The Future is Here: The Factory in a Box

factory_box3-D Printing has proven itself quite useful when it comes to creating components, toys, and models. But when it comes to assembling complicated parts, or full-on products, other machines are often necessary. That’s where the Microfactory comes in, a veritable “multi-tool” machine that merges the best of 3-D printing and machining.

Being touted as “a machine shop in a box”, the creators of the device (the Mebotics company) were inspired to create this multi-tool kit after collaborating at the Boston-area Artisans Asylum. Artisans Asylum is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting hobbyists, artisans, fabricators and entrepreneurs through a series of open maker space presentations.

factory_box2In addition, the team was also inspired by the fact that most manufacturing systems suffer from two major downfalls: noise and mess. By “closing the system”, as they put it, they eliminated both hassles while still ensuring that their device is capable of both producing tailor-made objects and altering them to order.

The Microfactory dramatically expands the range of products a person with no other equipment could make. It is basically able to 3-D print in four colors, out of multiple materials, and also etch, and mill the final products. This process, which combines machining and printing, is what the makers refer to as “hybrid manufacturing.”

3D-printing-in-spaceAs Co-founder of Mebotics, Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, explains:

I wanted to have a machine that was capable of making parts for all the crazy stuff people people would ask me [to make]. I wanted a tool that would allow me to do a whole wide range of things.

As Fryer-Biggs and the team envision it, the Microfactory could also offer users the ability to create devices and components where they are needed, regardless of the location. With a fully-functional computer incorporated to provide the blueprints, they foresee some extreme scenarios where objects could be created and finished where no stores are available:

You’re at base camp in the Himalayas, you’re in the middle of Afghanistan and you wanna make a part. So you connect this thing to a Wi-Fi hotspot–if you have a Wi-Fi card in the machine that you put in. You can then download from the server whatever the replacement part is you need, and in the middle of nowhere, get your replacement.

3d_ISSThis vision is in keeping with what many scientific organizations – such as NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies – are foreseeing. Already, such devices are being considered for use on the International Space Station and on future space missions, where astronauts will always be in need of specialized tools and may not have the ability to have them shipped out to them.

The team currently has several working prototypes but is planning to bring the project to market by raising $1 million through Kickstarter. MicroFactory units are being pre-sold for between $4,000 and $10,000 in several models. Though the team admits that the price is high, the science fiction appeal alone is well worth it! As Marie Staver, a project manager on the team, put it: “The science fiction future is officially here.”

Couldn’t agree more. And in the meantime, check out this video of the Microfactory in action:

Sources: fastcoexist.com, mebotics.com, artisansasylum.com

Detroit’s New Robocop Statue

robocop-statue-2Some of you may recall how a few years back, a group of Detroit citizens began talking about erecting a statue of Robocop in their fair city. At the time, Detroit’s Mayor David Bing shot the idea down, eventually referring to it as “silly”. This led to a campaign that was dedicated to making the statue happen, and after three years, it looks like they are finally going to get their wish.

In addition to a promotional video starring Peter Weller (Robocop himself), a Kickstarter campaign was mounted to fund the statue’s creation. The campaign was launched back in 2011 by the group known as Imagination Station, a Detroit nonprofit specializing in art and renovation. Within 45 days, they had raised over $67,000, thanks to public donations but also from an unexpected source.

ROBOCOP-Concept-Art-Image-02 As the story goes, Brandon Walley – director of development at the Imagination Station – received a call from Pete Hottelet, the founder of Omni Consumer Products (OCP). As anyone who’s seen Robocop knows, this is the name of the evil megacorporation at the center of the RoboCop universe. But in this case, OCP specializes in selling real-world versions of products seen in popular movies and TV shows.

Apparently, Hottelet had contacted Mayor Bing’s office and was told outright that the city was not involved in any such project. He then called Walley, got the low-down on their intentions to go ahead with creating one anyway, and agreed to match the money they raised. After six days and $25,000 raised, Hottelet cut them a cheque for the same amount. Thirty nine-days later, they had the remaining ten grand they needed, and then some.

robocop_concept_art_walkerAnd as I recently learned, back in May production began on the statue right here in British Columbia by Across the Board Creations, a studio that specialized in 3D models, props, and artistic recreations. This past Wednesday, the finished product arrived in a crate at the Imagination Station, and photos have began to circulate of the finished product.

The Imagination Station in Detroit has offered a place on its property at Roosevelt Park to install the 10-foot-tall statue, which has now been cast and is headed to Venus Bronze Works in Detroit to be bronzed. And as you can see from the photo (see below), it is rather large, detailed, and pretty badass! Plans have already been made to erect the statue in 2014, just in time for the Robocop movie relaunch.

Robocop_concept_art_UAVYou may also notice I’ve peppered concept art for the movie throughout. These include Robocop’s new sidearm, OCP’s ED-209 Assault Walker, and the XT-908 Area Drone. Clearly, they are looking to merge elements of the original with a more model feel, going beyond mere cyborgs, walkers and corporate greed to include unmanned aerial surveillance and the motif of a police state.

Pretty badass, huh?
Pretty badass, huh?

And be sure to check out Peter Weller’s hilarious promotional video for the statue, plus the trailer for the Robocop relaunch. Enjoy!


Sources: blastr.com, motherjones.com, kickstarter.com, acrosstheboardcreations.com

Glowing Plants and the Future of Gene Patenting

DNA-1Synthetic biology – also known as biohacking – is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences. And thanks to a recent ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court, it is a process which is now entirely legal. All told, the potential applications of synthetic biology are largely useful, leading to lifesaving cures, or altered crops that survive in any environment.

However, there are numerous potential (and potentially harmful) commercial applications that could emerge from this as well. One such advancement comes from a DIY synthetic biology lab known as Glowing Plant, one that specializes in synthetic bio hacking. Basically, the project was one of many that emerged out of Singularity University – a research institute dedicated future technologies today.

glowing_plantsGlowing Plant was  originally created to show the power of DIY synthetic biology, and has since sets its sights on developing a species of glowing house plant for consumers. To fund their goal, they opened up a Kickstarter campaign – the first of its kind – with the goal of $65,000. Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promised backers that they would receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home.

glowing_plants2Glowing Plant also announced that if the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available. As of the publication of this article, they passed that goal with a whopping $484,013 from a total of 8,433 backers. It seems there are no shortage of people out there who want to get their hands on a glowing house plant.

But Glowing Plant, the laboratory behind the project, has no intention of stopping there. As Antony Evans, co-founder of the project explained:

We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects. People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology.

Given the thousands of people backing the project, I’d say he’s right! But rest assured, Evans and his team have no intention of stopping there. The ultimate goal is to create larger species of glowing plants.

glowing_plants1The method used to achieve this is really quite interesting. It starts with the team downloading the luciferase-lucifern genes – the firefly DNA that allows them to glow – into a Genome Compiler, and then rewiring the DNA so that the proteins can be read by plants. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper, and mailed back to the team.

After that, the team relies on one of two methods to transmit the firefly DNA into the Arabidopsis’ themselves. One way is to use a bacteria solution that is capable of injecting its own DNA into plants and rewriting theirs, which then causes the altered plants to germinate seeds of the new glowing strain. The other involves gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct that are then fired at the plant cells, which are then absorbed into the plant chromosomes and alters their DNA.

NanoparticlesThis second method was devised to do an end run around specific Department of Agriculture regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA. Though technically legal, the process has attracted resistance from environmental groups and the scientific community, fearing that the DNA of these altered plants will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences.

In fact, an anti-synthetic biology group called ECT has emerged in response to this and other such projects – and is centered in my old hometown of Ottawa! They have countered Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign (which is now closed) with a fundraising drive of their own, entitled “Kickstopper”. In addition, the group has started a campaign on Avaaz.org to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling that allows this sort of bioengineering to take place.

At present, their fundraising campaign has raised a total of  $1,701 from 58 backers – rougly 9% of its overall goal of $20,000 – and their Avaaz campaign has collected some 13,000 signatures. With 36 days left, there is no telling if they’re efforts will succeed in forcing a legal injunction on Glowing Plant, or if this is the first of many synthetic biology products that will make it to the market through private research and crowdfunding.

A fascinating time we live in, and potentially frightening…

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

The Future of the Classroom

virtual_learning2As an educator, technological innovation is a subject that comes up quite often. Not only are teachers expected to keep up with trends so they can adapt them into their teaching strategies, classrooms,and prepare children in how to use them, they are also forced to contend with how these trends are changing the very nature of education itself. If there was one thing we were told repeatedly in Teacher’s College, it was that times are changing, and we must change along with them.

And as history has repeatedly taught us, technological integration not only changes the way we do things, but the way we perceive things. As we come to be more and more dependent on digital devices, electronics and wireless communications to give us instant access to a staggering amount of technology, we have to be concerned with how this will effect and even erode traditional means of information transmission. After all, how can reading and lecture series’ be expected to keep kid’s attention when they are accustomed to lighting fast videos, flash media, and games?

envisioning-the-future-of-education

And let’s not forget this seminal infographic, “Envisioning the future of educational technology” by Envisioning Technology. As one of many think tanks dedicated to predicting tech-trends, they are just one of many voices that is predicting that in time, education will no longer require the classroom and perhaps even teachers, because modern communications have made the locale and the leader virtually obsolete.

Pointing to such trends as Massive Open Online Courses, several forecasters foresee a grand transformation in the not too distant future where all learning happens online and in virtual environments. These would be based around “microlearning”, moments where people access the desired information through any number of means (i.e. a google search) and educate themselves without the need for instruction or direction.

virtual_learning3The technical term for this future trend is Socialstructured Learning = an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. This trend may very well be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education–from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey–talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. The only difference is that today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

One such tool comes in the form of augmented reality displays, which are becoming more and more common thanks to devices like Google Glass, the EyeTap or the Yelp Monocle. Simply point at a location, and you are able to obtain information you want about various “points of interest”. Imagine then if you could do the same thing, but instead receive historic, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

virtual_learningThis is the reasoning behind projects like HyperCities, a project from USC and UCLA that layers historical information on actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. The Smithsonian also has a free app called Leafsnap, which allows people to identify specific strains of trees and botany by simply snapping photos of its leaves.

In many respects, it reminds me of the impact these sorts of developments are having on politics and industry as well. Consider how quickly blogging and open source information has been supplanting traditional media – like print news, tv and news radio. Not only are these traditional sources unable to supply up-to-the-minute information compared to Twitter, Facebook, and live video streams, they are subject to censorship and regulations the others are not.

Attractive blonde navigating futuristic interfaceIn terms of industry, programs like Kickstarter and Indiegogo – crowdsources, crowdfunding, and internet-based marketing – are making it possible to sponsor and fund research and development initiatives that would not have been possible a few years ago. Because of this, the traditional gatekeepers, aka. corporate sponsors, are no longer required to dictate the pace and advancement of commercial development.

In short, we are entering into a world that is becoming far more open, democratic, and chaotic. Many people fear that into this environment, someone new will step in to act as “Big Brother”, or the pace of change and the nature of the developments will somehow give certain monolithic entities complete control over our lives. Personally, I think this is an outmoded fear, and that the real threat comes from the chaos that such open control and sourcing could lead to.

Is humanity ready for democratic anarchy – aka. Demarchy (a subject I am semi-obsessed with)? Do we even have the means to behave ourselves in such a free social arrangement? Opinion varies, and history is not the best indication. Not only is it loaded with examples of bad behavior, previous generations didn’t exactly have the same means we currently do. So basically, we’re flying blind… Spooky!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, envisioningtech.com

Judgement Day Update: Robots for Kids

kids_robotRobots are penetrating into every aspect of life, from serving coffee and delivering books to cleaning up messes and fighting crime. In fact, the International Federation of Robotics reported that worldwide sales of robots topped $8.5 billion in 2011, totaling an estimated 166,028 robots sold. And with all the advances being made in AI and musculoskeletal robots, its only likely to get worse.

Little wonder then why efforts are being made to ensure that robots can effectively integrate into society. On the one hand, there’s the RoboEarth Cloud Engine, known as Rapyuta, that will make information sharing possible between machines to help them make sense of the world. On the other, there’s items like this little gem. It’s called the Romo, and its purpose is to teach your kids about robotics in a friendly, smiling way.

romo2Scared yet? Well don’t be just yet. While some might think this little dude is putting a happy face on the coming robocalypse, the creators have stated that real purpose behind it is to inspire a new, younger generation of engineers and programmers who can help solve some of the world’s technical problems in areas like health care and disaster relief.

Created by Las Vegas-based startup Romotive, this little machine uses the computing power of iOS devices as his brain. Basically, this means that you can remotely control the bot with your smartphone. Simply plug it in to the robot’s body and activate the app, and you get his blue, smiling face. Designed for use by kids, its program comes down to a simple series of if-then dependencies.

romo1In short, Romo can be programmed to recognize faces and respond to visual or auditory clues. The most common reaction is a smile, but the Romo can also looked surprised and doe-eyed. And with regular app and software updates, the Romo is predicted to get smarter and more sophisticated with time.

To realize their goal of creating a child-friendly robot, the company launched a campaign on Kickstarter back in October of 2011 with a goal of raising the $32,000 they would. After less than two years, they have received a total of 1,152 donations totaling some $114,796. Available in stores, at $149 a pop (smartphone not included), the makers hope that Romo will become the first truly personal robot.

Still, never too soon to start your Judgement Day planning. Stock up on EMPs and ammo, it’s going to be a rough Robopocalypse! And be sure to check out the company website by clicking here.

terminator1Source: fastcoexist.com, kickstarter.com

The Future is Here: The 3D-printed Robotic Hand

robotic_handThe field of robotic has been advancing by leaps and bounds in recent years, especially where robotic limbs and prosthetics are concerned. But until recently, cost has remained an issue. With top of the line bionic limbs – like the BeBionic which costs up to $35,000 = most amputees simply can’t afford them. Little surprise then why there are many efforts to create robotic limbs that are both cheaper and more accessible.

Last month, DARPA announced the creation of a robotic hand that could perform complex tasks, and which was made using cheap electronic components. And then there’s Robohand, the online group that creates 3D-printed robotic hands for children with a free, open-source 3D-printing pattern available on Thingiverse for people who wish to make their own.

robotic_hand2

And now, Christopher Chappell of the U.K. wants to do take things a step further with his “Anthromod”. Using Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, he has started a campaign for a 3D-printed robotic hand that is a little bit more sophisticated than the Robohand, but would cost around $450. In short, the proposed design offers the ambulatory ability of a bionic limb, but at a cost that is far more affordable.

To break it down, the arm uses a tendon system of elastic bands with the movement being provided by five Hobby Servos, which are in turn built out of off-the-shelf electronics. Wearers will be able to move all four of the units fingers, thumb and wrist, once the sensors have been calibrated, and the software to control the hand and EEG sensors is available online for free. This all adds up to a unit that is not only more affordable, but easy to assemble, repair and maintain.

robotic_hand3On their Kickstarter page, Chappell describes his campaign and their long-term goals:

Our Kickstarter campaign is to develop a humanoid robotic hand and arm that is of far lower cost than any other available. We believe that this will open up robotics to a far wider market of makers and researchers than has ever been possible. This should then trigger an explosion of creativity in the areas of robotics, telepresence and ultimately prosthetics.

Much like the InMoov, a 3D printed android with limited function, the Anthromod represents an age of robotics that are accessible to the public. And with time, its not hard to imagine an entire line of enhancements and robotics, such as household servants and cybernetic components, that could be manufactured in-house, provided you’re willing to shell out the money for a industrial-sized 3D printer!

To check out the Anthromod website, click here. And be sure to check out the video below of their hand in action.

Note: As of this article’s writing, Chappell and his colleagues passed their goal of £10,000 and reached a whopping total of £12,086 (18,808 dollars US). Congratulations folks!


Sources:
news.cnet.com, kickstarter.com