Powered by the Sun: Breakthrough Solar Cells

solar1In addition to becoming cheaper, and increasing in efficiency and yields, solar cell technology is also growing in terms of innovative design. By going beyond the conventional design of silicon panels and electrical cables, researchers are ensuring that solar technology can go farther. And the latest advances in design are especially far-sighted, aiming to merge solar technology with just about any surface, and even sending it into space.

In the former case, researchers at Michigan State University have created a fully transparent solar concentrator, which could turn any window or sheet of glass – from highrise buildings to the screens on smartphones and tablets – into a photovoltaic solar cell. And whereas other “transparent” solar panels have been designed in the past, this one is the first that truly lives up to the word.

transparent-solar-cellScientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons and converting them into electrons. If a material is transparent, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent, and usually cast a colorful shadow.

To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell, they used a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible).

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/transparent-luminescent-solar-concentrator-colorful.jpgThis emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. Currently, the Michigan TLSC has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 5% should be possible. On their own, these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale — every window in a house or office block — the numbers quickly add up to a significant electrical yield.

Moreover, the researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled all the way from large industrial and commercial applications, down to consumer devices, while remaining “affordable.” So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels. But if large amounts of solar power can be produced from sheets of glass and plastic, it would go a long way to making the scaling process feasible.

solar_panel_origamiAnother major innovation comes from Brigham Young University, where researchers have been working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to address the challenge of Space-Based Solar Power. For some time, scientists have understood that a solar array in orbit of Earth would be ideally suited for solar power collection, since it would be immune to weather, cloud cover or diurnal cycles (aka. nighttime).

Unfortunately, getting solar cells into space is a bit of a problem. In order to be effective, solar panels need to be thin have a large surface area to soak up more rays. This makes it difficult to transport them into orbit, and requires that they be broken down,and flown up piece by piece, and then assembled once in orbit. Given the cost of mounting a sending a single rocket into orbit, this prospect becomes very costly very fast.

solar_panel_origami1However, the Brigham team came up with a simple and elegant solution to this problem, and found it in the form of origami. By working with complex origami folds, they were able to design a solar array that can shrink down to one-tenth of its original size. Folded up, the device is 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) across and can easily wrap around a spacecraft. Once it reaches space, the array would then unfold to become as wide as 25 meters (82 feet).

Given that solar panels deal with large, flat, thin structures, the origami concept seems like a natural fit. And this is not the first time that it has been used in space equipment design – in the 1990’s, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura created a prototype for another folding solar panel. However, that project was abandoned for various reasons, not the least of which was lack of funding.

space-solar-headTo make the concept work and renew interest in the application, he Brigham team worked with Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert who also happens to be a mathematician and engineer and once worked at JPL himself. As Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

He was trained as a physicist, used to work at JPL, and then got tired of the formal bureaucracy and left to start folding paper. Now he’s a world expert… We see value in going directly to any artist, even if they don’t have his credentials, because they have the thousands of hours or folding and tinkering to realize what can and can’t be done. Anytime you can bring in other disciplines, they just visualize things differently and bring in different solutions to your problems.

The new solar panels could be used to power spacecraft and potentially also on orbiting power stations that could wirelessly send energy to Earth via microwaves. A similar design could also be used on Earth to provide new options for portable solar power in remote locations. The same type of design might also be used in architecture or product design because of its unusual looks and function.

NASA_suntowerAccording to Trease, the Department of Defense has already been in touch with them regarding applications for soldiers in the field:

Soldiers right now might carry around 100 pounds, 15 of those pounds are batteries and fuel. If you can eliminate that, you’ve dramatically reduced their load… It’s different from opening an umbrella, because it can accommodate rigid material. You could do something like a deployable glass chandelier or a table. When it’s deployed, it looks like a flower blooming–it’s got a nice aesthetic to it.

In the next few weeks, Trease will also meet with other experts to consider different potential applications for space equipment, like antennas and reflectors, that could also deploy using origami. And given the rapidly-dropping prices associated with placing objects into orbit, this could prove to be the basis for the dream of Space-Based Solar Power – where all our energy needs are met by solar arrays in orbit that then beam them to Earth.

 

Source: extremetech.com, fastcoexist.com

News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):


Sources:
nasa.gov, extremetech.com, techtimes.com

The Future is Here: Flexible, Paper Thin Ultra-HD Screens

amoledThe explosion in computing and personal devices in recent years has led to a world where we are constantly surrounded by displays. Whether they belong to personal computers, laptops, smartphones, LCDs, PDAs, or MP3 players, there is no shortage to the amount of screens we can consult. In turn, this proliferation has led computer scientists and engineers to address a number of imperfections these displays have.

For instance, some of these displays don’t work in direct sunlight or are subject to glare. Others are horridly energy-inefficient and will drain their battery life very quickly. Some don’t have high-definition, rich color, and can’t display true black color. Just about all of them are rigid, and all can be broken given a solid enough impact. Luckily, a new age of flexible, ultra-HD screens are on the way that promise to resolve all of this.

amoled-display-3The first examples of this concept were rolled out at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, where Samsung unveiled its revolutionary new AMOLED display on a number of devices. This was followed up in September of 2012 when Nokia unveiled its Kinetic Device at the World Nokia Conference in London. Both devices showcased displays that could bend and flex, and were followed by concept videos produced by electronic giants Sony, 3M and Microsoft.

Since that time, numerous strides have been taken to improve on the technology before it hits the open market. In research published earlier this month in Nature, scientists describe what may be the first steps toward creating a new type of ultrathin, superfast, low-power, high-resolution, flexible color screen. If successful, these displays could combine some of the best features of current display technologies.

ultra-thin-displayThe new displays work with familiar materials, including the metal alloy already used to store data on some CDs and DVDs. The key property of these materials is that they can exist in two states – when warmed by heat, light, or electricity, they switch from one state to the other. Scientists call them phase-change materials (PCMs); and as Alex Kolobov, a researcher at Japan’s Nanoelectronics Research Institute who was not involved in the new work, explains:

It is really fascinating that phase-change materials, now widely used in optical and nonvolatile electronic memory devices, found a potentially new application in display technology.

A PCM display would work similar to the electronic paper used in products like Amazon’s Kindle reader. Both are made by sandwiching a material that has two states, one lighter and one darker, in between layers of transparent conductors. The inner material is a viscous black oil filled with tiny white titanium balls. To make a pixel black or white, a current is run through a tiny area of the glass to either pull the reflective balls to the front, or cause them to recede.

gst-phase-change-nanopixel-display-640x352In a PCM display, the inner material is a substance made of silicon’s heavier cousins: germanium, antimony, and tellurium. The two states of this material (known as GST) are actually two different phases of matter: one an ordered crystal and the other a disordered glass. To switch between them, current pulses are used to melt a tiny column, and either cooled gently to make the crystal or rapidly to make the glass.

This cycle can be done remarkably quickly, more than 1 million times per second. That speed could be a big advantage in consumer products. While scrolling on a Kindle can be terribly slow because the screen only refreshes once per second, the refresh rate on a PCM display would be fast enough to play movies, stream videos, and perform all the tasks people routinely do with their devices.

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/nanopixelspr.jpgTo make the new displays, the research team – led by Harish Bhaskaran, a nanoscale manufacturing expert from Oxford University – used a 35-year-old machine developed by the semiconductor industry. They then laid down three layers that were a few nanometers thick of conducting glass, GST, and another layer of conducting glass. Then they used current from the tip of an atomic force microscope to draw pictures on the surface.

These images included everything from a Japanese print of a tidal wave to fleas and antique cars – each one smaller than the width of a human hair. With this sort of flexible, ultra-high resolution screen, a PCM display could be made into everything from a bendable laptop and personal device to a programmable contact lens — like Apple’s Retina Display, except that it would actually fit on your retina.

https://i2.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/lg-display-oled-2.jpgTurning this technology into products will require years of labor and hundreds of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, Bhaskaran and his colleagues are optimistic. The electronics industry has lots of experience with all the components, so there are plenty of well-known tricks to try to improve this first draft. And they are hardly alone in their efforts to bring flexible displays to market.

For instance, LG unveiled their new line of flexible OLED TVs at CES earlier this year. Now, they are taking things a step further with the unveiling of two new 18-inch OLED panels, the first of which is a transparent display, while the second can be rolled up. Although both fall short of the 77-inch flexible TV on show at CES, the company says the new panels prove that it has the technology to bring rollable TVs with screens in excess of 50 inches to market in the future.

lg-display-oledUnlike their 77-inch flexible TV that has a fairly limited range of changeable curvature, LG Display’s latest flexible OLED panel can be rolled up into a cylinder with a radius of 3 cm (1.18 in) without the function of the 1,200 x 810 pixel display being affected. This is made possible though the use of a high molecular substance-based polyimide film to create the backplane, rather than conventional plastic .

The transparent OLED panel, on the other hand, was created using LG Display’s transparent pixel design technology. With transmittance of 30 percent, the company says the panel is superior to existing transparent LCD panels that generally achieve around 10 to 15 percent transmittance. LG Display claims to have also reduced the haze of the panel, caused by circuit devices and film components, to just 2 percent.

https://i1.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/lg-display-oled-1.jpgAs In-Byung Kang, Senior Vice President and Head of the R&D Center at LG Display, explained:

LG Display pioneered the OLED TV market and is now leading the next-generation applied OLED technology. We are confident that by 2017, we will successfully develop an Ultra HD flexible and transparent OLED panel of more than 60 inches, which will have transmittance of more than 40 percent and a curvature radius of 100R, thereby leading the future display market.

Granted, it will be still be a few years and several hundred million dollars before such displays become the norm for computers and all other devices. However, the progress that is being made is quite impressive and with all the electronics megagiants committed to making it happen, an age where computing and communications are truly portable and much more survivable is likely just around the corner.

Sources: wired.com, gizmag.com, extremetech.com

Computex 2014

https://download.taiwantradeshows.com.tw/files/model/photo/CP/2014/PH00013391-2.jpgEarlier this month, Computex 2014 wrapped up in Taipei. And while this trade show may not have all the glitz and glamor of its counterpart in Vegas (aka. the Consumer Electronics Show), it is still an important launch pad for new IT products slated for release during the second half of the year. Compared to other venues, the Taiwanese event is more formal, more business-oriented, and for those people who love to tinker with their PCs.

For instance, it’s an accessible platform for many Asian vendors who may not have the budget to head to Vegas. And in addition to being cheaper to set up booths and show off their products, it gives people a chance to look at devices that wouldn’t often be seen in the western parts of the world. The timing of the show is also perfect for some manufacturers. Held in June, the show provides a fantastic window into the second half of the year.

https://i1.wp.com/www.lowyat.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/140602dellcomputex.jpgFor example, big name brands like Asus typically use the event to launch a wide range of products. This year, this included such items as the super-slim Asus Book Chi and the multi-mode Book V, which like their other products, have demonstrated that the company has a flair for innovation that easily rivals the big western and Korean names. In addition, Intel has been a long stalwart at Computex, premiered its fanless reference design tablet that runs on the Llama Mountain chipset.

And much like CES, there were plenty of cool gadgets to be seen. This included a GPS tracker that can be attached to a dog collar to track a pet’s movements; the Fujitsu laptop, a hardy new breed of gadget that showcases Japanese designers’ aim to make gear that are both waterproof and dustproof; the Rosewill Chic-C powerbank that consists of 1,000mAh battery packs that attach together to give additional power and even charge gadgets; and the Altek Cubic compact camera that fits in the palm of the hand.

https://i0.wp.com/twimages.vr-zone.net/2013/12/altek-Cubic-1.jpgAnd then there was the Asus wireless storage, a gadget that looks like an air freshener, but is actually a wireless storage device that can be paired with a smartphone using near-field communication (NFC) technology – essentially being able to transfer info simply by bringing a device into near-proximity with it. And as always, there were plenty of cameras, display headsets, mobile devices, and wearables. This last aspect was particularly ever-present, in the form of look-alike big-name wearables.

By and all large, the devices displayed this year were variations on a similar theme: wrist-mounted fitness trackers, smartwatches, and head-mounted smartglasses. The SiMEye smartglass display, for example, was every bit inspired by Google Glass, and even bears a strong resemblance. Though the show was admittedly short on innovation over imitation, it did showcase a major trend in the computing and tech industry.

http://img.scoop.it/FWa9Z463Q34KPAgzjElk3Tl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9In his keynote speech, Microsoft’s Nick Parker talked about the age of ubiquitous computing, and the “devices we carry on us, as opposed to with us.” What this means is, we may very well be entering a PC-less age, where computing is embedded in devices of increasingly diminished size. Eventually, it could even be miniaturized to the point where it is stitched into our clothing as accessed through contacts, never mind glasses or headsets!

Sources: cnet.com, (2), (3), computextaipei.com

The Future is Here: The Thumbles Robot Touch Screen

thumblesSmartphones and tablets, with their high-resolution touchscreens and ever-increasing number of apps, are all very impressive and good. And though some apps are even able to jump from the screen in 3D, the vast majority are still limited to two-dimensions and are limited in terms of interaction. More and more, interface designers are attempting to break this fourth wall and make information something that you can really feel and move with your own two hands.

Take the Thumbles, an interactive screen created by James Patten from Patten Studio. Rather than your convention 2D touchscreen that responds to the heat in your fingers, this desktop interface combines touch screens with tiny robots that act as interactive controls. Whenever a new button would normally pop on the screen, a robot drives up instead, precisely parking for the user to grab it, turn it, or rearrange it. And the idea is surprisingly versatile.

thumbles1As the video below demonstrates, the robots serve all sorts of functions. In various applications, they appear as grabbable hooks at the ends of molecules, twistable knobs in a sound and video editor, trackable police cars on traffic maps, and swappable space ships in a video game. If you move or twist one robot, another robot can mirror the movement perfectly. And thanks to their omnidirectional wheels, the robots always move with singular intent, driving in any direction without turning first.

Naturally, there are concerns about the practicality of this technology where size is concerned. While it makes sense for instances where space isn’t a primary concern, it doesn’t exactly work for a smartphone or tablet touchscreen. In that case, the means simply don’t exist to create robots small enough to wander around the tiny screen space and act as interfaces. But in police stations, architecture firms, industrial design settings, or military command centers, the Thumbles and systems like it are sure to be all the rage.

thumbles2Consider another example shown in the video, where we see a dispatcher who is able to pick up and move a police car to a new location to dispatch it. Whereas a dispatcher is currently required to listen for news of a disturbance, check an available list of vehicles, see who is close to the scene, and then call that police officer to go to that scene, this tactile interface streamlines such tasks into quick movements and manipulations.

The same holds true for architects who want to move design features around on a CAD model; corporate officers who need to visualize their business model; landscapers who want to see what a stretch of Earth will look like once they’ve raised a section of land, changed the drainage, planted trees or bushes, etc.; and military planners can actively tell different units on a battlefield (or a natural disaster) what to do in real-time, responding to changing circumstances quicker and more effectively, and with far less confusion.

Be sure to check out the demo video below, showing the Thumbles in action. And be sure to check out Patten Studio on their website.


Sources: fastcodesign.com, pattenstudio.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)

Top Stories from CES 2014

CES2014_GooglePlus_BoxThe Consumer Electronics Show has been in full swing for two days now, and already the top spots for most impressive technology of the year has been selected. Granted, opinion is divided, and there are many top contenders, but between displays, gaming, smartphones, and personal devices, there’s been no shortage of technologies to choose from.

And having sifted through some news stories from the front lines, I have decided to compile a list of what I think the most impressive gadgets, displays and devices of this year’s show were. And as usual, they range from the innovative and creative, to the cool and futuristic, with some quirky and fun things holding up the middle. And here they are, in alphabetical order:

celestron_cosmosAs an astronomy enthusiast, and someone who enjoys hearing about new and innovative technologies, Celestron’s Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope was quite the story. Hoping to make astronomy more accessible to the masses, this new telescope is the first that can be controlled by an app over WiFi. Once paired, the system guides stargazers through the cosmos as directions flow from the app to the motorized scope base.

In terms of comuting, Lenovo chose to breathe some new life into the oft-declared dying industry of desktop PCs this year, thanks to the unveiling of their Horizon 2. Its 27-inch touchscreen can go fully horizontal, becoming both a gaming and media table. The large touch display has a novel pairing technique that lets you drop multiple smartphones directly onto the screen, as well as group, share, and edit photos from them.

Lenovo Horizon 2 Aura scanNext up is the latest set of display glasses to the world by storm, courtesy of the Epson Smart Glass project. Ever since Google Glass was unveiled in 2012, other electronics and IT companies have been racing to produce a similar product, one that can make heads-up display tech, WiFi connectivity, internet browsing, and augmented reality portable and wearable.

Epson was already moving in that direction back in 2011 when they released their BT100 augmented reality glasses. And now, with their Moverio BT200, they’ve clearly stepped up their game. In addition to being 60 percent lighter than the previous generation, the system has two parts – consisting of a pair of glasses and a control unit.

moverio-bt200-1The glasses feature a tiny LCD-based projection lens system and optical light guide which project digital content onto a transparent virtual display (960 x 540 resolution) and has a camera for video and stills capture, or AR marker detection. With the incorporation of third-party software, and taking advantage of the internal gyroscope and compass, a user can even create 360 degree panoramic environments.

At the other end, the handheld controller runs on Android 4.0, has a textured touchpad control surface, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for video content streaming, and up to six hours of battery life.


The BT-200 smart glasses are currently being demonstrated at Epson’s CES booth, where visitors can experience a table-top virtual fighting game with AR characters, a medical imaging system that allows wearers to see through a person’s skin, and an AR assistance app to help perform unfamiliar tasks .

This year’s CES also featured a ridiculous amount of curved screens. Samsung seemed particularly proud of its garish, curved LCD TV’s, and even booked headliners like Mark Cuban and Michael Bay to promote them. In the latter case, this didn’t go so well. However, one curved screen device actually seemed appropriate – the LG G Flex 6-inch smartphone.

LG_G_GlexWhen it comes to massive curved screens, only one person can benefit from the sweet spot of the display – that focal point in the center where they feel enveloped. But in the case of the LG G Flex-6, the subtle bend in the screen allows for less light intrusion from the sides, and it distorts your own reflection just enough to obscure any distracting glare. Granted, its not exactly the flexible tech I was hoping to see, but its something!

In the world of gaming, two contributions made a rather big splash this year. These included the Playstation Now, a game streaming service just unveiled by Sony that lets gamers instantly play their games from a PS3, PS4, or PS Vita without downloading and always in the most updated version. Plus, it gives users the ability to rent titles they’re interested in, rather than buying the full copy.

maingear_sparkThen there was the Maingear Spark, a gaming desktop designed to run Valve’s gaming-centric SteamOS (and Windows) that measures just five inches square and weighs less than a pound. This is a big boon for gamers who usually have to deal gaming desktops that are bulky, heavy, and don’t fit well on an entertainment stand next to other gaming devices, an HD box, and anything else you might have there.

Next up, there is a device that helps consumers navigate the complex world of iris identification that is becoming all the rage. It’s known as the Myris Eyelock, a simple, straightforward gadget that takes a quick video of your eyeball, has you log in to your various accounts, and then automatically signs you in, without you ever having to type in your password.

myris_eyelockSo basically, you can utilize this new biometric ID system by having your retinal scan on your person wherever you go. And then, rather than go through the process of remembering multiple (and no doubt, complicated passwords, as identity theft is becoming increasingly problematic), you can upload a marker that leaves no doubt as to your identity. And at less than $300, it’s an affordable option, too.

And what would an electronics show be without showcasing a little drone technology? And the Parrot MiniDrone was this year’s crowd pleaser: a palm-sized, camera-equipped, remotely-piloted quad-rotor. However, this model has the added feature of two six-inch wheels, which affords it the ability to zip across floors, climb walls, and even move across ceilings! A truly versatile personal drone.

 

scanaduAnother very interesting display this year was the Scanadu Scout, the world’s first real-life tricorder. First unveiled back in May of 2013, the Scout represents the culmination of years of work by the NASA Ames Research Center to produce the world’s first, non-invasive medical scanner. And this year, they chose to showcase it at CES and let people test it out on themselves and each other.

All told, the Scanadu Scout can measure a person’s vital signs – including their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature – without ever touching them. All that’s needed is to place the scanner above your skin, wait a moment, and voila! Instant vitals. The sensor will begin a pilot program with 10,000 users this spring, the first key step toward FDA approval.

wowwee_mip_sg_4And of course, no CES would be complete without a toy robot or two. This year, it was the WowWee MiP (Mobile Inverted Pendulum) that put on a big show. Basically, it is an eight-inch bot that balances itself on dual wheels (like a Segway), is controllable by hand gestures, a Bluetooth-conncted phone, or can autonomously roll around.

Its sensitivity to commands and its ability to balance while zooming across the floor are super impressive. While on display, many were shown carrying a tray around (sometimes with another MiP on a tray). And, a real crowd pleaser, the MiP can even dance. Always got to throw in something for the retro 80’s crowd, the people who grew up with the SICO robot, Jinx, and other friendly automatons!

iOptikBut perhaps most impressive of all, at least in my humble opinion, is the display of the prototype for the iOptik AR Contact Lens. While most of the focus on high-tech eyewear has been focused on wearables like Google Glass of late, other developers have been steadily working towards display devices that are small enough to worse over your pupil.

Developed by the Washington-based company Innovega with support from DARPA, the iOptik is a heads-up display built into a set of contact lenses. And this year, the first fully-functioning prototypes are being showcased at CES. Acting as a micro-display, the glasses project a picture onto the contact lens, which works as a filter to separate the real-world from the digital environment and then interlaces them into the one image.

ioptik_contact_lenses-7Embedded in the contact lenses are micro-components that enable the user to focus on near-eye images. Light projected by the display (built into a set of glasses) passes through the center of the pupil and then works with the eye’s regular optics to focus the display on the retina, while light from the real-life environment reaches the retina via an outer filter.

This creates two separate images on the retina which are then superimposed to create one integrated image, or augmented reality. It also offers an alternative solution to traditional near-eye displays which create the illusion of an object in the distance so as not to hinder regular vision. At present, still requires clearance from the FDA before it becomes commercially available, which may come in late 2014 or early 2015.


Well, its certainly been an interesting year, once again, in the world of electronics, robotics, personal devices, and wearable technology. And it manages to capture the pace of change that is increasingly coming to characterize our lives. And according to the tech site Mashable, this year’s show was characterized by televisions with 4K pixel resolution, wearables, biometrics, the internet of personalized and data-driven things, and of course, 3-D printing and imaging.

And as always, there were plenty of videos showcasing tons of interesting concepts and devices that were featured this year. Here are a few that I managed to find and thought were worthy of passing on:

Internet of Things Highlights:


Motion Tech Highlights:


Wearable Tech Highlights:


Sources: popsci.com, (2), cesweb, mashable, (2), gizmag, (2), news.cnet

By 2014: According to Asimov and Clarke

asimov_clarkeAmongst the sci-fi greats of old, there were few authors, scientists and futurists more influential than Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And as individuals who constantly had one eye to the world of their day, and one eye to the future, they had plenty to say about what the world would look like by the 21st century. And interestingly enough, 2014 just happens to be the year where much of what they predicted was meant to come true.

For example, 50 years ago, Asimov wrote an article for the New York Times that listed his predictions for what the world would be like in 2014. The article was titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014”, and contained many accurate, and some not-so-accurate, guesses as to how people would be living today and what kinds of technology would be available to us.

Here are some of the accurate predictions:

1. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use.”
In short, electroluminescent displays are thin, bright panels that are used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs. What’s more, personal devices are incorporating this technology, in the form of OLED and AMOLED displays, which are both paper-thin and flexible, giving rise to handheld devices you can bend and flex without fear of damaging them.

touch-taiwan_amoled2. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.”
Oh yes indeed! In the last thirty years, we’ve seen voicemail replace personal assistants, secretaries and message boards. We’ve seen fax machines replace couriers. We’ve seen personal devices and PDAs that are able to handle more and more in the way of tasks, making it unnecessary for people to consult a written sources of perform their own shorthand calculations. It’s a hallmark of our age that personal technology is doing more and more of the legwork, supposedly freeing us to do more with our time.

3. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”
This was a popular prediction in Asimov’s time, usually taking the form of a videophone or conversations that happened through display panels. And the rise of the social media and telepresence has certainly delivered on that. Services like Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime and more have made video chatting very common, and a viable alternative to a phone line you need to pay for.

skypeskype4. “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
Multitasking is one of the hallmarks of modern computers, handheld devices, and tablets, and has been the norm for operating systems for some time. By simply calling up new windows, new tabs, or opening up multiple apps simultaneously and simply switching between them, users are able to start multiple projects, or conduct work and view video, take pictures, play games, and generally behave like a kid with ADHD on crack if they so choose.

5. “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If you define “robot” as a computer that looks and acts like a human, then this guess is definitely true. While we do not have robot servants or robot friends per se, we do have Roomba’s, robots capable of performing menial tasks, and even ones capable of imitating animal and even human movements and participating in hazardous duty exercises (Google the DARPA Robot Challenge to see what I mean).

Valkyrie_robotAlas, he was off on several other fronts. For example, kitchens do not yet prepare “automeals” – meaning they prepare entire meals for us at the click of a button. What’s more, the vast majority of our education systems is not geared towards the creation and maintenance of robotics. All surfaces have not yet been converted into display screens, though we could if we wanted to. And the world population is actually higher than he predicted (6,500,000,000 was his estimate).

As for what he got wrong, well… our appliances are not powered by radioactive isotopes, and thereby able to be entirely wireless (though wireless recharging is becoming a reality). Only a fraction of students are currently proficient in computer language, contrary to his expectation that all would be. And last, society is not a place of “enforced leisure”, where work is considered a privilege and not a burden. Too bad too!

Arthur-C-ClarkeAnd when it comes to the future, there are few authors whose predictions are more trusted than Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, he wrote nearly three dozen nonfiction books and countless articles about the future of space travel, undersea exploration and daily life in the 21st century.

And in a recently released clip from a 1974 ABC News program filmed in Australia, Clarke is shown talking to a reporter next to a massive bank of computers. With his son in tow, the reporter asks Clarke to talk about what computers will be like when his son is an adult. In response, Clarke offers some eerily prophetic, if not quite spot-on, predictions:

The big difference when he grows up, in fact it won’t even wait until the year 2001, is that he will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house.

internetIn short, Clarke predicted not only the rise of the personal computer, but also online banking, shopping and a slew of internet services. Clarke was then asked about the possible danger of becoming a “computer-dependent” society, and while he acknowledged that in the future humanity would rely on computers “in some ways,” computers would also open up the world:

It’ll make it possible for us to live really anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through his device like this. And this is a wonderful thing.

Clarke certainly had a point about computers giving us the ability to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe, also known as telecommunication, telecommuting and telepresence. But as to whether or not our dependence on this level of technology is a good or bad thing, the jury is still out on that one. The point is, his predictions proved to be highly accurate, forty years in advance.

computer_chip1Granted, Clarke’s predictions were not summoned out of thin air. Ever since their use in World War II as a means of cracking Germany’s cyphers, miniaturization has been the trend in computing. By the 1970’s, they were still immense and clunky, but punch cards and vacuum tubes had already given way to transistors, ones which were getting smaller all the time.

And in 1969, the first operational packet network to implement a Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established. Known as a Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), this U.S. Department of Defense network was set up to connect the DOD’s various research projects at universities and laboratories all across the US, and was the precursor to the modern internet.

In being a man who was so on top of things technologically, Clarke accurately predicted that these two trends would continue into the foreseeable future, giving rise to computers small enough to fit on our desks (rather than taking up an entire room) and networked with other computers all around the world via a TCP/IP network that enabled real-time data sharing and communications.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out the Clarke interview below:


Sources:
huffingtonpost.com, blastr.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