Developing World Tech: BRCK Mobile Internet Device

BRCK1Far from Silicon Valley in California, there is a place that some are now calling “Silicon Savannah.” Located around Nairobi, and centered on the nonprofit collective Ushahidi, an explosion in African tech is taking shape. And this month, backers of the collective’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign are finally getting their hands on BRCK – a long-awaited device that is the antithesis of shiny, expensive internet hardware.

A mobile Internet router, BRCK is essentially a self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device that promises to bring internet access to remote communities and underdeveloped neighborhoods all around the world. And as an added bonus, it reverses the usual order of globalization – having been invented in a developing country, built in the US, and intended for customers in any country anywhere.

BRCKIt can connect to the web in one of three ways: by plugging in a standard ethernet cable, by bridging with other Wi-Fi networks, or by accessing 3G or 4G data via a basic SIM card. Originally, Ushahidi invented it in order to overcome infrastructure challenges – specifically, inconsistent electricity and Internet connectivity – plaguing young upstarts in Nairobi. But it turns out, plenty of other people and places face the same challenges all over the world.

Contrary to public opinion, it is not just developing or underdeveloped countries that experience infrastructure challenges. Recently in the UK, Virgin Media customers across London lost service; while in the US, in what appeared to be an unrelated event, millions of Time Warner customers across the U.S. – largely in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa – were knocked offline.

Developed-and-developing-countriesBut even just focusing on the developing world, BRCK’s potential market is enormous. While only a quarter of people from the developing world are currently connected, they already account for a staggering two-thirds of all people online today. While the technology is not exactly cutting-edge by most standards, it offers numerous advantages that take the needs of its potential market into account.

Beyond its three connection methods, BRCK can keep up to 20 users up and running for as long as eight hours during an electrical outage. And should the internet be unavailable in a given locale, the device continues operating offline, syncing up when its connection is restored. In addition, the stock hard drive is 4 gigabytes big, and it has a storage capacity of up to 32 gigabytes.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Nairobi_Kibera_04.JPGBRCK CEO Erik Hersman, who cut his teeth in the industry as a blogger, sees the company’s base in Nairobi as one of its greatest assets, particularly given its target market. Having been born in Sudan and having settled in Kenya with his young family,  ( is well-suited to addressing local needs with local solutions:

I describe it as a new remix of old technology. That’s the key to understanding Africa’s technology… If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere… We’re playing with dirty power and crappy Internet, so the device has to be resilient.

While designed in Kenya, BRCK is manufactured and assembled in Texas by a company called Silicon Hills, which is located outside of Austin. With its matte black, rubberized case, BRCK is elegant, but mostly unassuming, and has the relative dimensions of an actual brick. It’s too large to fit in a pocket, but small enough to carry in a backpack, place on a desk, or even on the hood of your Land Rover in the African countryside.

BRCK2By weight, BRCK is substantially heavier than a plastic router, but it’s also much more than one. In addition to its battery, BRCK has multiple ports, including a general-purpose input/output, enabling users to program and connect other hardware – such as sensors or a solar charger – to the device. But what is perhaps most compelling about BRCK, are its potential applications.

In truth, the greatest possibilities lies in the ability to break away from the model of centralized internet providers. This could lead to nothing short of a revolution in how people get online, and in way that would ensure a far greater measure of “equality of access”. As Hersman explained it:

We see enormous resonance with the work of other organizations. Take the proliferation of web-enabled laptops and tablets in schools; why is it that each of these devices connect to a mobile tower? Why not to a single, centralized point? …We’re at a place in history where the barriers to entry are no longer in the software space, but in the hardware space. Because we don’t yet have fully functioning maker spaces and rapid prototyping abilities here in Nairobi, the design process is still relatively slow and expensive, but the barriers are coming down.

Achuar community monitors learning to use GPSEducation, health, environmental, and even military and governmental organizations are already in conversation with BRCK and multiple entities are testing it out. For consumers in emerging markets, BRCK’s $200 price tag may be a stretch, but the company is looking at purchasing plans, which have worked well in developing nations for both the cell phone and energy sectors.

But BRCK’s business model is ultimately based more on companies than individual consumers. Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization that has worked in two dozen countries around the world, is one such company. According to its founder and executive director, Emily Jacobi:

The reason that we backed BRCK and that I’m excited to see it come about is because it fills an important gap in hardware and tools. We’re going to remote areas and training groups – indigenous groups, refugees, and other at-risk populations – to map the land and communities using GPS devices and cameras. We’re particularly excited about BRCK’s ability to facilitate collaborative work, as well as function offline.

internetIf there was one thing that the Digital Revolution promised, it was to bring the world together. Naturally, there were those who thought this to be naive and idealistic, citing the fact that technology has a way of being unevenly distributed. And while today, people live in a world that is far more connected than in any previous age, access remains an illustrative example of the gap between rich and poor nations.

Hence why an invention like the BRCK holds so much promise. Not only does it neatly reverse the all-too-common direction of technological development – i.e. technology conceived by a wealthy country, built in a poor one, only sold in wealthy ones – it also helps to shorten the gap between rich and poor nations when it comes to accessing and enjoying the fruits of that development.

This month, orders began shipping to buyers in 45 countries around the world this month. To get your hands on one, check out Ushahidi’s website and learn more about their efforts to develop open-source, equal-access technology.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, digital-democracy.org, ushahidi.com

The Future is Here: Self-Healing Computer Chips

computer_chipIt’s one of the cornerstones of the coming technological revolution: machinery that can assemble, upgrade, and/or fix itself without the need for regular maintenance. Such devices would forever put an end to the hassles of repairing computers, replacing components, or having to buy new machines when something vital broke down. And thanks to researchers at Caltech, we now have a microchip that accomplish one of these feats: namely, fix itself.

The chip is the work of Ali Hajimiri and a group of Caltech researchers who have managed to create an integrated circuit that, after taking severe damage, can reconfigure itself in such a way where it can still remain functional. This is made possible thanks to a secondary processor that jumps into action when parts of the chip fail or become compromised. The chip is also able to tweak itself on the fly, and can be programmed to focus more on saving energy or performance speed.

computer_chip2In addition, the chip contains 100,000 transistors, as well as various sensors that give it the ability to monitor the unit’s overall health. Overall, the microchip is comparable to a power amplifier as well as a microprocessor, the kind of circuit that processes signal transmissions, such as those found in mobile phones, as well as carrying out complex functions. This combined nature is what gives it this self-monitoring ability and ensures that it can keep working where other chips would simply stop.

To test the self-healing, self-monitoring attributes of their design, Hajimiri and his team blasted the chip with a laser, effectively destroying half its transistors. It only took the microchip a handful of milliseconds to deal with the loss and move on, which is an impressive feat by any standard. On top of that, the team found that a chip that wasn’t blasted by lasers was able to increase its efficiency by reducing its power consumption by half.

healingchipGranted, the chip can only fix itself if the secondary processor and at least some of the parts remain intact, but the abilities to self-monitor and tweak itself are still of monumental importance. Not only can the chip monitor itself in order to provide the best possible performance, it can also ensure that it will continue to provide a proper output of data if some of the parts do break down.

Looking ahead, Hajimiri has indicated that the technology behind this self-healing circuit can be applied to any other kind of circuit. This is especially good news for people with portable computers, laptops and other devices who have watched them break down because of a hard bump. Not only would this save consumers a significant amount of money on repairs, replacement, and data recovery, it is pointing the way towards a future where embedded repair systems are the norm.

And who knows? Someday, when nanomachines and self-assembling structures are the norm, we can look forward to devices that can be totally smashed, crushed and shattered, but will still manage to come back together and keep working. Hmm, all this talk of secondary circuits and self-repairing robots. I can’t help but get the feeling we’ve seen this somewhere before…

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Sources: Extremetech.com, inhabitat.com

The Birth of an Idea: The Computer Coat!

optical_computer1I’ve been thinking… which is not something novel for me, it just so happens that my thoughts have been a bit more focused lately. Specifically, I have an idea for an invention: something futuristic, practical, that could very well be part of our collective, computing future. With all the developments in the field of personal computing lately, and I my ongoing efforts to keep track of them, I hoped I might eventually come up with an idea of my own.

Consider, the growth in smartphones and personal digital assistants. In the last few years, we’ve seen companies produce working prototypes for paper-thin, flexible, and durable electronics. Then consider the growth in projection touchscreens, portable computing, and augmented reality. Could it be that there’s some middle ground here for something that incorporates all of the above?

Pranav Mistry 5Ever since I saw Pranav Mistry’s demonstration of a wearable computer that could interface with others, project its screen onto any surface, and be operated through simple gestures from the user, I’ve been looking for a way to work this into fiction. But in the years since Mistry talked to TED.com and showed off his “Sixth Sense Technology”, the possibilities have grown and been refined.

papertab-touchAnd then something happened. While at school, I noticed one of the kids wearing a jacket that had a hole near the lapel with a headphones icon above it. The little tunnel worked into the coat was designed to keep the chord to your iPod or phone safe and tucked away, and it got me thinking! Wires running through a coat, inset electrical gear, all the advancements made in the last few years. Who thinks about this kind of stuff, anyway? Who cares, it was the birth of an idea!

headphonesFor example, its no longer necessary to carry computer components that are big and bulky on your person. With thin, flexible electronics, much like the new Papertab, all the components one would need could be thin enough and flexible enough to be worked into the inlay of a coat. These could include the CPU, a wireless router, and a hard drive.

Paper-thin zinc batteries, also under development, could be worked into the coast as well, with a power cord connected to them so they could be jacked into a socket and recharged. And since they too are paper-thin, they could be expected to move and shift with the coat, along with all the other electronics, without fear of breakage or malfunction.

flexbatteryAnd of course, there would be the screen itself, via a small camera and projector in the collar, which could be placed and interfaced with on any flat surface. Or, forget the projector entirely and just connect the whole thing to a set of glasses. Google’s doing a good job on those, as is DARPA with their development of AR contact lenses. Either one will do in a pinch, and could be wirelessly or wired to the coat itself.

google_glass1Addendum: Shortly after publishing this, I realized that a power cord is totally unnecessary! Thanks to two key technologies, it could be possible to recharge the batteries using a combination of flexible graphene solar panels and some M13 peizoelectric virus packs. The former could be attached to the back, where they would be wired to the coats power system, and the M13 packs could be placed in the arms, where the user’s movement would be harnessed to generate electricity. Total self-sufficiency, baby!

powerbuttonAnd then how about a wrist segment where some basic controls, such as the power switch and a little screen are? This little screen could act as a prompt, telling you you have emails, texts, tweets, and updates available for download. Oh, and lets not forget a USB port, where you can plug in an external hard drive, flash drive, or just hook up to another computer.

So that’s my idea, in a nutshell. I plan to work it into my fiction at the first available opportunity, as I consider it an idea that hasn’t been proposed yet, not without freaky nanotech being involved! Look for it, and in the meantime, check out the video of Pranav Mistry on TED talks back in 2010 when he first proposed 6th Sense Tech. Oh, and just in case, you heard about the Computer Coat here first, patent pending!