The Future is Here: The Insight Neuroheadset

Emotiv_insightPortable EEG devices have come a long way in recent years. From their humble beginnings as large, wire-studded contraptions that cost upwards of $10,000, they have now reached the point where they are small, portable, and affordable. What’s more, they are capable of not only reading brainwaves and interpreting brain activity, but turning that activity into real-time commands and controls.

Once such device is the Emotiv Insight, a neuroheadset that is being created with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and is now available for preorder. Designed by the same company that produced the EPOC, an earlier brain-computer interface (BCI) that was released in 2010, the Insight offers many improvements. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the new model is sleeker, lighter, uses five sensors instead of the EPOC’s fourteen and can be linked to your smartphone.

Emotiv_insight_EPOCIn addition, the Insight uses a new type of hydrophilic polymer sensor that absorbs moisture from the environment. Whereas the EPOC’s sensors required that the user first apply saline solution to their scalp, no extra applied moisture is necessary with this latest model. This is a boon for people who plan on using it repeatedly and don’t want to moisten their head with goo every time to do it.

The purpose behind the Insight and EPOC headsets is quite simple. According to Tan Le, the founder of Emotiv, the company’s long term aim is to take a clinical system (the EEG) from the lab into the real world and to democratize brain research. As already noted, older EEG machines were prohibitively expensive for smaller labs and amateur scientists and made it difficult to conduct brain research. Le and his colleagues hope to change that.

emotiv_insight1And it seems that they are destined to get their way. Coupled with similar devices from companies like Neurosky, the stage seems set for an age when brain monitoring and brain-computer interface research is something that is truly affordable – costing just a few hundred dollars instead of $10,000 – and allowing independent labs and skunkworks to contribute their own ideas and research to the fore.

As of September 16th, when the Kickstarter campaign officially closed, Emotiv surpassed its $1 million goal and raised a total of $1,643,117 for their device. Because of this, the company plans to upgrade the headset with a six-axis intertial sensor – to keep track of the user’s head movements, gait, tremor, gestures, etc. – a microSD card reader for added security, and a 3-axis magnetometer (i.e. a compass).

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In some cases, these new brain-to computer interfaces are making it possible for people with disabilities or debilitating illnesses to control robots and prosthetics that assist them with their activities, rehab therapy, or restore mobility. On a larger front, they are also being adapted for commercial use – gaming and interfacing with personal computers and devices – as well as potential medical science applications such as neurotherapy, neuromonitoring, and neurofeedback.

Much like a fitness tracker, these devices could let us know how we are sleeping, monitor our emotional state over time, and make recommendations based on comparative analyses. So in addition to their being a viable growth market in aiding people with disabilities, there is also the very real possibility that neuroheadsets will give people a new and exciting way to interface with their machinery and keep “mental records”.

Passwords are likely to replace passthoughts, people will be able to identify themselves with brain-activity records, and remote control will take on a whole new meaning! In addition, mental records could become part of our regular medical records and could even be called upon to be used as evidence when trying to demonstrate mental fitness or insanity at trials. Dick Wolf, call me already! I’m practically giving these ideas away!

And be sure to enjoy this video from Emotiv’s Kickstarter site:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, kickstarter.com

The Future is Here: Holovision and PointGrab!

holovisionNothing spells future quite like a life-size hologram in your living room, does it? And much like flying cars and personal jetpacks (though these too are in development), holographics has been one promise that appears to be slow in materializing. However, thanks to the work of California-based company known as Provision, this promise is approaching reality.

Their invention is known as the  Holovision, a life-size holographic projector that uses what is called aerial or volumetric imaging – a way of producing 3D images without special glasses, lenses or slits. It uses a digital LCD screen and a concave mirror to produce the illusion of a 3D image floating outside the projector, and can produce clearer images without generating multiple views or causing dizziness or nausea.

holovision-0For some time now, Provision has been making 3D projectors as marketing tools, but is now running a Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising US$950,000 to fund the development of new technology for the projector, with hopes of unveiling it next year. Currently, the company’s largest projector can only produce an 18-in (45.7-cm) image, but the goal is to create one 6 feet (1.8 m) tall that projects 7 ft (2.1 m) from the screen and is visible within a 100-degree arc.

This will require developing new optics and a new light source. But once this is achieved, Provision plans to miniaturize the system to the size of a toaster for the game console market before expanding to applications in education, medicine, video conferencing and other fields. Just imagine, phone conversations or Skyping where you get to talk to a life-size representation of the person! I know one person who would be thrilled about this, though I imagine he’d want a bigger projector for himself…

ESB_emperorThe Kickstarter campaign runs through August 14 and the public debut of the system is scheduled for March, 2014. So far, the project has collected $13,112, a mere 1% of its total goal. However, they are just getting started, and have seven months to go. So if you’ve got money and want holographics to become a permanent part of gaming, teleconferencing and social media, invest now!

In a similar vein, gesture control, something that has also been explored heavily in science fiction, appears to be getting a boost as well. For those who do not own an Xbox Kinect or are unfamiliar with the technology (or just haven’t seen Minority Report), gesture control is essentially a motion capture technology that monitors a person’s movements and gestures as an interface.

minority-reportAnd it is companies like PointGrab that are looking to make this type of interface the norm for computing, relying on a technology known as Hybrid Action Recognition (HAR). Unlike previous gesture recognitions software, the company claims that the updated version that they recently launched is 98% accurate and takes advantage of numerous advances that will make the technology mainstream.

The biggest advance comes in the form of being able to tell the difference between intentional movement, such as putting your fingers to your lips to mute a TV or computer, and unintentional gestures, such as scratching your lip. In addition, PointGrab has updated its machine learning algorithms to accommodate more environmental factors, such as different lighting conditions and hand sizes, to improve accuracy.

gesture-controlAccording to Assaf Gad, vice president of marketing and product for PointGrab, its all about accommodation. And this is really just the beginning:

We don’t want to teach people how to interact with devices. The devices have to be smart enough to analyze the body language of user and act accordingly.

Based in Israel, PointGrab has been working on gesture recognition interfaces since 2008. Two other Israeli companies, Eyesight and Extreme Reality, are also developing gesture and body movement recognition software platforms that work with a variety of devices equipped with standard 2D cameras. In addition, Leap Motion just introduced a hardware controller for enabling gesture control, and Microsoft’s Xbox One will enable control of more than games with its updated Kinect technology.

eyeSight-3D-Gesture-ControlAnd according to Gad, this is really just the beginning. Soon gesture control will be integrated with other emerging technologies to create much more intelligent interfaces:

I see it as good sign that we are in the right place to change way people interact. In the near future, we’ll see more solutions that combine voice and gesture, as well as 3D.

An exciting prospect, and very futuristic! Now if only someone would get on those damn flying cars already. It’s the 21st century, we were promised flying cars! And be sure to enjoy this video of the PointGrab software in action:


Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet, kickstarter.com

The Future is Here: Jetpack Rentals!

jetlevIt’s official, commercial jetpacks are here! And while they might not use rockets, or be available for general purchase, they are still a pretty amazing joyride from the looks of it. Basically, the packs use pumped water from a backpack through a hose connected to a small, unmanned boat. Users are then hurled into the air, and with the adjustment of attitude controls, are able to fly around in circles.

So far, there are two models that are showing up in major vacation destinations like San Diego, Key West, Florida, Myrtle Beach, and Cancun, Mexico. There’s the Jetlev, which can lift a person 9 metres in the air, and the Flyboard, which looks like a small snowboard attached to a hose and can propel riders 14 metres in the air. To give you some perspective, that’s about the height of a three and four storey building, respectively.

jetlev2Promotional videos have been turning up by the hundreds on Youtube, Hulu, Dailymotion, and other video-sharing websites, and the hits are reaching into the millions. Clearly, these jetpacks are the newest thing when it comes to water sports and adventure reaction, but they are raising their fair share of environmental concerns as well.

In Hawaii for example, where the jetpacks are expected to make an appearance very soon, the concerns of fishermen and ocean enthusiasts prompted the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to call a public meeting about the devices last month. The department’s top enforcement officer, Randy Awo, expressed alarm about unsafe maneuvers, such as riders diving into the water next to moving boats.

????????In addition, fishermen are concerned that the noise will disrupt their livelihood. In this, they are joined by University of Hawaii coral scientist Bob Richmond, who told officials that the noise the devices make could cause fish to avoid areas that are too loud. He’s also worried that fish and coral larvae could get pumped through some of the equipment and die.

But of course, solutions and regulations are being proposed, such as setting aside areas for recreational use that are far removed from fishing waters and coral habitats. The same is likely to be the case in other parts of the world where conservation and fishing are major concerns, but tourist dollars are heavily sought after.

hawaii-coral-reef-600x404In the meantime though, adventure enthusiasts and futurists can draw some encouragement from this, since it demonstrates that we are clearly living in a time when devices that seem like they are right out of the annals of science fiction are becoming a reality!

And be sure to check out the video of Myrtle Beach jetpack adventures, showing a Jetlev R200 in action:


Sources:
cbc.ca, myrtlebeachjetpackadventures.com

The Future of Transit: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

hyperloopThe high-speed transit tube. It’s been a staple of science fiction for many years. Remember the tubes cars in Logan’s Run, the elevators in the Jetsons, or the tubes that shoot people around New New York in Futurama? Much like flying cars, they are a feature of a futuristic society that people have been waiting on. And thanks to Elon Musk, it might finally be coming true.

Yes, the same man that brought us the Tesla electric car, PayPal, and SpaceX is now working on a design for a high-speed transit system that works the same way as the pneumatic tube. In a series of statements and documents released yesterday, the billionaire entrepreneur unveiled his concept for a tube that could whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes – half the time it takes an airplane.

hyperloop1In the newly released documents, Musk outlined the basic design, which would consist of a low-pressure steel tube that houses capsules which move back and forth. The aluminum capsules (or pods) would have skis on the bottom containing holes that pump out air, creating an air cushion. They would be propelled forward with magnets found on the skis as well as an electromagnetic pulse generated by a series of electric motors.

Linear electric motors placed at each destination would slow the pods down by absorbing their kinetic energy. That energy would then be put back into battery packs and used to accelerate the next pods, or stored for future use. Solar panels on top of the tubes would also provide energy. The pods, which have room for 28 people each, could leave every 30 seconds – transporting up to 7.4 million people on each route (SF to LA or vice versa).

hyperloop2At 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph) the above ground Hyperloop system would be dramatically faster than a bullet train or even an airplane. Alongside boats, planes, trains and automobiles, Musk claims that the train would constitute a “fifth form” of transportation. And of course, safety would be paramount, with each pod being spaced apart by 8 km (5 miles), and the system would have an emergency brake.

The system would also be designed to deal with seismic shifts, which are common in California. In order to mitigate earthquake risk, the system would be built on pylons (the tube wouldn’t be rigidly fixed at any point). Adjustable lateral and vertical dampers would be placed inside the pylons to “absorb the small length changes between pylons due to thermal changes, as well as long form subtle height changes.”

hyperloop3What’s more, Musk was sure to play up the comfort value of the ride:

Once you’re traveling the speed you wouldn’t notice the speed at all. It would be really smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. Maximum G-force of about half a G, comparable to what you might feel in an airplane but far less than what you would feel in a rollercoaster. Really quiet.

Musk estimates that price tag per ride would be $20 per person, making the Hyperloop more reasonably priced than train, plane, or automobile. The whole project would cost an estimated $6 billion if it contained “people-only pods,” but would be priced at $10 billion if it had pods for both people and cars.

As it stands, its not entirely clear when the Hyperloop would be up and running. What’s more, its unclear what tole Musk would play in its creation. Since he is currently occupied with developing things like a nationwide Supercharger network for Tesla and launching satellites with SpaceX, he thinks it could be three to four years before a demo could be finished. As for a full system that would run from LA to San Francisco, that could take between seven to ten.

hyperloop4In any event, the concept is open-source, and Musk is calling on inventors, engineers and investors to get involved. Given that it is a rather elegant solution to the problem of transit, such an idea is not likely to remain idle for too long. Originally inspired by the sad state of $70 billion California’s high-speed rail initiative, the Hyperloop could easily prove to be another transportation initiative that is never completed. At the same time, it might prove to be a “leapfrog maneuver”, bypassing lightrail completely and ushering in something better.

It might sound like a fantasy, but Musk has a reputation for making the impossible a reality. What’s more, engineers from both Tesla and SpaceX have been working on the concept for close to a year and some are now dedicated to it full-time. And given that nations like China, India, Russia and the EU are in need of expanded transit systems, don’t be surprised if we see something similar emerging overseas.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the concept, courtesy of Elon Musk and CBC news:


Sources: cbc.ca, fastcoexist.com

The Future is Here: “Spiber” Silk

spider-silkFor years, scientists and researchers have been looking for a way to reproduce the strength of spider silk in the form of a synthetic material. As an organic material, spider silk is tougher than kevlar, strong as steel, lighter than carbon fiber, and can be stretched 40 percent beyond its original length without breaking. Any material that can boast the same characteristics and be massed produced would be worth its weight in gold!

Recently, a Japanese startup named Spiber has announced that it has found a way to produce the silk synthetically. Over the next two years, they intend to step up mass production and created everything from surgical materials and auto arts to bulletproof vests. And thanks to recent developments in nanoelectronics, its usages could also include soluble electronic implants, artificial blood levels and ligaments, and even antibacterial sutures.

spiber-synthetic-spider-silkSpider silk’s amazing properties are due to a protein named fibroin. In nature, proteins act as natural catalyst for most chemical reactions inside a cell and help bind cells together into tissues. Naturally, the process for creating a complex sequence of aminoacids that make up fibroin are very hard to reproduce inside a lab. Hence why scientists have been turning to genetic engineering in recent years to make it happen.

In Spiber’s case, this consisted of decoding the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders and then bioengineering bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein, which they then spin into their artificial silk. Using their new process, they claim to be able to engineer a new type of silk in as little as 10 days, and have already created 250 prototypes with characteristics to suit specific applications.

SpiderSilkModelNatureThey begin this process by tweaking the aminoacid sequences and gene arrangements using computer models to create artificial proteins that seek to maximize strength, flexibility and thermal stability in the final product. Then, they synthesize a fibroin-producing gene modified to produce that specific molecule.

Microbe cultures are then modified with the fibroin gene to produce the candidate molecule, which is turned into a fine powder and then spun. These bacteria feed on sugar, salt and other micronutrients and can reproduce in just 20 minutes. In fact, a single gram of the protein produces about 5.6 miles (9 km) of artificial silk.

spiber_qmonosAs part of the patent process, Spiber has named the artificial protein derived from fibroin QMONOS, from the Japanese word for spider. The substance can be turned into fiber, film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form, giving it the ability to suit a number of different applications – everything from clothing and manufacturing to nanomedicine.

Spibers says it is building a trial manufacturing research plant, aiming to produce 100 kg (220 lb) of QMONOS fiber per month by November. The pilot plant will be ready by 2015, by which time the company aims to produce 10 metric tons (22,000 lb) of silk per year.

spiber_dressAt the recent TedX talk in Tokyo, company founder Kazuhide Sekiyama unveiled Spiber’s new process by showcasing a dress made of their synthetic silk. It’s shiny blue sheen was quite dazzling and looks admittedly futuristic. Still, company spokesperson Shinya Murata admitted that it was made strictly for show and nobody tried it on.

Murata also suggested that their specialized slik could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future:

We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos. But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…

Overall, Sekyama lauded the material’s strength and flexibility before the TedX audience, and claimed it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices. All that’s needed is some more time to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. Given the expanding use for silks and its impeccable applicability, I’d say he’s correct in that belief.

In the meantime, check out the video from the TedX talk:


Sources:
gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com

Nanotech News: Smart Sponges, Nanoparticles and Neural Dust!

nanomachineryNanotechnology has long been the dream of researchers, scientists and futurists alike, and for obvious reasons. If machinery were small enough so as to be microscopic, or so small that it could only be measured on the atomic level,  just about anything would be possible. These include constructing buildings and products from the atomic level up, with would revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.

In addition, microscopic computers, smart cells and materials, and electronics so infinitesimally small that they could be merged with living tissues would all be within our grasp. And it seems that at least once a month, universities, research labs, and even independent skunkworks are unveiling new and exciting steps that are bringing us ever closer to this goal.

Close-up of a smart sponge
Close-up of a smart sponge

Once such breakthrough comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where biomedical scientists and engineers have joined forces to create the “smart sponge”. A spherical object that is microscopic — just 250 micrometers across, and could be made as small as 0.1 micrometers – these new sponges are similar to nanoparticles, in that they are intended to be the next-generation of delivery vehicles for medication.

Each sponge is mainly composed of a polymer called chitosan, something which is not naturally occurring, but can be produced easily from the chitin in crustacean shells. The long polysaccharide chains of chitosan form a matrix in which tiny porous nanocapsules are embedded, and which can be designed to respond to the presence of some external compound – be it an enzyme, blood sugar, or a chemical trigger.

bloodstreamSo far, the researchers tested the smart sponges with insulin, so the nanocapsules in this case contained glucose oxidase. As the level of glucose in a diabetic patient’s blood increases, it would trigger the nanocapsules in the smart sponge begin releasing hydrogen ions which impart a positive charge to the chitosan strands. This in turn causes them to spread apart and begin to slowly release insulin into the blood.

The process is also self-limiting: as glucose levels in the blood come down after the release of insulin, the nanocapsules deactivate and the positive charge dissipates. Without all those hydrogen ions in the way, the chitosan can come back together to keep the remaining insulin inside. The chitosan is eventually degraded and absorbed by the body, so there are no long-term health effects.

NanoparticlesOne the chief benefits of this kind of system, much like with nanoparticles, is that it delivers medication when its needed, to where its needed, and in amounts that are appropriate to the patient’s needs. So far, the team has had success treating diabetes in rats, but plans to expand their treatment to treating humans, and branching out to treat other types of disease.

Cancer is a prime candidate, and the University team believes it can be treated without an activation system of any kind. Tumors are naturally highly acidic environments, which means a lot of free hydrogen ions. And since that’s what the diabetic smart sponge produces as a trigger anyway, it can be filled with small amounts of chemotherapy drugs that would automatically be released in areas with cancer cells.

nanorobotAnother exciting breakthrough comes from University of California at Berkeley, where medical researchers are working towards tiny, implantable sensors . As all medical researchers know, the key to understanding and treating neurological problems is to gather real-time and in-depth information on the subject’s brain. Unfortunately, things like MRIs and positron emission tomography (PET) aren’t exactly portable and are expensive to run.

Implantable devices are fast becoming a solution to this problem, offering real-time data that comes directly from the source and can be accessed wirelessly at any time. So far, this has taken the form of temporary medical tattoos or tiny sensors which are intended to be implanted in the bloodstreams. However, what the researchers at UofC are proposing something much more radical.

neural_dustIn a recent research paper, they proposed a design for a new kind of implantable sensor – an intelligent dust that can infiltrate the brain, record data, and communicate with the outside world. The preliminary design was undertaken by Berkeley’s Dongjin Seo and colleagues, who described a network of tiny sensors – each package being no more than 100 micrometers – in diameter. Hence the term they used: “neural dust”.

The smart particles would all contain a very small CMOS sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in nearby neurons. The researchers also envision a system where each particle is powered by a piezoelectric material rather than tiny batteries. The particles would communicate data to an external device via ultrasound waves, and the entire package would also be coated in a polymer, thus making it bio-neutral.

smart_tatoosBut of course, the dust would need to be complimented by some other implantable devices. These would likely include a larger subdural transceiver that would send the ultrasound waves to the dust and pick up the return signal. The internal transceiver would also be wirelessly connected to an external device on the scalp that contains data processing hardware, a long range transmitter, storage, and a battery.

The benefits of this kind of system are again obvious. In addition to acting like an MRI running in your brain all the time, it would allow for real-time monitoring of neurological activity for the purposes of research and medical monitoring. The researchers also see this technology as a way to enable brain-machine interfaces, something which would go far beyond current methods. Who knows? It might even enable a form of machine-based telepathy in time.

telepathySounds like science fiction, and it still is. Many issues need to be worked out before something of this nature would be possible or commercially available. For one, more powerful antennae would need to be designed on the microscopic scale in order for the smart dust particles to be able to send and receive ultrasound waves.

Increasing the efficiency of transceivers and piezoelectric materials will also be a necessity to provide the dust with power, otherwise they could cause a build-up of excess heat in the user’s neurons, with dire effects! But most importantly of all, researchers need to find a safe and effective way to deliver the tiny sensors to the brain.

prosthetic_originalAnd last, but certainly not least, nanotechnology might be offering improvements in the field of prosthetics as well. In recent years, scientists have made enormous breakthroughs in the field of robotic and bionic limbs, restoring ambulatory mobility to accident victims, the disabled, and combat veterans. But even more impressive are the current efforts to restore sensation as well.

One method, which is being explored by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, involves incorporating gold nanoparticles and a substrate made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the plastic used in bottles of soft drinks. Between these two materials, they were able to make an ultra-sensitive film that would be capable of transmitting electrical signals to the user, simulating the sensation of touch.

gold_nanoparticlesBasically, the gold-polyester nanomaterial experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent, providing an extremely sensitive measure of physical force. Tests conducted on the material showed that it was able to sense pressures ranging from tens of milligrams to tens of grams, which is ten times more sensitive than any sensors being build today.

Even better, the film maintained its sensory resolution after many “bending cycles”, meaning it showed consistent results and would give users a long term of use. Unlike many useful materials that can only really be used under laboratory conditions, this film can operate at very low voltages, meaning that it could be manufactured cheaply and actually be useful in real-world situations.

smart-skin_610x407In their research paper, lead researcher Hossam Haick described the sensors as “flowers, where the center of the flower is the gold or metal nanoparticle and the petals are the monolayer of organic ligands that generally protect it.” The paper also states that in addition to providing pressure information (touch), the sensors in their prototype were also able to sense temperature and humidity.

But of course, a great deal of calibration of the technology is still needed, so that each user’s brain is able to interpret the electronic signals being received from the artificial skin correctly. But this is standard procedure with next-generation prosthetic devices, ones which rely on two-way electronic signals to provide control signals and feedback.

nanorobot1And these are just some examples of how nanotechnology is seeking to improve and enhance our world. When it comes to sensory and mobility, it offers solutions to not only remedy health problems or limitations, but also to enhance natural abilities. But the long-term possibilities go beyond this by many orders of magnitude.

As a cornerstone to the post-singularity world being envisioned by futurists, nanotech offers solutions to everything from health and manufacturing to space exploration and clinical immortality. And as part of an ongoing trend in miniaturization, it presents the possibility of building devices and products that are even tinier and more sophisticated than we can currently imagine.

It’s always interesting how science works by scale, isn’t it? In addition to dreaming large – looking to build structures that are bigger, taller, and more elaborate – we are also looking inward, hoping to grab matter at its most basic level. In this way, we will not only be able to plant our feet anywhere in the universe, but manipulate it on the tiniest of levels.

As always, the future is a paradox, filling people with both awe and fear at the same time.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2), (3)

Google CEO Wants Land Set Aside for Experimentation

future-city-1Back in May, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page hosted a rare Q&A session with the attendees of the Google I/O keynote speech. During this time, he gave some rather unfiltered and unabashed answers to some serious questions, one of which was how he and others should focus on reducing negativity and focusing on changing the world.

Page responded by saying that “the pace of change is increasing” and that “we haven’t adapted systems to deal with that.” He was also sure to point out that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.” Towards that end, he claimed that an area of the world should be set aside for unregulated scientific experimentation. His exact words were:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world… some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.

So basically he’s looking for a large chunk of real-estate to conduct beta tests in it. What could possibly go wrong?

detroit_experimentOne rather creative suggestion comes from Roy Klabin of PolicyMic, who suggest that an aging and dilapidated Detroit might be just the locale Page and his associates are looking for. This past week, the city declared bankruptcy, and began offering to sell city assets and eradicate retirement funds to meet its $18 billion debt obligations.

What’s more, he suggests that SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s always after innovation, should team up with Google. Between the two giants, there’s more than enough investment capital to pull Detroit out of debt and work to rehabilitate the city’s economy. Hell, with a little work, the city could be transformed back into the industrial hub it once was.

And due to a mass exodus of industry and working people from the city, there is no shortage of space. Already the city is considering converting segments of former urban sprawl into farming and agricultural land. But looking farther afield, Klabin sees no reason why these space couldn’t be made available for advanced construction projects involving arcologies and other sustainable-living structures.

dragonfly-vertical-farm-for-a-future-new-york-1Not a bad idea, really. With cities like Boston, New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Moscow, Chendu, Tokyo and Masdar City all proposing or even working towards the creation of arcologies, there’s no reason why the former Industrial Heartland – now known as the “Rust Belt” – shouldn’t be getting in on the action.

Naturally, there are some who would express fear over the idea, not to mention Page’s blunt choice of words. But Page did stress the need for positive change, not aimless experimentation. And future generations will need housing and food, and to be able to provide these things in a way that doesn’t burden their environment the way urban sprawl does. Might as well get a jump on things!

And thanks to what some are calling the “New Industrial Revolution” – a trend that embraces nanofabrication, self-assembling DNA structures, cybernetics, and 3D printing – opportunities exist to rebuild our global economy in a way that is cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable. Anyone with space to offer and an open mind can get in on the ground floor. The only question is, what are they willing to give up?

venus_projectThere’s also a precedent here for what is being proposed. The famous American architect and designer Jacque Fresco has been advocating something similar for decades. Believing that society needs to reshape the way it lives, works, and produces, he created the Venus Project – a series of designs for a future living space that would incorporate new technologies, smarter materials and building methods, and alternative forms of energy.

And then there’s the kind of work being proposed by designer Mitchell Joachim and Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology). And amongst their many proposed design concepts is one where cities use vertical towers filled with energy-creating algae (pictured below) to generate power. But even more ambitious is their plan to “urbaneer” Brooklyn’s Navy Yard by turning natural ecological tissues into viable buildings.

future-city2This concept also calls to mind Arconsanti, the brainchild of architect Paolo Solari, who invented the concept of arcology. His proposed future city began construction back in the 1970 in central Arizona, but remains incomplete. Designed to incorporate such things as 3D architecture, vertical farming, and clean, renewable energy, this unfinished city still stands as the blueprint for Solari’s vision of a future where architecture and ecology could be combined.

What’s more, this kind of innovation and development will come in mighty handy when it comes to time to build colonies on the Moon and Mars. Already, numerous Earth cities and settlements are being considered as possible blueprints for extra-Terran settlement – places like Las Vegas, Dubai, Arviat, Black Rock City and the Pueblos and pre-Columbian New Mexico.

Black Rock City - home to "Burning Man" - shown in a Martian crater
Black Rock City – home to “Burning Man” – shown in a Martian crater

These are all prime examples of cities built to withstand dry, inhospitable environments. As such, sustainability and resource management play a major role in each of their designs. But given the pace at which technology is advancing and the opportunities it presents for high-tech living that is also environmentally friendly, some test models will need to be made.

And building them would also provide an opportunity to test out some of the latest proposed construction methods, one that do away with the brutally inefficient building process and replace it with things like drones, constructive bacteria, additive manufacturing, and advanced computer modelling. At some point, a large-scale project to see how these methods work together will be in order.

Let’s just hope Page’s ideas for a beta-testing settlement doesn’t turn into a modern day Laputa!

And be sure to check out this video from the Venus Project, where Jacque Fresco explains his inspirations and ideas for a future settlement:


Sources:
1.
Elon Musk and Google Should Purchase and Transform a Bankrupt Detroit (http://www.policymic.com/)
2. Larry Page wants to ‘set aside a part of the world’ for unregulated experimentation (theverge.com)

3. Six Earth Cities That Will Provide Blueprints for Martian Settlements (io9.com)
4. The Venus Project (thevenusproject.org)
5. Arcosanti Website (arcosanti.org)
6. Terreform ONE website (terreform.org)

The Future of Medicine: Smartphone Medicine!

iphone_specIt’s no secret that the exponential growth in smartphone use has been paralleled by a similar growth in what they can do. Everyday, new and interesting apps are developed which give people the ability to access new kinds of information, interface with other devices, and even perform a range of scans on themselves. It is this latter two aspect of development which is especially exciting, as it is opening the door to medical applications.

Yes, in addition to temporary tattoos and tiny medimachines that can be monitored from your smartphone or other mobile computing device, there is also a range of apps that allow you to test your eyesight and even conduct ultrasounds on yourself. But perhaps most impressive is the new Smartphone Spectrometer, an iPhone program which will allow users to diagnose their own illnesses.

iphone_spec2Consisting of an iPhone cradle, phone and app, this spectrometer costs just $200 and has the same level of diagnostic accuracy as a $50,000 machine, according to Brian Cunningham, a professor at the University of Illinois, who developed it with his students. Using the phone’s camera and a series of optical components in the cradle, the machine detects the light spectrum passing through a liquid sample.

This liquid can consist of urine or blood, any of the body’s natural fluids that are exhibit traces of harmful infection when they are picked up by the body. By comparing the sample’s spectrum to spectrums for target molecules, such as toxins or bacteria, it’s possible to work out how much is in the sample. In short, a quickie diagnosis for the cost of a fancy new phone.

Granted there are limitations at this point. For one, the device is nowhere near as efficient as its industrial counterpart. Whereas automated $50,000 version can process up to 100 samples at a time, the iPhone spectrometer can only do one at a time. But by the time Cunningham and his team plan on commercializing the design, they hope to increase that efficiency by a few magnitudes.

iphone_spec1On the plus side, the device is far more portable than any other known spectrometer. Whereas a lab is fixed in place and has to process thousands of samples at any given time, leading to waiting lists, this device can be used just about anywhere. In addition, there’s no loss of accuracy. As Cunningham explained:

We were using the same kits you can use to detect cancer markers, HIV infections, or certain toxins, putting the liquid into our cartridge and measuring it on the phone. We have compared the measurements from full pieces of equipment, and we get the same outcome.

Cunningham is currently filing a patent application and looking for investment. He also has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an Android version. And while he doesn’t think smartphone-based devices will replace standard spectrometry machines with long track records, and F.D.A approval, he does believe they could enable more testing.

publiclaboratoryThis is especially in countries where government-regulated testing is harder to come by, or where medical facilities are under-supplied or waiting lists are prohibitively long. With diseases like cancer and HIV, early detection can be the difference between life and death, which is a major advantage, according to Cunningham:

In the future, it’ll be possible for someone to monitor themselves without having to go to a hospital. For example, that might be monitoring their cardiac disease or cancer treatment. They could do a simple test at home every day, and all that information could be monitored by their physician without them having to go in.

But of course, the new iPhone is not alone. Many other variations are coming out, such as the PublicLaboratory Mobile Spectrometer, or Androids own version of the Spectral Workbench. And of course, this all calls to mind the miniature spectrometer that Jack Andraka, the 16-year old who invented a low-cost litmus test for pancreatic cancer and who won the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). That’s him in the middle of the picture below:

ISEF2012-Top-Three-WinnersIt’s the age of mobile medicine, my friends. Thanks to miniaturization, nanofabrication, wireless technology, mobile devices, and an almost daily rate of improvement in medical technology, we are entering into an age where early detection and cost-saving devices are making medicine more affordable and accessible.

In addition, all this progress is likely to add up to many lives being saved, especially in developing regions or low-income communities. It’s always encouraging when technological advances have the effect of narrowing the gap between the haves and the have nots, rather than widening it.

And of course, there’s a video of the smartphone spectrometer at work, courtesy of Cunningham’s research team and the University of Illinois:


Source:
fast.coexist.com

The 3D Printing Revolution

3D-printing1From the way people have been going on about 3D printing in the past few months, you’d think it was some kind of fad or something! But of course, there’s a reason for that. Far from being a simple prescriptive technology that requires us all to update our software or buy the latest version in order to “stay current”, 3D printing is ushering in a revolution that will literally change the world.

From design models and manufactured products, the range of possibilities is now venturing into printed food and even artificial organs. The potential for growth is undeniable, and the pace at which progress is happening is astounding. And on one of my usual jaunts through the tech journals and video-sharing websites, I found a few more examples of the latest applications.

ord_bot_2_2_display_mediumFirst up is this story from Mashable, a social media news source, that discusses NYU student Marko Manriquez’s new invention: the BurritoBot. Essentially a 3D food printer that uses tortillas, salsa, guacamole and other quintessential ingredients, Manriquez’s built this machine for his master’s thesis using open-source hardware – including the ORD bot, a 3D printing mechanical platform (pictured above).

The result is a food printer that an tailor-make Burritos and other Mexican delights, giving users the ability to specify which ingredients they want, in which proportion, and all through an app on their smartphone. No demos available online as of yet, but Mashable provides a pretty good breakdown on how it works, as well as Manrquez’s inspiration and intent behind its creation:


Next up, there’s Cornell University’s food printer that allows users to created desserts. In this CNN video, Chef David Arnold at the French Culinary Institute shows off the printer by creating a chocolate cake, layer by layer, dough and icing. A grad student from Cornell’s Computational Synthesis Lab was on hand to explain that their design is also open-source, with the blueprints and technical design made available online so anyone can build their own.

As Chef Arnold explained, his kitchen has been using the printer to work with ingredients ranging from cookie dough, to icing to masa – the corn meal tortillas are made from. It also allows for a degree of accuracy that many may not possess, while still offering plenty of opportunities to be creative. “The only real limitation now is that the product has to be able to go through a syringe,” he said. “Other than that, skies the limit.”


But even more exciting for some are the opportunities that are now being explored using metals. Using metal powder and an electron beam to form manufactured components, this type of “additive manufacturing” is capable of turning out parts that are amazingly complex, far more so than anything created through the machining-process.

In this next video, the crew from CNNMoney travel to the Oakridge National Lab in Tenessee to speak to the Automation, Manufacturing and Robotics Group. This government-funded lab specializes in making parts that are basically “structures within structures”, the kind of things that are used in advanced prosthetic limbs, machinery, and robots. As they claim, this sort of manufacturing is made possible thanks to the new generation of 3D ABS and metal printers.

Oakridge_natlabWhat’s more, this new process is far more efficient. Compared to old fashioned forms of machining, it consumes less energy and generates far less waste in terms of materials used. And the range of applications is extensive, embracing fields as divergent as robotics and construction to biomedical and aerospace. At present, the only real prohibition is the cost of the equipment itself, but that is expected to come down as 3D printing and additive manufacturers receive more market penetration.


But of course, all of this pales in comparison to the prospect of 3D printed buildings. As Behrokh Khoshnevis – a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at USC – explains in this last video from TEDxTalks, conventional construction methods are not only inefficient, labor intensive and dangerous, they may very well be hampering development efforts in the poorer parts of the world.

As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of poverty and underdevelopment knows, slums and shanty-towns suffer disproportionately from the problems of crime, disease, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Unfortunately, government efforts to create housing in regions where these types of communities are common are restrained by budgets and resource shortages. With one billion people living in shanties and slum-like shelters, a new means of creating shelter needs to be found for the 21st century.

contour-craftingThe solution, according to Khoshnevis, lies in Contour Crafting and Automated Construction –  a process which can create a custom house in just 20 hours! As a proponent of Computer-Assisted Design and Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), he sees automated construction as a cost-effective and less labor resource-intensive means of creating homes for these and other people who are likely to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

The technology is already in place, so any claims of that is of a “theoretical nature” are moot. What’s more, such processes are already being designed to construct settlements on the moon, incorporating robotics and 3D printing with advanced computer-assisted simulations. As such, Khoshnevis is hardly alone in advocating similar usages here on planet Earth.

The benefits, as he outlines them, are dignity, safety, and far more sanitary conditions for the inhabitants, as well as the social benefits of breaking the pathological cycle of underdevelopment. Be sure to check out his video below. It’s a bit long, but very enlightening!


Once in awhile, its good to take stock of the future and see that it’s not all creepy robots and questionable inventions. Much of the time, technological progress really does promise to make life better, and not just “more convenient”. It’s also especially good to see how it can be made to improve the lives of all people, rather than perpetuating the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Until next time, keep your heads high and your eyes to the horizon!

 

The Future is Here: The AR Bike Helmet

AR_helmetAR displays are becoming all the rage, thanks in no small part to Google Glass and other display glasses. And given the demand and appeal of the technology, it seemed like only a matter of time before AR displays began providing real-time navigation for vehicles. For decades, visor-mounted heads-up displays have been available, but fully-integrated displays have yet to have been produced.

Live Helmet is one such concept, a helmet that superimposes information and directions into a bike-helmet visor. Based in Moscow, this startup seeks to combine a head-mounted display, built-in navigation, and Siri-like voice recognition. The helmet will have a translucent, color display that’s projected on the visor in the center of the field of vision, and a custom user interface, English language-only at launch, based on Android.

AR_helmet1This augmented reality helmet display includes a light sensor for adjusting image brightness according to external light conditions, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass for tracking head movements. Naturally, the company anticipated that concerns about driver safety would come up, hence numerous safety features which they’ve included.

For one, the digital helmet is cleverly programmed to display maps only when the rider’s speed is close to zero to avoid distracting them at high speeds. And for the sake of hands-free control, it comes equipped with a series of voice commands for navigation and referencing points of interest. No texting and driving with this thing!

ar_helmet4So far, the company has so far built some prototype hardware and software for the helmet with the help of grants from the Russian government, and is also seeking venture capital. However, they have found little within their home country, and have been forced to crowdfund via an Indiegogo campaign. As CEO, Andrew Artishchev, wrote on LiveMap’s Indiegogo page:

Russian venture funds are not disposed to invest into hardware startups. They prefer to back up clones of successful services like Groupon, Airnb, Zappos, Yelp, Booking, etc. They are not interested in producing hardware either.

All told, they are seeking to raise $150,000 to make press molds for the helmet capsule. At present, they have raised $5,989 with 31 days remaining. Naturally, prizes have been offered, ranging from thank yous and a poster (for donations of $1 to $25) to a test drive in a major city (Berlin, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Barcelona) for $100, and a grand prize of a helmet itself for a donation of $1500.

ar_helmet3And of course, the company has announced that they have some “Stretched Goals”, just in case people want to help them overshoot their mandate of $150,000. For 300 000$, they will include a Bluetooth with a headset profile to their helmet, and for 500 000$, they will merge a built-in high-resolution 13Mpix photo&video camera. Good to have goals.

Personally, I’d help sponsor this, except for the fact that I don’t have motorbike and wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. But a long drive across the autobahn or the Amber Route would be totally boss! Speaking of which, check out the company’s promotional video:

Sources: news.cnet.com, indiegogo.com