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Easy Prototyping With Microsoft Gadgeteer

Build your own consumer electronics with this system from Microsoft

4 min read
Photo: Steve Hodges

We live in a high-tech world, surrounded by new gadgets like smartphones and Internet TVs, along with other consumer products that were unheard of a decade or two ago. It’s not surprising that we often overlook more established electronic devices. Take, for example, the humble alarm clock. Despite digital convergence, many of us still like a dedicated device that lets us know what time it is if we wake in the night and summons us to action in the morning. Sadly, alarm clocks appear to have fallen behind our other home electronics in their sophistication. So I decided to build a better one. 

For this I used Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer, a platform I helped develop as part of my day job in the Sensors and Devices group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. Our work includes the SenseCam used at the heart of Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project [see “Total Recall,” IEEE Spectrum, November 2005]. As one of the few groups at Microsoft Research that creates new hardware, we designed Gadgeteer as a rapid prototyping system for our own needs. But we saw so much interest from others that we released it to the general public as an open-source platform in 2011. Several manufacturers now supply Gadgeteer hardware that works in conjunction with free-to-download software. 

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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