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: Laser 3D Printing

pegasus-touch3D printing has really come into is own in recent years, with the range of applications constantly increasing. However, not all 3D printers or printing methods are the same, ranging from ones that use layered melted plastic to ones that print layers of metal dust, then fuse them with microwave radiation. This range in difference also means that some printers are faster, more accurate, and more expensive than others.

Take the Pegasus Touch as an example. Built by a Las Vegas-based company Full Spectrum Laser (FSL), this desktop 3D printer uses lasers to create objects faster and in finer detail than most other printers in its price range. Available for as little as US$2,000 via a Kickstarter campaign, its performance is claimed to be comparable to machines costing 50 times more.

 

pegasus-touch-8Instead of building up an object by melting plastic filaments and depositing the liquid like ink from a nozzle, the Pegasus touch uses what’s called laser-based stereolithography (SLA). This consists of using a series of 500 kHz ultraviolet lasers moving at 3,000 mm/sec to solidify curable photopolymer resin. As the object rises out of a vat of resin, the laser focuses on the surface, building up layer after layer with high precision.

To be fair, the technology has been around for many years. What is different with the Pegasus Touch is that FSL has shrunk the printer down and made it more economical. Normally, SLA machines are huge and cost in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Pegasus Touch, on other hand, measures just 28 x 36 x 57 cm (11 x 14 x 22.5 inches) and costs only a few thousand dollars.

pegasus-touch-4This affordability is due in part to the wide availability of Bluray players has made UC laser diodes much more affordable. In addition, FSL is already adept at making laser cutting and engraving machines, which has allowed the company to base the Pegasus Touch on modelling software and electronics already developed for these machines. This allows the device to operate at tolerances equivalent to a $100,000 machine.

The device also has an on-board 1GHz Linux computer with 512 MB memory that can do much of the 3D processing computation itself, making a connected PC all but unnecessary. There’s also an internet-connected 4.3-in color touchscreen, which allows the user to access open-source models that are printer-ready, plus the machine comes with multi-touch-capable desktop software.

pegasus-touch-3It also has a relatively large build area of approximately 18 x 18 x 23 cm (7 x 7 x 9 inch), which is one of the largest in the consumer 3D printer market. The company also says that the Pegasus Touch is 10 times faster than a filament deposition modelling (FDM) printer, has finer control, and up to six times faster than other SLA printers, and can produces a better and more detailed finish.

The Pegasus Touch’s Kickstarter campaign wrapped up earlier this month and raised a total of $819,535, putting them well above their original goal of $100,000. For those who pledged $2000 or more, the printer was made available for pre-order. When and if it goes on sale, the asking price will be $3,499. Given time, I imagine the technology will improve to use metal and other materials instead of resin.

And of course, there’s a promotional video, showcasing the device at work:


Sources: gizmag.com, kickstarter.com, fsl3d.com

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

News From Space: Arkyd Telescope and Shenzhou 10

spacex-icarus-670It seems that every day, the frontiers of space exploration are being pushed. In recent months, two stories occurred close to home (relatively speaking) that have stuck out in my memory. The first had to do with Planetary Resources plan to commission the world’s first crowdfunded telescope. The second came from China, where the new Shenzou 10 space ship launched on its way to dock with the prototype Tiangong-1 space station.

These stories were both groundbreaking for a number of reasons. Arkyd’s plan for a publicly-owned and funded telescope is not only an historic first, its also a major step forward in the creation of a new era of space exploration, one which is far more open and democratic than before. The second story represents a major leap for China as a major power, and their plans to conduct research aboard the Tiangong-1 shows a commitment to opening their space program to the public.

ARKYD-in-SpaceAnd as it happens, there have been recent developments on both fronts. On June 20th, less than a week ago, the Arkyd space telescope passed their goal of $1 million with its Kickstarter campaign. But perhaps to keep the money flowing, the company announced an ambitious aim to add extrasolar planet searching  to the list they can double that goal to $2 million.

And they’ve set some other fundraising milestones just to keep things interesting:

  • $1.3 million: A ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.
  • $1.5 million: This goal, just released yesterday, is aimed at the more than 20,000 people who signed up for “space selfies” incentive where uploaded pictures are photographed on the telescope while it is in orbit. For this goal, “beta selfies” will be taken while the telescope is in the integration phase of the build.
  • $1.7 million: The milestone will be announced if Arkyd reaches 15,000 backers. (It has more than 12,000 as of this

With five days remaining and a total of $1,189,359 now raised, they are not likely to break that ceiling. Still, the company’s plan to begin prospecting asteroids for the sake of future mining efforts now seems well within reach. Best of luck to them!

shenzhou10_tiangong1As for China’s Shenzhou 10, in an event that was captured on film, the space module is now docked with the Tiangong-1 space station and made a scenic transit in front of the sun. Astrophotographer Terry Legault had less than half a second to capture these incredible shots, but managed to get not one, but two shots in two consecutive days. Not an easy task to pull off, let alone twice!

If you look closely at the picture above, you can just make out Tiangong-1 station to the right of the sun, located below and to the left of a large cluster of sun spots. This top image is a crop of a full-face view of the Sun, taken with white light filters by Thierry from southern France on June 16, just after noon UTC. The transit duration was just 0.46 seconds, the distance of the spacecraft to observer was 365 km away, and the spacecraft was traveling at 7.4km/s (26,500 km/h or 16,500 mph).

shenzhou10_tiangong3This second imagine was taken the next day, again from the south of France, at 12:34:24 UTC on June 17, 2013. This one, in Hydrogen-alpha shows the Shenzhou-10/Tiangong-1 complex in multiple shots over the 0.46 second transit. Click on the photo to get the full resolution, then zoom in to see multiple shots of station as it made its transit across the face of the sun.

In a previous interview with Universe Today, Thierry explained how he prepares to take images like these:

For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path, because if I am at the edge, it is just like a solar eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Legault studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time. I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!

Kudos to the man for once again capturing images of the heavens and sharing them with the world. And exciting times these are, when space exploration is once again booming and the frontiers of tomorrow are increasingly within our reach.

Sources: universetoday.com, (2), legault.perso.sfr.fr

The Arkyd 100: Crowdfunding Space Exploraiton

ARKYD-in-SpacePlanetary Resources made quite the impression last year when they announced their plans to begin prospecting near-Earth asteroids with in the intention of mining them in the near future. Alongside such companies as SpaceX and Golden Spike, they are part of a constellations of private interests looking to establish commercial space travel and tourism. But their latest proposal goes a step further, bringing crowdfunding and the realm of space exploration together.

That’s the idea behind a Kickstarter campaign that the company began to raise money for a crowdfunded space telescope. Known as the Arkyd 100, the company claims that this new telescope will provide unprecedented public access to space and place the most advanced exploration technology into the hands of students, scientists and a new generation of citizen explorers.

asteroid_miningTo make their campaign successful, they need to raise $1 million in Kickstarter pledges by the end of June 2013. Once the telescope is up and running, it will allow them to better map the asteroid belt, thus assisting them in finding the rocks they want to mine for precious metals and trace elements. And with public financial backers making it happen, anyone pledging money will be able to own a piece of the prospector!

During a webcast on May 28th to announce the Kickstarter campaign, Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, gave a rundown on the details of the telescope. And interestingly enough, the Planetary Resources’ technical team that designed it also worked on every recent U.S. Mars lander and rover. So if you do choose to invest, you will do so with the knowledge that the same people who helped build the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are behind this project. If that doesn’t inspire investor confidence, I don’t know what will!

ARKYD-Space-SelfieA wide array of scientists, space enthusiasts and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have voiced their support for Planetary Resources’ new public space telescope. And those who invest will have the chance of recouping certain rewards, depending on how much they choose to pledge. Those pledging the minimum donation of $25 will receive the “Your Face in Space” benefit, where you will have you picture placed on the Arkyd and receive a picture of said photo the telescope with Earth in the background. Higher pledges will provide access to the telescope for students and researchers worldwide.

After less than 2 hours into their campaign, Planetary Resources had raised over $100,000. And as of this article’s writing, just one day shy of a week, the campaign has reached $710,945 of their $1 million goal, and they still have 27 days left. I guess people want a piece of this project. And who can blame them, since it is a scientific and historic first!

Check out the promotional video for the Arkyd and Planetary Resources below. To make a donation or get information about the Kickstarter campaign, visit the campaign page here.


Source:
universetoday.com