fled the scene (invoking the "winner cleans up" house rule), shaved their heads and joined a monastery.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Beauty is Only Skin Deep: The Science of Lighting Faces

The images below are the same face. True or False?

Answer: FALSE.

Same person, but four different faces. Strange but true.

In this blog post I will explain why. I'll also cover why messing with color balance in Photoshop doesn't fix problems like red blotches on faces.

These photos were taken with light of increasing red content. The first is 8600K (blue sky). The second image is 6000K (diffuse sunlight). Third pic is 3800K (bright white fluorescent), and lastly 2600K (incandescent).

The first image is essentially a picture of the top surface layer of my skin. Each successive picture captures a deeper slice. The last image includes some of the subsurface features, which is why it is so red. It is actually showing the blood vessels beneath the skin. Note that each image was white balanced to styrofoam (perfect white), so the colors are nearly equivalent. If you tried to change the color balance to get rid of the redness in my face in the last image, you would royally mess up all the rest of the colors, including the blues and whites of the eyes. In redder light, my face actually gets redder because you can see all the way through to the blood vessels, making places with lots of shallow blood vessels (like my nose, cheeks and chin) stand out.

Most of us think that if we just play with the color balance we can take a red-faced image and make it look like the smooth skin of the sunlight pictures. But it just doesn't work. They are different faces! (I mean different layers of the face.)

Beauty is only skin deep. 


Spectrum IPL Image
Diagram showing the penetration length of different colors into the skin increasing for longer wavelengths.

Weird translucent cave fish
In fact, if you could take a picture of yourself with a near infrared camera you could see right into your skull! We would all look like translucent aliens or the weird see-through fish that live in caves.

White (actually translucent) skin shows whatever is underneath, whether blue veins or red blood vessels or the smoothing subcutaneous fat layer that hides those things in women and makes them look more beautiful to the eye, even in warm lighting. But for most folks without perfect skin, the color temperature of the lighting can really make a difference. However, the darker your skin pigment, the less difference the color of the light makes because light of all colors is being absorbed by melanin in the basal layer. So skin pigment is one of nature's secret ways of creating beautiful skin.

Some babies have very little skin pigmentation. Traditional wisdom says "babies look best in natural light." What they mean to say is, "If you shine red light on the little alien you can see right through it." Ok, maybe not that. But the truth is, unless you find blood vessel distributions fascinatingly beautiful, use high color temperature (cool) lighting, like diffuse sunlight, a xenon flash, and "daylight" LEDs or fluorescents.

Otherwise you might get pics like this.
Why is his face so red? ...Maybe he just farted and he's embarrassed.

Conclusion: Got see-thru skin? Avoid incandescent lighting.

Unless you are a girl with perfect skin.

Below is a picture of Nicole, age 11. Even in 2600K lighting her skin looks flawless, because it pretty much is. The fun of using the 2600K lighting is that her strawberry blond hair looks even more red. But that look in the eyes...hmm. She's up to something.
Mischievous girl age 11, 2600K lighting


To convince yourself that I'm not lying, go get an RGB color changing LED light bulb. Take a black and white photo of your fair-skinned model with the blue light on. Then do the same for the red light. Make sure you are shooting with the aperture wide open and maximum resolution. Compare the images at high resolution and you will see that the red image has a different kind of structure to the face. Red light really gets under the skin.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Product Idea: The Unshareable Blanket

For the person in your social group who only takes selfies, consider the gift of a triangle blanket. Optimized for today's baggage-free lifestyle, this cozy blanket has just enough coverage for one. Try sharing it and see how well it works--it doesn't. Your wanna-be friends on the sofa next to you will assume the blanket is crooked. But there is no easy way for them to grope for it without being discovered. And if they try to pull it over to share, they will have to pry it out of your cold dead hands. It doesn't share. The unique unpatented design offers all the benefits of a snuggy, except the arm holes.

Looking to start your next company? Look no further. Create "The Selfie Blanket".

Possible variants include a single hole just large enough for your selfie stick to poke through.

Disclaimer: All product ideas are presented without any due diligence and have no warranty implied or otherwise of fitness for any particular purpose other than amusement.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Nerd Shopper Review: University Mall, Orem --Worst Mall Ever

In the town where legendary science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game) grew up, in the valley where Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) learned to write about sparkling vampires, where you can sign up to take writing classes from fantasy legend Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn), there is a mall where you can get...


University Mall (Orem/Provo, UT) Nerd Shopper Scorecard

Game Stores: 0
Toy Stores: 0  (Correction: Disney Store = -1)
Lego Store: 0
Arcades: 0
Creepy Used Book Stores: 0
Hobby Stores: 0
Comics Shops and Collectibles: 0
Stores with Swords for Sale: 0

Total Nerd Shopper Score: -1

But there's always overpriced khakis at Banana Republic.

Shame on you Utah Valley. Shame.

If your shopping partner insists on going to this big overpriced fashion bazaar, hop across the street to the nearby hobby store, where you can pick up copies of the free magazine Utah Geek and buy motors for your rockets. Or, take a drive down the road to Provo Towne Centre, where although they apparently don't know how to spell short words like town and center, you can find a game store with a backroom, buy Arduino parts at Radio Shack, find cool out of print Star Wars books at a used book store and generally enjoy your dweeby self without being accosted by lotion peddlers. :)

In fitting irony, it appears that University Mall, with the first-ever negative Nerd Shopper Score, was where Studio C's epic mall parody sketch was filmed.