March 20, 2012
Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.
It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.
This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.
Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.
Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.
Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.
“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”
Shots in the dark
Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.
Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.
Tricks and treats
Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:
- Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast: Filmmaker Ann Prum explains how a high-speed camera made it possible to enter the world of hummingbirds for the PBS special, “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air.”
- Yosemite in motion: Photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty spent weeks filming day and night throughout Yosemite National Park. The result is one heaping bowl of eye candy, especially the images of shooting stars in the night sky.
- Camera on board: Critter cams have been around for a while, but they’ve become more and more sophisticated. Watch as a sea lion, with a camera attached, takes on an octopus.
Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.
March 1, 2012
Let’s think big thoughts. Everyone else is. Out in Long Beach, they’re in the middle of the 2012 TED conference, where really smart people pay $7,000 to hear other really smart people talk about things that make them sound really, really smart.
In February, Google rolled out its own version of geek gab, with a name that screams high school math club: “Solve for X.” And earlier this week Microsoft staged its annual TechForum, where it showcased its contributions to the cutting edge. Even the Department of Energy joined the prototype party a few days ago, with a conference in Washington designed to highlight bright ideas that may never make it past demo phase.
All of the above are geared to stretch beyond innovation into the realm of “What if?” They’re about celebrating imagination and invention, and with that often comes an upbeat spin on the future. Otherwise, why invent? Case in point: one of the first speakers at this year’s TED event was Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, and one of the founders of Singularity University, which has been described as an “academic boot camp” in Silicon Valley for inventors and entrepreneurs. For Diamandis, the glass isn’t just half full, it’s spilling over the top.
He riffed on the theme of a new book he’s written with science journalist Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. His take is that human ingenuity and the exponential growth of technology will solve many of the planet’s more vexing problems, including water and energy shortages, in ways we’re only starting to imagine. As Diamandis puts it, “The world is getting better at an extraordinary rate and most people are unable to see the good news through the flurry of bad.” For more rays of his sunshine, check out this clip made prior to his appearance at TED.
In the spirit of Diamandis’ rosy forecast of the future, here are five big ideas that may make you feel better about what’s ahead:
Plenty of juice
It says something about the crowd at TED that a guy gets a standing ovation for talking about batteries. In fairness, though, this was one awesome battery. Even Bill Gates tweeted about it. MIT professor Donald Sadoway shared his story of how six years ago he started developing a liquid battery, a three-layered device comprising high-density molten metal at the top, low density molten metal at the bottom and the layer of molten salt in between. His prototypes got bigger and bigger until he was able to produce a working model the size of a 40-foot shipping container. I know what you’re thinking: What am I going to do with a 40-foot battery? But Sadoway’s invention isn’t about us, it’s about cheap energy, or actually the storage of it, and if it works as well as he says it does, it could be a game changer in making wind and solar power a lot more reliable.
A mightier wind
While we’re on the subject of renewable energy, another invention involving wind power took center stage at the Department of Energy’s confab. Created by Makani Power of Alameda, California, it’s called an airborne wind turbine, but looks more like a small airplane with four propellers. Yet it doesn’t actually fly anywhere. It’s tethered to the ground, but moves in large circles more than 600 feet in the air. Because it’s small and follows a continuous circle, the flying turbine can generate power in winds too weak to turn a more conventional wind turbine. Its developers think it would be most valuable as an off-shore power source, a lot cheaper and less obtrusive than ocean wind farms. It would need only to be attached to a buoy. The Department of Energy has already invested $3 million in the project. Google has kicked in another $20 million.
At Google’s “Solve for X” fest, Kevin Dowling, R&D vice president for MC10, a Massachusetts firm, gave the audience a sense of just how far we’ve come in our ability to bend and stretech electronics. Scientists can now weave electric sensors into paper, leather, vinyl and just about any other flexible surface and can build electric arrays into strips thinner than band-aids that we can attach to our skin. Dowling talked about catheters with sensors that can provide a ”cinematic visualization of what’s going on in a heart in real time,” and gloves that will allow surgeons to actually touch a beating heart and send images wirelessly to a display screen. Dowling explains it this way: “You’re essentially putting eyes in your fingers.”
Microsoft, meanwhile, provided a glimpse of grocery shopping in the future at its TechForum. No more pushing carts around the store for us. Instead, the “Smarter Cart,” designed by Chaotic Moon, a mobile apps developer in Austin, Texas, as part of a partnership with Whole Foods, would use Microsoft’s Kinect 3D camera and voice recognition system to help the cart follow us around the store. The cart, which has a Windows 8 tablet attached, could let also let you know in which aisle the dog treats are hiding and also suggest recipes, although hopefully not involving dog treats. But here’s the best part: No more checkout lines. Your cart has its own scanner. You shop, you scan, you leave. The future’s already rosier.
A little birdie told me
Back at TED the other day, another demo that dazzled the not-so-easily impressed crowd featured what could become the Defense Department’s smallest spy. It’s the Nano Hummingbird, by AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, California, developed for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and it’s designed to not only move like a hummingbird, but also look like one. So it can hover or sit on a branch, all while shooting video. The little drone can fly as fast as 11 miles per hour, go sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise. Its flights, controlled remotely, can last close to 10 minutes.
Imagine what Albert Hitchcock could have done with this.
Video bonus: And now a video interlude from U.S poet laureate Billly Collins, who also took the stage in Long Beach, proving that the TED folks gets the soul thing. Collins now sets some of his poems to animation, showing that he gets how they like their entertainment.
January 12, 2012
Every once in a while a story comes along that seems as likely as cats and dogs playing poker. Last week the Wall Street Journal ran an article suggesting that Kodak was on the brink of bankruptcy. That’s right, Kodak, the company once so iconic it was able to equate its brand with stopping time, aka the “Kodak moment.”
It’s not like Kodak slept through the digital revolution. Heck, one of its engineers invented digital photography in 1975, although back then they called it “film-less photography.” By 2005, Kodak was the top-selling digital camera brand in the U.S.
No, this is a case of death by smartphone. According to the latest estimate from Samsung, 2.5 billion people–that’s a third of the world’s population–now have digital cameras and most are in cell phones. Last year more than one out of every four photos taken in America was with a smartphone. And by last summer–less than a year after its launch–the iPhone 4S was the most popular camera for uploading photos on Flickr.
So if a digital camera that’s not a cell phone hopes to survive these days, it better be able to do some pretty snazzy techno-voodoo.
Enter the Lytro. Not only does it do away with the whole matter of focusing a shot, but it also turns photos into playthings.
Allow me to explain. Shaped like a stick of butter, the Lytro deals with light in a truly innovative way. It captures far more data–including the light’s direction and angles–than a conventional camera, all of which is stored in the photo. The result is that there’s not just one version of an image, but many. Each person who views it can shift the focus, creating a different picture. In short, your photos on Facebook or Flickr or wherever else you want to post them, become truly interactive.
This sounds very cool, although given the quality of most Facebook photos, your choice would often come down to shifting the focus from this head to that head. Still, the notion of what inventor Ren Ng calls “living pictures” could dramatically change how we try to capture images, knowing that within each photo there can be way more than meets the eye.
Two versions of the Lytro will be available when it hits the market soon, a $399 model that holds 350 shots and a $499 version that holds 750. Neither of these early models will be able to shoot video nor can your images be loaded on to anything other than a Mac at this point. And as Joshua Goldman noted in a CNET review, you can’t do much real photo-editing yet and there’s no wireless way to transfer images to your computer.
But hey, we finally have a genuine point-and-shoot. Let’s all say cheese.
Cream of the crops
Face it, the new Facebook Timeline has upped the ante on how we present our visual selves. Now we have that big honkin’ space at the top of the page for a cover photo to celebrate the wonder of us.
That’s why it’s good there are mobile apps out there like Snapseed ($4.99), the iPad App of the Year last year. You can crop photos, rotate them, you can adjust brightness and contrast, all by tapping and sliding your finger. And you can filter into special effects–you can go Drama or Vintage, with sepia tones, or even Grunge, in the event you’re feeling post-apocalyptic.
Here’s more camera and photo news:
- Go with the flow: Researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a pill camera that doctors can actually steer through your digestive system.
- Samsung unplugged: The South Korean tech giant has rolled out an impressive selection of Wi-Fi cameras at the Consumer Electronics Show.
- The camera doesn’t lie: GoBandit now has a tiny HD video camera with a built-in GPS and altimeter. Attach it to your bike and it not only records your ride, but it also adds an interactive map and your vitals (speed and altitude) to the video.
- Big Mother: British firm BabyPing has unveiled what it’s calling the next generation of baby monitors, a Wi-Fi model that allows parents to watch or listen to their baby on their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Every move you make, she’ll be watching you.
Video Bonus: Check out CNET’s Brian Tong’s Lytro demo in which he shows you how you can use it to photograph dinosaurs.
January 9, 2012
It’s time again for the Super Bowl of Stuff. Its official name is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and this is the week when Las Vegas gets its wonk on, filling up with people who prefer gizmos over G-strings and find nothing quite so ravishing as a TV screen big enough to need two zip codes.
CES brings its own kind of decadence to Sin City, one that cranks up consumption by making the gadgets you got last month already feel retro. But it also has been the event where we’ve taken our first looks at tech that quickly moved into our daily lives–the VCR in 1970, the camcorder and CD player in 1981, DVRs and high-definition TVs in 1998.
This year, though, CES is going through some changes. Yes, tonight, as usual, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will kick things off with the opening keynote address. But it will be Microsoft’s CES swan song; the company won’t be back next year. At the same time, the keynoter tomorrow morning is someone who’s never been there before–Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chairman and head of Mercedes-Benz. And among the three speakers on Wednesday morning’s “CES Innovation Power Panel” is Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Ford alone will have 20 models on display.
Bottom line: CES is turning into a mini-auto show.
What’s driving this is the belief that modern cars need to be as much smartphone as vehicle, that just because you’re cruising down the highway doesn’t mean you should feel any less connected than you do on your couch. Auto execs talk about turning cars into “infotainment centers” and are promising that models of the future shouldn’t be any less a personal assistant than Apple’s Siri, the voice-controlled digital concierge on the iPhone 4S. Why shouldn’t you be able to ask your car to read you your email or have it know which tunes you like to hear when you’re out on the interstate?
Daimler’s Zetsche and Ford’s Mulally will likely talk about cloud computing from inside your auto, how your car and smartphone will soon be talking to each other and how you’ll one day be able control the temperature, the speaker volume and and plenty of other things simply by moving your fingers without your hands leaving the wheel.
Mulally also will bang the drums for a new smartphone app called MyFord Mobile, rolled out in conjunction with Ford’s first electric car, the Focus Electric, which hits the market later this year. The app will let users check the charge level of their cars, find charging stations, warm up or cool down the interior and unlock the doors, all while they’re away from their vehicles.
Talk about a dream car
But the Ford product at CES most likely to make gearheads gaga is its latest concept car, the Ford Evos. Keep in mind that concept cars are meant to be way out of the box and sometimes can end up looking daft. (Consider the Ford Nucleon, a concept car unveiled in 1957 that was supposed to be powered by a small nuclear reactor in the back.)
As envisioned by Ford, the Evos would start its day while you’re still sleeping, checking the weather, traffic reports, your email and work schedule, then, based on what it finds out, tells your alarm clock when you need to get up. It would also know what you’ve been listening to and resume playing it when you get in the car. If conditions are dicey, it can check your heart rate and switch your smartphone to Do Not Disturb mode. Or if you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, your buddy Evos would take over the driving and let you answer emails. It could even direct you away from roads where pollution levels are high, then wrap things up by finding you parking space.
Nice concept, eh?
By the way, a few days ago Ford announced that it will open an R&D lab in Silicon Valley this year. Renault-Nissan, GM, BMW and Volkswagen are already there.
Here are some other gadgets that will get some attention at CES this week:
- Thanks, I needed that: BodyMedia has mixed a nifty armband with IBM software to create a device that gives you access to your own personal digital trainer and nutritionist.
- Another reason not to read in the dark: There’s now a cover for the Kindle that uses solar power to give your tablet a nice long charge, compliments of a company called SolarFocus.
- The ride stuff: The iBike Powerhouse attaches to a bike and uploads your performance data to an iPhone and sets goals for your next ride. It also gives you digital pep talks.
- Turning up the heat: The Nest Learning Thermostat tracks your habits in adjusting the heat in your home for a week, then takes over and adjusts the temperature for you. And it gives you a report on your energy savings.
- Where, oh where has my iPhone gone?: BungeeAir Protect has come up with a wireless “tether” that lets you know if you’ve strayed too far from your iPhone.
Video Bonus: Go along for the ride as Ford spins the tale of its Evos concept car.
December 15, 2011
If you haven’t already, sometime in the next week or so you will buy a gadget or some electronic device and you’ll likely have one of two reactions: Didn’t I just buy this? Or, when did this thing happen?
Not that the sprint of technology kicks into another gear this time of year; it’s just that this is when most of us get loopy with gadget overload and wonder how we’re going to keep up with the pace. And at least some of us still aren’t sure if change at warp speed is such a good thing.
Take the group of people who were surveyed recently in the U.S., Germany, India and China by Underwriters Laboratories, the product testing firm. Almost half of those who responded said they think high-tech manufacturers bring new products to market faster than people need them. That would suggest that the pace of innovation is too fast for a lot of consumers.
Or we may not be talking about innovation at all. There is so much emphasis, particularly in the U.S., on pushing stuff to market that more often than not, what we’re getting are tweaks of existing products. Face it, we now live in a beta world where there’s always another fix coming along. Case in point: Only a month after launching its Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon announced it soon will roll out a software upgrade to make it work better.
Rob Chandhok, president of the Qualcomm Innovation Center would agree. In a recent blog for Fast Company, he wrote, “…I think people often confuse the pace of innovation with the pace of change. What has clearly accelerated in the pace of change. Is this pace producing better stuff? Or just more stuff?”
Will you miss losing your keys?
Then there’s the persistent dilemma of technology racing ahead of rules. It’s become a familiar pattern: A new device or software allows us to do things we couldn’t do before and, just like that, we’re invading someone’s privacy. The latest flap is over face recognition software tied to a mobile app called SceneTap. It tells someone, based on images from overhead cameras in bars, the breakdown of men and women in a place, plus the age mix. That’s right, in real time, someone can get that kind of critical bar-hopping intelligence before he even leaves his couch.
This has Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) so worried that he’s asked the head of the Federal Trade Commission if the agency should regulate face recognition software. The cycle goes on.
Another sad consequence of rapid-fire change is that a lot of perfectly decent devices will soon be doing fast fades. CDs didn’t even last 15 years; vinyl LPs lasted 80. Soon on the hit list, predicts tech writer Rajiv Makhni, will be car CD players, credit cards, wallets, keys, TV remotes, wrist watches, gaming consoles and, of course, landline phones.
So take a moment to pay respect to what remains of your old-school devices, the ones from the days when you replaced something only when it was way beyond repair. Hug your toaster today. You may want to unplug it first.
Just what you needed
I bet you didn’t see these coming:
- Your goose is cooked: The iGrill is a wireless meat thermometer that sync’s with your iPad and tells you, from as far as 200 feet away, if your meal is done.
- Does that include face plants?: Recon Instruments has created goggles that record all the data from your day of skiing.
- Your pizza smell enchants me: Scientists at the University of Singapore have come up with something they call a Sound Perfume, but it’s been described as a “ringtone for your nose.” It’s a pair of glasses that sends your selected sound and smell to anyone else wearing the glasses.
- Remember, always round down: Also from Singapore, a computer that can estimate your age.
- But can it cut off crust?: A team at the Technical University of Munich has invented a robot that can make sandwiches.
Video bonus: Take a trip down memory lane with Walt Mossberg, who’s been writing about personal technology for the Wall Street Journal for 20 years now.
The Question: What old-school device do you hope never changes?