April 23, 2012
A strange thing happened in Washington last week. This normally is a pretty jaded place, but when the space shuttle Discovery did its victory lap over the city atop a 747 Tuesday morning, people poured out of government buildings or raced to office windows to take one long, last look. Most fired away on their cell phone cameras, knowing that they weren’t likely to get a great shot, but equally sure they had to try.
It was a moment that revived awe, if only for fleeting minutes, one that screamed “Turning point!” in a way that history rarely does. Some, such as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, saw it as a sad funeral procession, a “symbol of willed American decline.” Others, including America’s reigning celebrity scientist, astrophyicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, viewed it as motivation to double NASA’s budget.
Truth is, the next chapter in American space exploration may be more likely to unfold in Seattle tomorrow when a startup called Planetary Resources has its coming-out news conference. Last week it sent out a cryptic press release, announcing that the company “will overlay two critical sectors–space exploration and natural resources–to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Analysts offered an instant translation: It plans to mine asteroids.
Not a big leap to draw that conclusion, especially since one of the principals of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, the space entreperneur behind the X-Prize competition, and a man who recently told an interviewer, “Ever since childhood, I wanted to do one thing–be an asteroid miner.” (The rich apparently are different from you and me.)
What makes this undertaking much more than one man tilting at asteroids, however, is the band of billionaires behind it. Drum roll, please: Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron, Google co-founder Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Google board member Ram Shriram, former Microsoft exec and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot, Jr., the suitably wealthy son of the former presidential candidate.
Obviously, it’s a group with loads of money to burn, but also one that knows something about smart investments. While mining asteroids is clearly a high-risk enterprise with enormous challenges, it has the potential to be hugely lucrative. Diamandis has estimated that the platinum alone in one relatively small asteroid could be valued as much as $20 trillion.
Still, Planetary Resources’ mission appears to be driven, at least in part, by the young-boy fantasies of very rich men. Diamandis talks of others like himself who grew up when NASA was golden and “Star Trek” aired weekly and now have the means to be space frontiersmen–people like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, both of whom are investing heavily in developing vehicles that can launch satellites or carry people into space.
Says Diamandis: “They’re able now to take the money they’ve made and hopefully fulfill the vision they had as a child. In our heart of hearts, many of us have given up on NASA as the mechanism to get us there.”
A rocky road
How plausible is asteroid mining? It turns out that earlier this month NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the Keck Institute for Space Studies and the California Institute of Technology, released a study concluding that asteroids could be retreived, then mined. The scientists agreed that by 2025, it will be possible to have a robot spacecraft capture a 500-ton asteroid and move it into a high lunar orbit. The cost? About $2.6 billion.
But that would be for an asteroid only 22 feet or so in diameter–a big expense for a not such a big rock. And it doesn’t include the cost of actually extracting minerals. The other option would be robotic missions to asteroids where mining operations would be set up. But humans have yet to land a spacecraft on a body as small as an asteroid and take off again with minerals from the surface. The closest attempt came in 2005 when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed a probe on an asteroid. It returned to Earth five years later with about only 100 microscopic particles.
Can’t wait to see what Planetary Resources has in mind.
Meanwhile, back at NASA
No, they haven’t turned off the lights at NASA. Here’s some of its more recent news:
- Private business: The space agency has been working closely with Space Exploration Technologies, better known as Space X, in preparation for the first flight of a private spacecraft to the International Space Station at the end of April. The unmanned capsule, named Dragon, will deliver cargo after it’s grabbed with a robotic arm operated by astronauts in the space station.
- Moons over Saturn: Now 15 years into its mission, the Cassini spacecraft continues to send back images of Saturn and its moons. The most recent photos are of Enceladus and Tethys.
- Can’t get enough…of that Martian stuff: The latest rover headed to Mars, an SUV-sized vehicle named Curiosity, is now more than halfway to its destination. After it lands in early August, it will start exploring the large Gale Crater and a three-mile-high mountain inside it for signs of microbial life.
- The hunt goes on: Earlier this month NASA extended the mission of the planet-finding Kepler space telescope until 2016. It has discovered 2,300 potential alien planets since its launch three years ago.
- “Recalculating…”: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California is developing an atomic clock that will serve as a kind of GPS for spacecraft in deep space.
- Where stars are the stars: And we definitely can’t forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 22 tomorrow. It just keeps delivering remarkable images from deep space, including this latest one of the Tarantula Nebula 170,000 light years away.
Video bonus: Here’s one for old time’s sake, a flashback to one of NASA’s signature moments. Using data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has recreated what three Apollo astronauts saw on Christmas Eve, 1968 as they watched a bright blue Earth rise over the moon’s horizon.
April 18, 2012
Here’s the story we’ve been hearing for years: Back in 1965 the coach of the University of Florida football team was befuddled that no matter how much water his players drank, they still became badly dehydrated in the brutal Florida heat and humidity. He asked doctors at the college for advice and one of them, James Robert Cade, devised a concoction of sucrose, glucose, sodium and potassium. Unfortunately, it tasted worse than a bucket of sweat. Cade’s wife suggested adding lemon juice and soon the world would be gulping Gatorade.
The part of the tale we never hear is that Cade got the idea from reading about doctors who went to Bangladesh during a cholera outbreak. They discovered that the locals were using a drink made of carrot juice, rice water, bananas, and carob flour–a combo of carbs and sugar–to rehydrate those suffering severe diarrhea.
This is what’s become known as “reverse innovation”–ideas that move from poor to rich nations. It’s just one of several examples that Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble roll out in their new book, Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere. As Govindarajan learned while working as an “innovation consultant” for General Electric (GE), the notion that all the good ideas come from developed countries and simply are tweaked to work in more primitive places is an increasingly flawed concept.
It’s a small world after all
Instead, more and more products, even business strategies, are bubbling up first in “emerging” countries, then flowing uphill into mature markets. Take the case of the GE’s Vscan. It’s an ultrasound scanner not much bigger than a smart phone. But it didn’t start out that way. Not even close. No, GE’s original plan when it moved into the Chinese market was to sell the big, expensive–starting at $100,000–ultrasound machines that you see in so many American hospitals.
Chinese hospitals didn’t have that kind of money. And besides, what was really needed was a portable scanner that a doctor could use on patients in rural areas. So GE started thinking small. And it shifted its focus from high-priced hardware to relatively inexpensive software. This was shrewd. The Vscan has grown from a $4 million to a $278 million business and now American and European hospitals and doctors want them. GE CEO Jeff Immelt has gone so far as to predict that the Vscan could become “the stethoscope of the 21st century.”
Another example: After Wal-Mart discovered that its massive stores didn’t work very well in countries like China, Argentina and Mexico because a lot of shoppers had neither the money nor the storage space to buy in bulk, it scaled way back to models known as “small marts.” It then realized that this approach might work in the U.S., too, in places where buildings the size of airplane hangars didn’t make a lot of sense. So, last year the first of these shrunken stores, called Wal-Mart Express, opened in rural Arkansas. The second and third followed in urban Chicago.
“What works in the rich world won’t automatically achieve wide acceptance in emerging markets, where customer needs are starkly different,” writes Govindarajan. “As a result, reverse innovation is rapidly gathering steam–and will only continue to do so.”
Bright lights, big cities
More evidence of the global shifts of innovation comes from a database released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By tracking international patents and patent applications, it found, not surprisingly, that inventions tends to flow out of the world’s cities–93 percent of patent applications are generated by inventors in metro areas accounting for only 23 percent of the planet’s population.
But the stats also show the U.S. losing ground on the innovation front. Its share of global patents fell from 40 percent at the turn of the century to 28 percent by 2010. Meanwhile, China saw its share rise by 6 percent over the same period.
And if all the social interactions and economic diversity that come with city living do help drive innovative thinking, as a lot of research suggests, developing countries would seem to be primed for a century of invention. Of the 25 fastest growing major cities in the world, seven are in China, six are in India. By 2025, only two of the 15 largest mega-cities–New York and Tokyo–will be in what are now developed countries.
Did you feel the Earth tilt?
Meanwhile, On the other side of the planet
Here are examples of innovative projects underway in developing countries:
- Going down:Construction began last month on Shanghai’s first “groundscraper,” a 380-room luxury hotel built 19 stories down into an abandoned quarry.
- Don’t look down. No, really: Now this is not for the faint of heart. After five years of construction, a suspension bridge more than 1,100 feet high and more than 3,800 feet long opened recently in China’s Hunan Province. If, God forbid, your car went over the side, it would take eight seconds to hit bottom.
- Start me up: India has launched its first telecom “incubator,” a private-public partnership called Startup Village, which hopes to boost 1,000 startups over the next decade. It’s modeled after a Silicon Valley program that helps finance student innovations.
Video bonus: Vijay Govindarajan explains how reverse innovation can make a rich country want a poor country’s products.
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.