Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

The Future of Space: Building A Space Elevator!

space_elevator2Regularly scheduled trips to the Moon are one of many things science fiction promised us by the 21st century that did not immediately materialize. However, ideas are on the drawing board for making it happen in the coming decades. They include regular rocket trips, like those suggested by Golden Spike, but others have more ambitious plans. For example, there’s LiftPort – a company that hopes to build a space elevator straight to the Moon.

When he was working with NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts in the early 2000s, LiftPort President Michael Laine began exploring the idea of a mechanism that could get people and cargo to space while remaining tethered to Earth. And he is certainly not alone in exploring the potential, considering the potential cost-cutting measures it offers. The concept is pretty straightforward and well-explored within the realm of science fiction, at least in theory.

space_elevatorThe space elevator concept is similar to swinging a ball on a string, except it involves a tether anchored to the Earth that’s about 500 km long. The other end is in anchored in orbit, attached to a space station that keeps the tether taut. Anything that needs to be launched into space can simply be fired up the tether by a series of rocket-powered cars, which then dock with the station and then launched aboard a space-faring vessel.

Compared to using rockets to send everything into space, the cost using the elevator is far less (minus the one-time astronomical construction fee). And while the materials do not yet exist to construct 0ne, suggestions have been floated for a Lunar Elevator. Taking advantage of the Moon’s lower gravity, and using the Earth’s gravity well to stabilize the orbital anchor, this type of elevator could be built using existing materials.

space_elevator_lunar1One such person is Laine, who believes the capability exists to build an elevator that would reach from to the Moon to a distance of 238,000 km towards the Earth. Hence why, started two and a half years ago, he struck out to try and bring this idea to reality. The concept behind the Moon Elevator is still consistent with the ball on the string analogy, but it is a little more complicated because of the Moon’s slow orbit around the Earth.

The solution lies in Lagrangian points, which are places of gravitational equilibrium between two bodies. It’s here that the gravitational pull of both bodies are equal, and so they cancel each other out. Lagrangian point L1 is about 55,000 kilometers from the Moon, and that’s the one Laine hopes to take advantage of. After anchoring one end of the “string” on the Moon’s surface, it will extend to L1, then from L1 towards Earth.

lunar_space_elevatorAt the end of the string will be a counterweight made up of all the spent pieces of rocket that launched the initial mission to get the spike into the Moon. The counterweight will be in the right place for the Earth to pull on it gravitationally, but it will be anchored, through the Lagrange point, to the Moon. The force on both halves of the “string” will keep it taut. And that taut string will be a space elevator to the Moon.

What’s more, Laine claims that the Moon elevator can be built off-the-shelf, with readily available technology. A prototype could be built and deployed within a decade for as little as $800 million, he claims. It would be a small version exerting just a few pounds of force on the anchor on the Moon, but it would lay the groundwork for larger follow-up systems that could transport more cargo and eventually astronauts.

liftportTo demonstrate their concept, LiftPort is working on a proof-of-concept demonstration that will see a robot climb the tallest free­standing human structure in existence. This will consist of three large helium balloons held together on a tripod and a giant spool of Vectran fiber that is just an eighth of an inch think, but will be able to support 635 kilograms (1,400 pounds) and withstand strong winds.

Vectran is the same material was used by NASA to create the airbags that allowed the Spirit and Opportunity’s rovers to land on Mars. Since it gets stronger as it gets colder, it is ideal for this high altitude test, which will be LiftPort’s 15th experiment and the 20th robot to attempt an ascent. Laine doesn’t have a prospective date for when this test will happen, but insists it will take place once the company is ready.

LiftPort1Regardless, when the test is conducted, it will be the subject of a new documentary by Ben Harrison. Having learned about Liftport back in 2012 when he stumbled across their Kickstarter campaign, Harrison donated to the project and did a brief film segment about it for Engadget. Since that time, he has been filming Liftport’s ongoing story as part of a proposed documentary.

Much like Laine, Harrison and his team are looking for public support via Kickstarter so they can finish the documentary, which is entitled “Shoot the Moon”. Check out their Kickstarter page if feel like contributing. As of the time of writing, they have managed to raise a total of $14,343 of their $37,000 goal. And be sure to check out the promotional videos for the Liftport Group and Harrison’s documentary below:

Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure Overview:


Shoot the Moon – Teaser Trailer:


Sources:
 motherboard.vice.com
, lunarelevator.com

The Future of Smart Living: Smart Homes

Future-Home-Design-Dupli-CasaAt this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech trends to watch was the concept of the Smart Home. Yes, in addition to 4K televisions, curved OLEDs, smart car technology and wearables, a new breed of in-home technology that extends far beyond the living room made some serious waves. And after numerous displays and presentations, it seems that future homes will involve connectivity and seamless automation.

To be fair, some smart home devices – such as connected light bulbs and thinking thermostats – have made their way into homes already. But by the end of 2014, a dizzying array of home devices are expected to appear, communicating across the Internet and your home network from every room in the house. It’s like the internet of things meets modern living, creating solutions that are right at your fingertips (via your smartphone)

smarthomeBut in many ways, the companies on the vanguard of this movement are still working on drawing the map and several questions still loom. For example, how will your connected refrigerator and your connected light bulbs talk to each other? Should the interface for the connected home always be the cell phone, or some other wirelessly connect device.

Such was the topic of debate at this year’s CES Smart Home Panel. The panel featured GE Home & Business Solutions Manager John Ouseph; Nest co-founder and VP of Engineering Matt Rogers; Revolv co-founder and Head of Marketing Mike Soucie; Philips’ Head of Technology, Connected Lighting George Yianni; Belkin Director of Product Management Ohad Zeira, and CNET Executive Editor Rich Brown.

samsunglumenSpecific technologies that were showcased this year that combined connectivity and smart living included the Samsung Lumen Smart Home Control Panel. This device is basically a way to control all the devices in your home, including the lighting, climate control, and sound and entertainment systems. It also networks with all your wireless devices (especially if their made by Samsung!) to run your home even when your not inside it.

Ultimately, Samsung hopes to release a souped-up version of this technology that can be integrated to any device in the home. Basically, it would be connected to everything from the washer and dryer to the refrigerator and even household robots, letting you know when the dishes are done, the clothes need to be flipped, the best before dates are about to expire, and the last time you house was vacuumed.


As already noted, intrinsic to the Smart Home concept is the idea of integration to smartphones and other devices. Hence, Samsung was sure to develop a Smart Home app that would allow people to connect to all the smart devices via WiFi, even when out of the home. For example, people who forget to turn off the lights and the appliances can do so even from the road or the office.

These features can be activated by voice, and several systems can be controlled at once through specific commands (i.e. “going to bed” turns the lights off and the temperature down). Cameras also monitor the home and give the user the ability to survey other rooms in the house, keeping a remote eye on things while away or in another room. And users can even answer the phone when in another room.

Check out the video of the Smart Home demonstration below:


Other companies made presentations as well. For instance, LG previewed their own software that would allow people to connect and communicate with their home. It’s known as HomeChat, an app based on Natural Language Processing (NLP) that lets users send texts to their compatible LG appliances. It works on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Nokia Asha, and Windows Phone devices as well as OS X and Windows computers.

This represents a big improvement over last year’s Smart ThinQ, a set of similar application that were debuted at CES 2013. According to many tech reviewers, the biggest problem with these particular apps was the fact that each one was developed for a specific appliance. Not so with the HomeChat, which allows for wireless control over every integrated device in the home.

LGHomeChatAura, a re-imagined alarm clock that monitors your sleep patterns to promote rest and well-being. Unlike previous sleep monitoring devices, which monitor sleep but do not intervene to improve it, the Aura is fitted a mattress sensor that monitors your movements in the night, as well as a series of multi-colored LED light that “hack” your circadian rhythms.

In the morning, its light glows blue like daytime light, signaling you to wake up when it’s optimal, based upon your stirrings. At night, the LED glows orange and red like a sunset and turn itself off when you fall asleep. The designers hopes that this mix of cool and warm light can fill in where the seasons fall short, and coax your body into restful homeostasis.

aura_nightlightMeanwhile, the Aura will send your nightly sleep report to the cloud via Wi-Fi, and you can check in on your own rest via the accompanying smartphone app. The entire body is also touch-sensitive, its core LED – which are generally bright and piercing – is cleverly projected into an open air orb, diffusing the light while evoking the shape of the sun. And to deactivate the alarm, people need only trigger the sensor by getting out of bed.

Then there was Mother, a robotic wellness monitor produced by French inventor Rafi Haladjian. This small, Russian-doll shaped device is basically an internet base station with four sensors packs that track 15 different parts of your life. It is small enough to fit in your pocket to track your steps, affix to your door to act as a security alarm, and stick to your coffee maker to track how much you’re drinking and when you need more beans.

mother_robotAnd though the name may sound silly or tongue-in-cheek, it is central to Haladjian’s vision of what the “Internet of things” holds for us. More and more, smart and sensor-laden devices are manifesting as wellness accessories, ranging from fitness bands to wireless BP and heart rate monitors. But the problem is, all of these devices require their own app to operate. And the proliferation of devices is leading to a whole lot of digital clutter.

As Haladjian said in a recent interview with Co.Design:

Lots of things that were manageable when the number of smart devices was scarce, become unbearable when you push the limit past 10. You won’t be willing to change 50 batteries every couple of weeks. You won’t be willing to push the sync button every day. And you can’t bear to have 50 devices sending you notifications when something happens to them!

keekerAnd last, but not least, there was the Keecker – a robotic video projector that may just be the future of video entertainment. Not only is this robot able to wheel around the house like a Roomba, it can also sync with smartphones and display anything on your smart devices – from email, to photos, to videos. And it got a battery charge that lasts a week, so no cords are needed.

Designed by Pierre Lebeau, a former product manager at Google, the robot is programmed to follow its human owner from room to room like a little butler (via the smartphone app). It’s purpose is to create an immersive media environment by freeing the screen from its fixed spots and projecting them wherever their is enough surface space.


In this respect, its not unlike the Omnitouch or other projection smartscreens, which utilizes projectors and motion capture technology to allow people to turn any surface into a screen. The design even includes features found in other smart home devices – like the Nest smoke detector or the Spotter – which allow for the measuring of a home’s CO2 levels and temperature, or alerting users to unusual activity when they aren’t home.

Lebeau and his company will soon launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to finance bringing the technology to the open market. And though it has yet to launch, the cost of the robot is expected to be between $4000 and $5000.

Sources: cnet.com, (2), (3), (4), fastcodesign, (2), (3), (4)

The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Brain Scanner

openbciWhen it comes to cutting-edge technology in recent years, two areas of development have been taking the world by storm. On the one hand, there’s 3-D printing (aka. Additive Manufacturing) that is revolutionizing the way we fabricate things. On the other, there’s brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which are giving people the power to control machines with their minds and even transfer their thoughts.

And now, two inventors – Conor Russomanno and Joel Murphy – are looking to marry the two worlds in order to create the first, open-source brain scanner that people can print off at home. Thanks to funding from DARPA, the two men printed off their first prototype headset this past week. It’s known as the OpenBCI, and it’s likely to make brain scanning a hell of a lot more affordable in the near future.

openbci1It includes a mini-computer that plugs into sensors on a black, skull-grabbing piece of plastic called the “Spider Claw 3000,” which can be created with a 3-D printer. Assembled, it operates as a low-cost electroencephalography (EEG) brainwave scanner that connects to a PC, compared to  high-grade EEG machines used by laboratories and researchers that cost thousands of dollars.

But over the past few years, cheaper models have been made by companies like Emotiv, which have in turn allowed a new era of DIY brain hackers to conduct brainwaves experiments. Since that time, everything from games, computer interfaces, personal tracking tools, and self-directed mind enhancement have been available to regular people.

openbci2But Russomanno and Murphy felt the community needed a completely open-source platform if it was truly going to take off – hence the OpenBCI. The hardware to build the headset can be ordered from the company, while the software to run it is available through GitHub, a popular code sharing site. Once procured, people will have the ability to print off, program, and adjust their own personal brain scanning device.

According to Russomanno, the greatest asset of the headset (aside from the price) is the freedom it gives to brain hackers to put their EEG probes anywhere they like:

You don’t want to limit yourself to looking to just a few places on the scalp. You can target up to 64 locations on the scalp with a maximum of 16 electrodes at a time.

As it stands, Russomanno and Murphy have built the prototype headset, but still need to raise money to build the mini-computer that it plugs into. To accomplish this, the two inventors launched a Kickstarter project to fund the development of the Arduino-compatible hardware. Last week, they reached their goal of $100,000, and expect to ship their first systems in March.

openbci3The current design of the hardware, which looks more like a hexagonly-shaped circuit board than a computer, is their third incarnation. In addition to being smaller and Adruino-compatible, the third version is also programmable via Bluetooth and has a port for an SD card. When the hardware starts shipping, Russomanno expects it to kick off a new round of experimentation:

We’ve got about 300 people that have already donated to receive the board. If you’re willing to spend $300 for a piece of technology, you’re definitely going to build something with it.

One of the hallmarks of technological revolutions is the ability to make the technology scalable and more affordable. In this way, its benefits (aka. returns) are able to multiply and expand. And with the help of open-source devices like these that people can create on 3-D printers (which are also dropping in prices) the returns on mind-controlled devices are likely to grow exponentially in the coming years.

In short, the age of mind-controlled machinery may be just around the corner. Good to know they will be obeying us and not the other way around!


Sources:
wired.com, kickstarter.com

Towards a Cleaner Future: Solar and Wind Drones

solar_cell_galliumWith supplies of easily accessible fossil fuels diminishing, pushing us towards dirtier sources of oil and natural gas (such as tar sands and frakking), researchers are looking for ways to make renewable energy more efficient and accessible. Towards this end, they are pushing the boundaries of solar cells and wind turbines are capable of, but the constraints of land and weather limit where vast solar or wind farms can be set up.

Luckily, a UK-based company known as New Wave Energy has spent the last few years developing the technology to produce an army of power-generating drone aircraft to overcome these very problems. Basically, each craft is a 20x20m (65ft) flat surface fitted with solar panels and turbines to generate power from the sun and wind, and four small propellers that keep it aloft.

solar_dronesThe drones would be capable of flying at altitudes of up to 15,240 meters (50,000 feet), putting them far above the clouds that can obscure the sun. The propellers would allow the craft to track the course of the sun to remain in optimal position for as long as possible. At these altitudes, the wind is also more consistent and powerful, which means smaller turbines can be used in place of the giant towers necessary down near the ground.

In terms of transmitting that power, the key is in the use of microwaves. In essence, power from the drones would be beamed down as a low-energy microwave and collected by antenna arrays on the ground. These antennas can then be used to turn the electromagnetic radiation into usable DC power and then send it to where it is needed.

solar_drones1One of the benefits of this design is that the proposed drone power plants wouldn’t need to land to refuel themselves. Supposedly, they will be able to power themselves entirely with the energy generated on-board, and still produce 50kW of power. This that means several thousand drones would be needed to power a large city of 205,000 homes.

However, these swarms of robotic power plants aren’t just a way to replace the power infrastructure we already have. They could be used to augment our current power supplies as demand increases, removing the need to expand on large, expensive power plants. Also, they bring power to remote areas with poor service, or to restore power in regions affected by natural disasters.

solar_panelThus, the cost of building and deploying the drones will determine whether or not that’s feasible. At present, the company plans to raise about $500,000 on Kickstarter to fund the construction of a prototype for testing and marketing. If this campaign does turn out to be successful, the first flying power plant could be aloft within six months.

Combined with other improvements that are making wind and solar power more efficient and affordable, and future prospects for space-based solar power (SBSP) that are being made possible thanks to space startups like Google X, we could be looking at a near-future where solar and wind meet the lion’s share of our energy requirements.

Source: extremetech.com

The Future is Here: Smarty Rings

smarty-ringsOkay, its not exactly here yet, but the implications of this idea could be a game changer. It’s known as the Smarty Ring, a crowdfunded idea being advertised on Indiegogo by a group of inventors in Chennai, India. And at its core is a waterproof, stainless steel band that will feature an LED screen and connect to your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology.

For some time now, the Chennai-based group has been the source of some controversy, due mainly to the fact that they have no working prototypes of the ring, but also because they have not identified themselves beyond giving their location. They also freely admit that the photos of the Smarty Ring on Indiegogo and on their website are photoshopped.

smarty-rings1Surprisingly, this has not prevented them from being able to mount their campaign to raise money for its development. While the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has rules requiring creators to be clear about the state of a project’s development and show a prototype “demonstrating the product’s current functionality,” Indiegogo has no such rules.

However, this has not stopped their campaign – which officially closed at 11:00 am ET on Dec.11th, 2013 – from raising a total of $299,349 from their original goal of $40,000. Numerous blueprints of what the watch would look like, including detailed images of its electronics, are also available on their campaign page. What’s more, the group is still taking advanced orders and offering discount pricing to anyone who orders one before Dec.30th.

smarty-rings3Also, the group has become much less clandestine since the campaign closed. In response to questions, group spokesperson Karthik said the project was founded by Chennai-based mechatronics engineer Ashok Kumar, and that their team of inventors includes electronic and computer engineers with experience in robotics and nanotechnology.

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to create a high-tech gadget that would also double as “high-end fashion jewelry,” according to an email to CBC News from the team’s marketing director, Karthik, who did not give his last name. The group also claims on their website that the average smartphone user checks their phone every six minutes, and promises to make that unnecessary, saving time and the battery life of the smartphone.

smarty-rings4According to the The Smarty Ring’s site, the features are to include:

  • A clock with stop watch, timer and alarm
  • Notifications of calls, text and email messages, and social networking updates from services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Skype
  • Phone controls that let users accept or reject incoming calls, make outgoing calls to preset numbers, and control music or the phone’s camera
  • A phone tracking feature that beeps when your phone gets more than nine meters away from you
  • The ring charges wirelessly and its creators guarantee 24 hours of battery life

The Smarty Ring team says the retail price for the device will be $275, but backers and people who preorder before Dec.30th will be able to get one at the reduced price of $175. They estimate that delivery will begin sometime in April of 2014. They are also offering cheaper versions that include only the tracking feature or the clock and tracking features.

smarty-rings5Needless to say, if this is a scam, it is clearly a well-thought out and elaborate one. Not only is the idea of a smart ring that can connect wirelessly to other devices and do the job of a smartphone entirely within the bounds of current and developing technology, its a very cool idea. But if it is in fact real, its realization could mean a new wave of innovation and design for the smart devices market.

Currently, designers and developers are working towards the creation of smartwatches, smartphones, tablets and phablets that are not only smaller and much thinner, but also flexible and transparent. An even smaller device, such as a ring or bracelet, that can do the same job but be far more ergonomic, may be just what the market ordered!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this promotional video from the Smarty Ring website. And be sure to check out their website and determine for yourself if they are liars, inventors, or just plain dreamers:


Sources:
cbc.ca, indiegogo.com

The Future is Here: The Copenhagen Wheel

copenhagen_wheelFans of the cable show Weeds ought to instantly recognize this invention. It was featured as a product invented by one of the characters while living (predictably) in Copenhagen. In addition, it was the subject of news stories, articles, design awards, and a whole lot of public interest. People wanted to get their hands on it, and for obvious reasons.

It’s known as the Copenhagen Wheel, a device invented by MIT SENSEable City Lab back in 2009 to electrify the bicycle. Since that time, engineers at MIT have been working to refine it in preparation for the day when it would be commercially available. And that time has come, as a new company called Superpedestrian announced that it has invested $2.1 million in venture capital to make the device available to the public.

copenhagen_wheel1Superpedestrian founder Assaf Biderman, who is also the SENSEable City lab associate director and one of the creators of the wheel, along with lab director Carlo Ratti, had this to say:

The project touched an exposed nerve somehow. Aside from news coverage and design awards, people were wanting it. Over 14,000 people emailed saying ‘I want to buy it, sell it, make it for you.

Three years after inventing it, Biderman finally decided that it was time to spin off a company to make it happen. MIT filed all the relevant patents, and Superpedestrian acquired exclusive licenses to the Copenhagen Wheel technology. And by late November, they plan to launch the wheel to the public for the very first time.

copenhagen_wheel2And though the much of the facts are being carefully guarded in preparation for the release, some details are already known. For example, the wheel can be fitted to almost any bike, is controlled by sensors in the peddles, and has a power assist feature that doesn’t require any work on the part of the rider. And according to Biderman, its range “will cover the average suburban commute, about 15 miles to and from work and back home.”

On top of that, a regenerative braking system stores energy for later use in a lithium battery. The wheel also comes with an app that allows users to control special features from their smartphone. These include being able to lock and unlock the bike, select motor assistance, and get real-time data about road conditions. An open-source platform called The Superpedestrian SDK also exists to allow developers to make on their own apps.

smartwheelrotatingInterestingly enough,the Copenhagen Wheel also has a rival, who’s appearance on the market seems nothing short of conspiratorial. Its competitor, the FlyKly Smart Wheel, a device which has raised over $150,000 on Kickstarter so far. It is extremely similar to the Copenhagen Wheel in most respects, from its electrical assistance to the fact that it can be integrated via smartphone.

According to Biderman, the appearance of the Smart Wheel is just a coincidence, though it is similar to their product. And her company really doesn’t have to worry about competition, since the Copenhagen Wheel has years of brand recognition and MIT name behind it. In terms of the the target audience, Biderman says that they are looking at targeting city dwellers as well as cyclists:

If you’re an urbanite, you can use it to move all around, and go as far as the edges of most cities with this quite easily. You overcome topographical challenges like hills. The point is to attract more people to cycling.

Though no indication has been given how much an individual unit will cost, it is expected to have a price point that’s competitive with today’s e-bikes.

copenhagen_wheel3The FlyKly Smart Wheel, by comparison, can be pre-ordered for $550 apiece. In total, that campaign has raised $301,867 (their original goal was $100,000) since opening on Oct. 16th. As a result, they have been able to reach their first “stretch goal” of producing a 20″ wheel. If they can reach $500,000 before the campaign closes on Nov. 25th, they will be able to deliver on their other goals: a motor brake and a glow in the dark casing.

For some time, designers and engineers have been trying to find ways to make alternative transportation both effective and attractive. Between these designs and a slew of others that will undoubtedly follow, it looks like e-bicycling may be set to fill that void. Combined with electric cars, self-driving cars, hydrogen cars, robotaxis, podcars, and high speed trains, we could be looking at the revolution in transit that we’ve been waiting for.

Sources: fastcoexist.com(2), kickstarter.com