Flying Machines within Yosemite

Posted in default on May 3rd, 2014 at 08:40:39

The NPS released an announcement today related to drone use within Yosemite. It claims that a statement that ‘“delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit” is illegal.’ applies to drone use.

Drone flying over a waterfall in a wooded area

Now, I personally find that sentiment a bit odd — my quadcopter isn’t ‘delivering or retrieving [an] object’, as far as I know; I would be hard-pressed to consider that phrasing to apply to me if I were reading it. But even more importantly, reading the CFR that is referenced, there is a much more obvious section that the FAA would probably claim applies: 36 CFR 2.17 (a)(1) says: “Operating or using aircraft on lands or waters other than at locations designated pursuant to special regulations.”

Given that the NPS has instead chosen to go with section 3, this seems like a position of the NPS/DOI that the FAA’s position on drones/remote controlled model aircraft being treated as ‘aircraft’ is just wrong. However, weaseling this into another regulation (with the dubious claim that the ‘object being delivered is the drone itself’, as they claimed on their Facebook page), is almost as bad of an approach. It at least has the benefit that it doesn’t affect flying outside the parks, so I find it less personally concerning for long-term survival of the hobby.

They already have a prohibition (36 CFR 2.12 (a)(1)) which prevents ‘operating motorized equipment … [t]hat exceeds a noise level of 60 decibels measured on the A-weighted scale at 50 feet; or … makes noise which is unreasonable, considering … [the] purpose for which the area was established [and] impact on park users…’ I think this is an entirely reasonable regulation, but the noise level from the quad almost certainly doesn’t meet the “60 decibels at 50 feet”, so only the “bothering other people” aspect would apply — and therefore make it reasonable to operate in an area where there are no other people around, or where people won’t be bothered by the noise (such as where I was on the Presidio, where no one could even hear the quad over the wind).

I think this has three big take-aways for me:

  1. The people who wrote this document did not feel that drones are aircraft. This runs counter to the FAA position, but is good, because there is no legal defense for calling these things aircraft. This means that there continues to be support for the legal notion that there are no current regulations which apply.
  2. The NPS has a desire to block the use of drones, and will do whatever they can to do so. This means that regardless of what the law says, you should not expect to fly in a National Park and not get told you can’t.
  3. Given the other regulations prohibiting the use of ‘motorized toys’, I expect the NPS will change their regs to explicitly ban drones in the future, at which point you will not have a legal leg to stand on — so if you want to pick a fight, you might as well do it now.

I continue to be supportive of reasonable regulation regarding drone use in the national airspace, and continue to be supportive of the NPS/DOI passing reasonable regulations that apply to model aircraft. I dislike the use of wordsmithing to try and fit these things into existing regulations, and I think that the NPS should work hard to make their regulations legally match their claimed authority.

FC40 Camera - Reverse Engineering

Posted in Photography, Software on April 27th, 2014 at 21:42:16

So, the Phantom FC40 comes with a wireless camera, controllable from an iPhone or Android phone. It’s a small device — about two inches by two inches, similar to the size of a GoPro if you cut off the ‘lens’ part. I think the camera is a stripped down version of a another wifi camera; at least, the specs, shape, etc. seem to match.

It records 720p video to a built-in SD Card, and is controllable via an App on the iPhone or Android. However, there’s no way to control it from a laptop, which sort of annoys me. I’d also like to experiment with linking the camera and doing live-streaming straight from the camera to the web — I think that would rock.

After doing some research, I found that it looks like the software on this camera is very similar to the wifi support on the GoPro: It uses an “Ambarella streaming” web-app hosted by Apache Coyote on the device. The device provides an RTSP stream, and in theory allows you to browse the files on the device and get access to them.

However, it appears that DJI stripped most of this functionality out — in a pretty hacky way, from what I can tell, leaving half-complete stuff and stubs. It has instead implemented its own hacky interface that you can use to control the camera, though it still does RTSP streaming to the phone application.

In trying to work with the camera, I learned the following things:

- The camera sets up a wifi access point, using 192.168.1.1 as its IP, and serves DHCP addresses starting with 192.168.1.100 to clients. It serves an HTTP server on port 80. (This is different than the GoPro which defaults to a different IP setup and runs on port 8080.)
- Most interaction to the camera is through posting of XML to /CGI/ calls.
- Most HTTP calls/functions in the camera require a “Cookie” called “Session” with a value in it. If they don’t have it, they simply return an Error code.
- To get a session, you post to “/CGI/CameraLogin?Device=Mobile&Stream=RTP_H264_WQVGA” with a ‘password=’ (blank) form value. This returns a set of data in XML (’Login OKFC40_S7NO4621102U40_NO_CODEC A06‘) and also has a Set-Cookie header: ‘ Set-Cookie: Session=750997680′. However, the Set-Cookie header is preceded by a space, and therefore is not recognized by regular browsers; it seems the FC40 app knows to look for this, but this prevents trivial use of forms in browsers to replicate the functionality. (No idea if this is intentional or not.)
- There is a CGI for RemoteControl
- There is a CGI for status.

I’ve put together some documentation for these and put them into a fc40 camera github repo. I’ll probably end up expanding it a bit more.

The most interesting thing, of course, is the live streaming of video. After poking it a bit, I did find out that it does RTSP streaming, and I was able to discover that VLC does, in theory, play RTSP streams. However, although the setup mostly works, when it tries to PLAY a stream via VLC, the camera immediately closes the connection. Having inspected packets, I believe the only difference is that the User-Agent is VLC instead of being blank/not included, which is apparently a not-unheard of trick for security-by-obscurity for RTSP streams. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can test this theory, but I’m working towards it.

I wish that DJI was a bit more open about these things, but maybe the reason they’re not is because they took the hardware from some OEM who didn’t want people to get this instead of a more expensive model… or instead of upgrading to a GoPro, which does have a pretty open setup out of the box where all these things ‘just work’. In any case, I figured I’d share what I learned for others to play with.

Flying — or not — within National Parks

Posted in default on April 24th, 2014 at 21:26:38

The United States National Park system is a terrific system designed to protect and preserve some of the most beautiful parts of this country. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the NPS; from rangers putting together brilliant education programs to the beautiful sights protected in the untamed wilds that National Parks serve to protect, I have a strong place in my heart for this part of the federal government. (I’ve often joked that I deal with my taxes primarily by deciding that my money is clearly only going to fund the parts of government I like — and the National Parks are the most common example I give of where that money would go if I could choose.)

The Presidio of San Francisco, a large area in the northwest end of San Francisco, is one of these National Parks. The park is a former military base, and is now a home to cultural and natural pleasures, and includes some great open spaces with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, these spaces are the types of things that you are prohibited from seeing from the air, because the National Parks Service has strict rules against the flying of UASes within a park.

The NPS hosts information on Unmanned Aerial Systems in the aviation section of their website talking about the benefits of these aircraft. The website references “Operational Procedures Memorandum (OPM) 09-11″ (with a link that no longer works) as the rules that govern UAS flight within National Parks. Some searching suggests that the replacement for this is OPM 11-11: available from the DOI library (though that seems to have expired Dec 2013 with no replacement I can find).

The summary is: All UASes are aircraft, and the FAA controls aircraft, and the rules are you can’t fly them (without following strict rules that most RC multi-rotor pilots aren’t following). No mention is made in the document of exceptions for model aircraft, unlike UAS Guidance 08-01, the most recent FAA guidelines, which state that hobbyists should seek guidance from “Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards”.

Now, normally I’d just chalk this up to oversight: This document must be written targeted at public agencies wanting to fly UAS within NPS airspace, not something that people are actively enforcing. Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary seems strong. After flying around in the Presidio, I was walking back to my car carrying the quadcopter when a ranger stopped me, and let me know that if he saw me flying it around, he’d have to kick me out of the park. This type of comment from NPS rangers is not something unique to me: I have talked to coworkers who fly, and have also been asked to leave National Park spaces when flying RC aircraft as a hobbyist.

It’s frustrating to see the National Parks Service take an approach which is so narrow towards hobbyists for reasons that aren’t clearly stated anywhere I can find. (Perhaps the belief is that RC planes would spoil things for everyone else. If so, I understand that, but I wish that it was stated publicly somewhere. I would still be frustrated, but I would at least understand.) As it is, a policy which seems designed and targeted towards heavy duty governmental use of UASes is being applied to hobbyists, and I find that frustrating and sad.

Prior to knowing this was an issue, I flew a bit in Criss Field in the Presidio, and what felt like a great view at the time. It makes me sad to think that images like the ones I captured are the types of things that the NPS wants to prevent.
Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Criss Field

“Is that a Drone?”: Adventures with a Quadcopter

Posted in Photography on April 24th, 2014 at 00:04:30

So, I briefly mentioned this in another post about YouTube, but I bought myself a Phantom FC40 Quadcopter for my birthday.

It’s an all-in-one easy-to-use out of the box flying platform. It comes with a camera, which has wifi support for remote operation (”FPV”). It requires no experience with flying any type of aircraft — it’s pretty much all automatic, and driving it is more like a video game than anything else. It normally retails for $500; I picked it up for $430 during a sale at B&H. (Since then, they’ve been almost constantly sold out, so either supply is tiny or demand has picked up a lot.)

It is the most exciting toy I have ever bought. Flying it is super neat, and the videos that it takes are brilliant. For a long time I’ve considered that I’d like to get my pilot’s license, but I had never really had the ability to set aside the money it would take to do it. The Phantom is certainly no pilot’s license, but it still lets me see the neighborhood I live in in a different way, which is part of my intent.

I would like to do some things with mapping using the quad: doing super-local aerial imagery stitching. But so far, I’ve been having too much fun just flying the thing around.

The FC40 — which is the low end, basic model — doesn’t have any remote telemetry, so I can’t tell how far, fast, or high I’m going. The transmitter, in theory, goes to about 1000 feet, and remote video goes to about 300 feet. I don’t think I’ve hit the 1000′ limit, but I’m pretty sure I’ve passed the 300 foot limit.

I need to get more practice on video editing: creating a compelling story is hard. (More on that in another post sometime.) But the hardware itself is terrific. It’s simple enough that even little kids can do it. The copter is resilient — even when I accidentally got turned around and flew the thing into a fence at full speed, it came out basically unscathed (minus a few replaceable prop guards). It’s stable — even in 10-15mph winds, it holds steady, and if the transmitter goes on the blink, it will return to its start position, for example.

I bought the Phantom — rather than doing something more “DIY”/open source — because the price for what you get was terrific. By the time you buy motors, electronics, and a camera, you’re already looking at $350-$400 of retail parts; getting all of that, in a pre-assembled ready to fly package was brilliant.

The support story on the Phantom is a bit weird; especially with the FC40, which is among the newer models, there’s a bit of an issue around replacement parts (I’ve lost one of my vibration dampers for the camera, and I can’t figure out how to get a new one, because no one sells that as a part for the FC40), but I think that’s likely to slowly go away as the FC40 becomes as widespread as the other Phantom models.

Of course, with any new technology, there are a set of FAQs that you should expect. The Quad is no exception.

Is that a drone?
It really depends on what you mean by the word drone. Many people who ask this think of drones like the US Government uses them — far-flung remote-operated bombing or long-term surveillance machines. This isn’t that. On the other hand, if what you mean is “Can this thing fly and take video, possibly without me seeing the person operating it?” the answer is yes — in that sense it is a drone. My usual answer is “I just call it my quadcopter.”

Is that a camera on the front?
Yep! It’s a 720p video camera which records to a memory card inside the camera. I can also hook it up to an iPhone or Android — but realistically, I don’t, because so far I’m not good enough to fly my quad without actually staring at it the whole time. It’s something I want to work on.

How high can it go?
Higher than I can see it. Under the most conservative rules regarding model aircraft — which is the most straightforward way to look at the Phantom — you can fly legally up to 400 feet, as long as it isn’t being done for commercial purposes and as long as it is more than 5 miles from an airport. I don’t have good data, but I believe I have flown higher than that when flying in the middle of nowhere, though not much — when I get that high, I can’t see the copter, so an errant gust of wind can mess things up if I’m not careful, so I generally try to stay pretty close.

How far can it go?
The transmitter is rated for up to 980 feet (I usually say ‘a quarter mile’), but some people have reported having it work up to twice that without any kind of booster. It runs off the same frequencies as some wifi routers, so it isn’t as long distance in a city as in the middle of nowhere.

Is that legal?
So long as I’m 5 miles from an airport, staying low, and not bothering people, the commonly held belief is that it falls under the FAA’s model airplane rules, and is legal to fly. Though the FAA makes contradictory statements all the time, so the “and not bothering people” becomes really key. :)

Do you go to MIT?
Nope.

Between this, and the cost ($500 is generally viewed as “a lot cheaper than I would have thought it would be”), this forms the majority of the common questions I get about flying the quad around Boston — and I *always* get questions. I’ve gone out and flown approximately 20 different occasions now, and I’ve never *not* gotten questions from *someone* :)

Reasonable Airport Travel. Weird.

Posted in Social on March 23rd, 2014 at 05:02:58

I’m flying out of Logan to SFO this morning, and I’m flying JetBlue through terminal C. Usually, Terminal C is a *mess*, but this morning, it wasn’t at all:

  • Usually, they have 1 or 2 stations checking IDs; this morning, they had 8
  • Usually, I’m used to the USian approach of “Take out all the things and off all the things”. Here, I didn’t even have to pull my laptop out of my bag.
  • Instead of the weird millimeter wave machine — they only had x-ray devices.

I did briefly have my bag pulled aside — since I’m flying with 3 heavy LiPo batteries, I wasn’t surprised — but as soon as they realized they were just batteries, and the one that they looked at was in a plastic bag, they let me go without a problem.

Brilliantly simple security. I wish I could have that more often. Of course, since I wasn’t expecting it, I’m now sitting at the gate 1.5 hours before I can even board…

OpenLayers: Still popular on YouTube, years later.

Posted in OpenLayers, YouTube on March 22nd, 2014 at 06:32:32

In 2007, I posted a video to YouTube; it was just a 5 minute, silent how-to video showing how to load data that you had in a shapefile, open it in QGIS, style it, export it to a mapfile, and load it into OpenLayers. I’ve given pretty much this exact presentation to groups around the world: from Cape Town, South Africa, to Osaka, Japan, but at the time it was just a quick demo I put together, related to a wiki page: Mapping Your Data, in the OpenLayers wiki.

I hadn’t paid attention to it in forever — I uploaded it to YouTube back in 2007, and I haven’t really thought about it since. So as I’m using YouTube a bit more recently, I actually looked at my analytics… and realized that this video still gets *400 views every month*, with an average of two minutes watched per view.

This means that 20 minutes gets wasted watching this video every day (on average); that is more time than I spend on YouTube in an average week. (Given my new employer, I can imagine that changing somewhat in the near future.)

Amusingly enough, for a long time this wasn’t my most popular video; the OpenLayers video is a bit long, and with no sound, can be a bit of a drag. (The pace of it, even 7 years on, still impresses me though; I spent a whole weekend just going through the motions to get the flow down. It really does work nicely.) My most popular video for a long time was an N95 Accelerometer Demo:

This demo showed the use of a Python script to use the accelerometer and simple 2d graphics to move a ball around the screen. (The Symbian Python APIs for interacting with 2d graphics were terrific, and I wish modern phones had something similarly easy.) In the week after that video launched, it had *1500* views; but it was a flash in the pan, and hasn’t maintained its popularity, getting only 2 watches in the last 30 days. (This video was popular enough that I was invited to join the YouTube monetization program, unlike the OpenLayers video, which was never ‘viral’ enough to get there.)

I’ve never been much of a video guy before — another thing I can see changing — but I’m now putting together some of the videos from my quadcopter flights. Last night, I published my bloopers from the first couple days of flying:

But I guess I can never expect, based on my current views, that anything I do on YouTube will be more popular than a silent video I published about OpenLayers back in 2007.

I guess this really just goes back to: OpenLayers was a unique experience, and is probably the most impressive thing I will actually work on for the benefit of the internet at large… ever.

Bitcoin: Just as Broken as Cash

Posted in default on February 27th, 2014 at 08:44:45

According to a Business insider article, Senator Joe Manchin III is suggesting that lawmakers pursue a ban on Bitcoin. He wrote a very cogent letter on the topic, included in the linked article. In the spirit of his letter, I would like to share my own letter on a related, but slightly different topic.

Dear Senator Manchin,

I write today to express my concerns about the US Dollar. This currency has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly unstable and disruptive to the world economy. For the reasons outlined below, I urge regulators to take appropriate action to limit the abilities of this highly unstable currency.

By way of background, the US Dollar is a currency that has gained notoriety due to its varying exchange value and relation to illegal transactions. Each US Dollar is backed by the US Government, thus the US Dollar is not only a token of value but also a method for transferring that value. It also means that this currency allows for anonymous and irreversible transactions.

The very features that make the US Dollar attractive to some also attract criminals who are able to disguise their actions from law enforcement. Due to cash’s anonymity, the market has been extremely susceptible to hackers and scam artists stealing millions from US Dollar users. Anonymity combined with cash’s ability to finalize transactions quickly, makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse fraudulent transactions.

Cash has also become a haven for individuals to buy black market items. Individuals are able to anonymously purchase items such as drugs and weapons illegally.

That is why more than a handful of countries, and their banking systems, have cautioned against the use of the US Dollar. Indeed, there have been moves to ban the US Dollar in several different countries— most recently Russia, where lawmakers are predicting a complete collapse of the currency by 2017. Several other countries, including many in Africa, have issued legal threats over the use of the US Dollar. While it is disappointing that the world leader and epicenter of the banking industry will only follow suit instead of making policy, it is high time that the United States heed our allies’ warnings. I am most concerned that as the US Dollar is inevitably banned in other countries, Americans will be left holding the bag on a valueless currency.

Our foreign counterparts have already understood the wide range of problems even with the US Dollar’s legitimate uses - from its significant price fluctuations to its inflationary nature. Just two years ago, the US Dollar’s prices plunged after the currency’s major holders in the form of banks, experienced major financial issues. This was not a unique event; news of plummeting or skyrocketing US Dollar prices is almost an annual occurrence. In addition, its inflationary trends ensure that only speculators, will benefit most from possessing the currency. There is no doubt average American consumers stand to lose by transacting in US Dollars.

The clear ends of US Dollars for either transacting in illegal goods and services or speculative gambling make me weary of its use. Before the U.S. gets too far behind the curve on this important topic, I urge the regulators to work together, act quickly, and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.

Sincerely,

Christopher Schmidt
United States Citizen

Initial Forays into 3D Printing

Posted in 3D Printing on January 19th, 2014 at 11:35:10

Last week, I received my Printrbot Plus v2.1 Kit. I sat down, and started putting it together.

The Assembly page on the kit website describes the kit as taking 6-10 hours to assemble. In the end, I spent about that getting the thing to the point where it was put together; it wasn’t all in one sitting, since I found out I was missing a part about 75% of the way through. You can see a time lapse of the initial assembly on YouTube.

Some things I learned during assembly — which almost anyone who’s built anything probably knows:

  • Lay out your parts and count them before you start. Organize them, and put them in a spot where they are out of the way of your work area, but easily accessible. You’ll save a lot of time that way, and a lot of headache when you later find out you’re missing parts you need.
  • For something like this — which required more than 100 screws — a good electric drill is a good idea. I had one, but didn’t think to use it until after my initial work; I wasted a lot of time on that.
  • The Printbot process is targeted at tinkerers. This means that there are some aspects which are… slightly more fiddly than they should be. (One of my parts didn’t fit right to start with, and I spent the first 20 minutes of my assembly process trying to fit a part into a hole that it simply couldn’t fit in.) Don’t fight it too hard; if something doesn’t work, move on and come back.

In the end, I had to buy myself a ACME threaded hex nut myself to finish the build; I got an extra 5/16″ (non-ACME) hex nut instead of the 3/8″ ACME nut I needed shipped with the bot. (I emailed Printrbot support last Sunday about this — I’ve still heard nothing about this.) I used that to finish the assembly.

Initially, I was worried about my filament feeding; you can see a video showing how it doesn’t feed straight down, but feedback on the Printrbot Talk forum suggested this is normal, and I took the next steps of doing a print the following morning.

The first print out came out … poorly :)

The reason though was immediately obvious: early on in my print process, I couldn’t find a set screw on my y axis motor. Each layer that printed, my y-axis was slipping about 2-3mm in the wrong direction, which lead to the disaster that you can see.

On Friday night, I fixed that, and the next print was actually stacking the layers, which is good; but my bed being far from level meant that the print head was running into itself on higher layers, and created a mess.

My third print was the charm:

(Total print time was about 15 minutes.)

It produced a reasonably solid calibration print. (You can see a video of the printing process: part 1, Part 2.)

Since then, I’ve had more issues with extruder feeding, etc. but at least one of my prints actually worked, and it seems like I’m now in the same part of printing process that most hobbyists get to and stay in. :)

In total, I spent about 10 hours building the thing, another couple hours getting it set up and working. I consider the project a success overall.

Hopefully in the next couple weeks I can finish my assembly, get things tightened up, and get a few more interesting things printed :)

3d printer delivery: At Long Last

Posted in 3D Printing, Technology on January 10th, 2014 at 07:55:54

After ordering on Dec 13th, and the package being dropped off at the UPS Store in California on Dec 31st, my 3d printer is finally in Somerville, MA, with the expected delivery later today. While I’m not going to claim it will actually be here today — I mean, after all, it was supposed to be here yesterday as well — I am slightly hopeful, since the UPS website at least claims it is in this state.

… Crap. This means that I will soon have to follow the 122 step assembly process soon. On the plus side, only a half dozen or so of the steps have comments attached to them describing them as impossible with the materials provided, so that should be good!

When purchasing, I had an option of buying an assembled kit for $100 more. Given the 6-8 hour timeline for doing the build, this would almost certainly have been a financially wise course of action; however, as I told a coworker: If I can’t even sit down and spend 6 hours building the thing, when am I ever going to make time to fiddle with *actually printing something*?

AppleTV: aka AirPlay receiver

Posted in Apple TV, HDTV, Technology on January 7th, 2014 at 05:00:44

Along with the new TV, I also set up an AppleTV — a small set-top box designed to hook up to the Internet and provide some content. Or something.

I say this because I really don’t understand what AppleTV is supposed to be doing for me; it’s a walled garden of apps, with no ability to extend it — no app store, or anything like it — and I can’t understand a lot of what it is useful for. I suppose part of this is because I’ve never bought into the iTunes way of life — I don’t buy videos or music on iTunes, and I don’t even know the password for my MyAppleCloudWhatever account, so in some ways, I’m probably not an ideal candidate for the Apple way of life that the Apple TV is trying to tie into.

However, the Apple TV has proven useful for one thing that I didn’t know anything about when I set it up: AirPlay. Apple’s AirPlay started out as AirTunes, for streaming music content, and grew into a more general media (and screen) sharing technology later on. I’ve seen options for AirPlay in OS X for a number of years, but I didn’t really know much about it, so I just ignored it.

I set up the AppleTV, but wasn’t really using it — I had watched some TV while plugged into an HDMI cable directly from my Macbook Pro, but not poked at the AppleTV at all. Then, I turned on the TV… and Kristan’s computer screen was mirrored on the TV. (Apparently some apps when they go into fullscreen mode will automatically activate AirPlay in some way — specifically, the Cake Mania Main Street game appears to do this.) Prior to that, I didn’t really have any idea what AirPlay was — but suddenly, I found out that I could put whatever was on my screen on the TV with one button click.

To me, this is actually one of those times when technology actually (mostly) works: I’m watching something on my computer, and someone else in the room says “That sounds interesting, you should put it up on the TV”… and they click one button, and it goes on the TV.

Of course, it’s still software, so it’s not without it’s flaws.

  • Sometimes, in order to get sound to go to the TV, you need to restart the CoreAudio daemon; this macrumours thread describes the problem and the command line workaround: sudo kill `ps -ax | grep 'coreaudiod' | grep 'sbin' |awk '{print $1}'`
  • I actually found that the Linksys WRT54G router that I had wasn’t keeping up with the demands of running AirPlay over the wireless; even plugging the AppleTV into the ethernet was still not up to snuff, so I unboxed the Apple Airport Extreme we’ve also had lying around; switching to that cleared the issues up. (Looking at the CPU usage on the router, I think this is actually just that the chip can’t keep up with the demands of the network traffic — it was maxing out the CPU moving data around — rather than any specific software problem.

Of course, the AppleTV has other functionality — the ‘apps’ that exist on it. So far, I’ve used both the Netflix and YouTube apps on it, and neither leaves me super impressed. (Admittedly, I apparently used the ‘default’ software that came with the device; I received a Software Update a couple days later which installed about 10x as many apps, and probably changed the functionality of the apps I did have, so some of this criticism may be out of date.) The Netflix app lacked auto-play (a key feature for me, since I spend most of my time watching many episodes of television shows), and even navigating to the next episode via button presses proved more annoying than it should have been.

The YouTube app appeared to completely lack the ability to downgrade the streaming quality — it would play at whatever the highest quality level was — which just flat out didn’t function on my DSL connection, which could usually support a 720p stream, but even that wasn’t reliable. This meant that all the time on YouTube was spent buffering videos and no time actually watching them.

If the AppleTV actually supported DIAL — a spec for remote device discovery and application launching — I could imagine using it a bit more. If I could just launch the Netflix player on the Apple TV by clicking a button on my laptop, I could certainly imagine using it more, and the same with the YouTube app. AirPlay makes things easy, but it means that I’m tied to not using my computer while using AirPlay; it would be worth it to me to use the less fully featured app if I could start it more easily. (Searching via an on-screen keyboard with a 6 button remote is not particularly user-friendly.) In fact, I’m considering setting up my long-avoided Google TV (Logitech Revue) to see if it will function in this way — or possibly even going the next step and buying a Chromecast solely for this functionality. Of course, Apple and standards have never been a great friend, so I’m not surprised here, just annoyed.

To me, so far, the Apple TV doesn’t provide a lot of functionality for me. With a little bit of software support, I think it could be a much more useful device — DIAL support would be a killer app for meI don’t ever expect to use anything other than YouTube and Netflix as far as apps — the others require subscriptions I don’t have in order to be useful, or just aren’t that interesting. Without an iTunes account, I don’t see any major benefits from any shared media purchasing. However, as an AirPlay receiver for quickly sharing what’s on my screen, I think it’s a useful device to keep around, and I expect I will continue to let it have a home in my living room entertainment going forward for that reason alone.