December 5, 2013
There’s a reason why big city mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg have pushed hard for the widespread adoption of bike sharing programs. Getting people to collectively start pedaling, instead of driving, can ease traffic congestion, reduce the strain on the public health system and clear up air quality in one fell swoop.
But try telling that to the sweaty business executive in the three-piece suit who’s straining to pedal uphill to make it to an important board meeting on time.
Now, the Boston-based startup Superpedestrian has an innovative alternative for those who still want to enjoy all the benefits of bicycling, but with a lot less grunting. Their pedal assist device, called the Copenhagen Wheel, can be easily slipped onto almost any bicycle as a lightweight modified rear wheel that provides a motorized boost for moments when riders need it most, like, for instance, going uphill. Sandwiched between what looks like two metallic red hubcaps is an intricate system comprised of a 350 watt electric motor and a 48 volt lithium-ion battery that combine to generate an energy output that amounts to more than four times what an average person can muster by just pedaling.
Though the company is keeping mum on how the patent-pending technology works, we do know that the system utilizes what’s called regenerative braking to continuously recharge the onboard battery. Such systems, typically integrated into electric cars and hybrids, convert the kinetic energy involved in stopping a moving vehicle’s forward momentum, as brakes are applied, into stored power. The resulting output gives the modified bicycle a range of 30 miles and a potential top speed of 20 mph.
In some ways, the Copenhagen Wheel does for electric bicycles what Apple did for mobile computing with the smartphone and tablets, in shrinking down all the necessary components into a compact 12-pound module. The minimalist design eliminates the need for certain parts, such as an external throttle, and even includes enhancements like a sensor system designed to automatically track the rider’s pedaling patterns, the shape of the terrain and other environmental conditions to determine when extra power is needed. The device also features built-in Wi-Fi so riders can access the data via a smartphone app, which displays fitness-related metrics such as distances traveled and calories burned.
The idea for the wheel was conceived back in 2009 when Assaf Biderman, an inventor and associate director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, was tasked by the mayor of Copenhagen to figure out a way to motivate more locals to adopt bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. During his research, he found that many deemed bikes as impractical due to a variety of reasons, ranging from the strenuousness of traveling long distances to not wanting to show up at work covered in sweat.
Pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have gained popularity over the last decade, rising steadily to account for 12 percent of all bicycle sales worldwide. Millions have been sold in Asian countries, such as China, where bicycles often serve as a main mode of transport. But the technology’s reach stalls out when it comes to ardent bike enthusiasts, many of whom consider the vehicles to be too clunky. For them, pedal-assisted riding barely resembles the true bicycling experience, and all its joys.
“So we said, let’s think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal,” Biderman told Public Radio International.
The Copenhagen Wheel is on sale now for $700, with the earliest shipments scheduled for the the beginning of 2014. And it’s only then that we’ll learn whether the technology lives up to its claims in the rockier parts of the real-world.
December 4, 2013
There are “pet owners” and then there are “pet parents.” For the latter, there isn’t an effort to a great or a price too high to make their little ones feel like part of the family.
Over the years, the multi-billion dollar pet market has happily catered to these truest of animal lovers, making it possible for them to spoil their precious furballs with facials and manicures at dog spas, specially-concocted fragrances and custom-designed orthopedic pet beds. Being so attached, you can imagine the separation anxiety pet parents experience when they’re at work or vacationing for an extended amount of time.
To alleviate this stress, a Minnesota-based startup has invented a two-way petcam that enables both owner and pet to connect and interact remotely in a manner similar to Skype or Apple’s FaceTime. The $350 PetChatz device features a “chew-proof” intercom-sized unit with a built-in speakerphone, camera system and interactive LCD screen that can be plugged into any wall outlet.
Connected via Wi-Fi, owners would then use an app on their computer or mobile device to start a “chat” session, which can be recorded and shared with others. A special ring tone signals to the pet that someone’s calling and an additional motion and sound detection system can be set up to notify parents of any activity around the house. While technically dogs or cats don’t have the ability to chat, people can use the “Greet & Treat” system to reward their pets by dispensing tasty treats and even special scents that are kept in a refillable hidden compartment.
PetChatz was created by Mark Kroll, a medical technology developer with more than 350 patents to his name. He holds the title of Minnesota’s most prolific inventor. The idea came to him about a decade ago when, while he was Skyping with his daughter, the family’s labrador recognized her voice and came running into the room. Kroll later collaborated with veterinary technician Lisa Lavin to to develop PetChatz and other similar long-distance technologies under a new venture called Anser Innovation.
“As a pet parent myself, I understand how strongly people feel about their pets,” says Lavin, who estimates that she has spent a total of $11,200 on vet bills and $80 a month on dog food for both of her live-in poodles. “We miss them. We feel guilty when we’re away on vacation and this is a way to alleviate that separation anxiety.”
If there is one aspect of these extravagant pet parenting products that some might find troubling, other than the cost, it’s that promoting them involves a great deal of anthropomorphizing. Though dogs and cats are intelligent, they still aren’t human, and treating them as such hints at a kind of resolute denial to accept the fact that they may not even enjoy being the benefactor of pricey skin treatments. Some experts think its a stretch to believe that the critter on the other end even recognizes a person being displayed on a screen.
“This product introduces the potential for interaction between the dog and the technology,” Margaret Duxbury, an animal behavior professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Star-Tribune a year ago. “It will certainly be disappointing if the dogs don’t respond at all [to PetChatz]. Perhaps they will respond to the voice but not recognize that the picture is of their owner. Does that even matter if they respond to the voice?”
Lavin claims that the company has since tested the device, with pet and human subjects, and discovered that pets can be easily trained to at least recognize the ring in a manner similar to a Pavlovian response. (Some animals have even been trained to be government spies.) As for whether a pet knows who’s on-screen, she says that would depend on how much visual technology the pet has been exposed to.
“What we found was that the pet who spends a lot of time watching TV is more likely to be compelled to recognize your image on the screen and follow commands than one who doesn’t,” she says.
What’s important, she emphasizes, is that this device does more for the emotional welfare of the owner than for the pet. If there is any benefit for the pet (besides food), she adds, it’s that the pet, especially dogs, receives some stimulation during the day, which animal behaviorists agree can do wonders for their well-being.
PetChatz is slated to be available for purchase on the product’s website and at select independent pets stores nationwide during the first quarter of 2014. For now, the company is taking pre-orders for the device. Packets of special treats and essential oil drops will also be available in the near future.
November 27, 2013
Ireland is one of those rare places where it seems like clean water flows with abundance. But that’s all about to change as the government has recently begun installing underground water meters in preparation to become the last European country to charge for water usage, as reserves from rivers and lakes dwindle as a result of rising demand, leakage issues and the effects of climate change.
The milestone of sorts underscores the sobering reality of fresh water being a limited resource that’s quickly becoming scarcer in virtually every populated region of the world. While it’s most heavily felt in developing regions, such as Africa and South America, where 780 million people don’t have access to clean pipeable water, a study in the Journal Nature forecasts that large swaths of East Asia and Europe will be hit hard as water supplies diminish. So, does that mean that we’re all destined to inhabit a world so constrained by evaporating reservoirs that everyone will be forced to make due with flushing and showering less frequently?
It’s this framework of environmental conservation by austerity, wherein people assume they have to scale back from a certain standard of living to help save the planet, that entrepreneurs like Mehrdad Mahdjoubi find to be wrongheaded. For one, fresh water is a renewable resource that already gets replenished partially through the naturally-occurring water cycle. The real problem, the Swedish industrial designer points out, is that about 95 percent of the water delivered to households goes down the drain. A 10-minute shower, for instance, can waste as much as 40 gallons of water.
That’s where Mahdjoubi’s invention, the OrbSys Shower, can really make a splash. For a 10-minte shower, the closed-loop system utilizes an advanced real-time water filtration system to continuously heat, sanitize and pump a set amount of water measuring as little as 1.5 gallons as it flows from the shower head, down to the drain and then re-circulates back again. Mahdjoubi‘s company, Orbital Systems, claims that it has conducted internal studies that suggest his water recycling technology cuts water usage on average by 90 percent and energy by 80 percent compared to standard showers. In economic terms, he estimates that having a unit installed can translate to a combined water and energy savings of at least €1,000 ($1,351) annually for each person.
“We developed this system based on the values of the future consumer,” says Mahdjoubi. “They’ll eventually be looking at how smart or how efficient a product is while also not having to sacrifice the comforts that people are used to.”
The most common knock on existing shower water recirculating systems is that it requires a noticeable reduction in water pressure. In contrast, Mahdjoubi says the Orbsys system actually improves upon the overall shower experience. Performance enhancements include a dedicated heating unit to maintain a steady, uninterrupted water temperature and beefed-up pressurization that maxes out at a little over six gallons per minute, a notable boost in contrast to the four gallons per minute rate offered by regular household systems. The filtration process was designed to remove 99.9 percent of contaminants, including viruses, to ensure that the water quality is at a level where it’s even safe to drink.
Inspiration for a water-filtering shower came while Mahdjoubi was a student at the University of Lund in Sweden and assigned to work on an undisclosed project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center aimed at helping astronauts survive lengthy space missions. The fact that the International Space Station is equipped with a toilet that recycles urine back into drinking water should give you an idea of how limited basic resources are aboard the satellite. After securing commercial funding, he consulted experts from several fields, including medical engineers who specialized in blood recycling dialysis systems, to assemble and test viable prototypes.
Though the Swedish industrial designer remains tight-lipped about how the technology works, a patent application available online reveals a dual filtering process in which a pre-filter device catches large debris such as hair and dirt while a primary absorbs finer contaminants like bacteria and viruses. The only maintenance required on the part of the user is to replace the filter about once a month, a quick-swapping procedure Mahdjoubi himself demonstrated on CNN’s Blueprint.
However, the technology blog Extreme Tech has disputed Orbital Systems’ 1,000 euro annual savings figure as wildly exaggerated. In an analysis, writer Sebastian Anthony argues that the number should be closer to $200 a year if you take into account that realistically homeowners would be charged a rate of about 15 cents per kWh. He’s naturally also dismissive of the company’s claim that it would take only two years for the shower system to pay for itself since they wouldn’t disclose a total cost for the system and suspects the number was derived from the same “crazy” estimate. When asked, Mahdjoubi declined to declare a hard number for how long it would take for ownership to be cost-effective, reasoning that calculating such an exact point in time would vary depending on the user and region of the world.
“It would depend on the actual behavior,” he explains. “If you don’t use it very often then it’ll take you longer to recoup that money.”
The first two commercial shower units have been installed and put in use at Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, a coastal bathing house in Malmo, Sweden where more 1,000 guests visit during the summer to bathe, swim and before showering off. With the booths constantly occupied throughout the day, Mahdjoubi says the owners have already saved over 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) and have placed an order for more showers units. Other customers awaiting being to have units installed include a nursing home and sports arena, both of which are located in Sweden.
While the heavy-duty systems are currently only available for businesses within Scandinavia, Mahdjoubi hopes to expand to other parts of Europe within two years. Also in the works is a scaled-down home edition that’s designed to be more affordable, hopefully.
November 25, 2013
Thanksgiving dinner has long been an all-day affair. But, we’re living in very different times than the days of the earliest feasts, when just cooking meat on a spit over a fire took several hours.
There are now three professional football games airing throughout the day, social media correspondences to keep up with and an implied obligation to get everyone’s belly stuffed in time for the ensuing shopping rush known as Black Friday, which, each year, seems to infringe more and more on the holiday. Oh, who are we kidding? Perhaps a lot of us have simply just become so lazy that we’d happily activate any device that reduces even the most mundane aspect of the cooking process to a push of a button. Automatic stirrer? Yes, please. Thankfully, we’ve got you—and even those who are the worst procrastinators (you know who you are)—covered with this high-tech guide for preparing an efficient and delicious traditional meal.
Let’s start with the customary centerpiece, otherwise known as the Thanksgiving turkey. Baking a bird typically requires going through a tedious process of rubbing, basting and slow roasting. An alternative, gaining in popularity over recent years, is an outdoor method of deep-frying turkeys so that the meat comes out moist beneath a layer of dark, crispy skin. Whereas cooking a turkey in the oven can take upwards of six hours, a 10-pound turkey can be ready to serve in 35 minutes with this method. Deep-frying kits, however, are potentially hazardous pieces of equipment if not handled properly, a fact proven year after year by the thousands of fires resulting from accidental turkey explosions.
Waring’s Pro Turkey Fryer/Steamer ($250), one of the few indoor fowl-fryer machines, is a godsend. Hailed by Newsweek as the one indoor fryer that can “save your Thanksgiving,” the all-electric rotating system allows home chefs to deep-fry turkeys weighing up to 18 pounds by simply lowering the prepped poultry into an oil-filled stainless steel reservoir. Built-in safety features include a magnetic breakaway cord, a basket that stays cool to the touch and lid vents that release steam to prevent boilovers. After about an hour, you get an evenly cooked turkey that’s ready to eat. As an added bonus, the device features a steamer function for other occasions, such as clam bakes.
Besides the inherent trickiness of serving up a well-cooked turkey, properly pulverizing potatoes into a thick creamy paste has also proven to be somewhat of an art. Shortcuts like tossing potatoes into a blender produce a watery goop that barely resembles the fluffy handmade goodness that everyone’s expecting. Potato ricers work well, but they are quite laborious to use.
The Better Potato Masher ($59.95), sold through Hammacher Schlemmer, functions like a mechanized ricer. Using a rotating motor, pieces of chopped and boiled potatoes are pressed and pureed through a sieve all the while “preserving their starch granules, breaking up any lumps, and yielding a smooth, fluffy batch of this beloved comfort food,” according to the product description.
Gravy is one aspect of Thanksgiving prep that should be easy enough to make itself, except the part where you have to stir…and stir…and stir again. The Uutensil Stirr ($25) automatic pan stirrer will literally take that tedious aspect of human labor out of your hands. Just place the device directly over the pan as you mix in milk, cream, flour and other ingredients. Reviews of the first version weren’t very positive, with Apartment Therapy concluding that the device is incapable of consistently stirring anything beyond “a thin liquid.” Tests carried out on oatmeal and milky sauces showed that the gradual thickening of the sauce caused the Stirr to grind down to a halt. But, the company has since released a new and improved model, which should (hopefully) have worked out these kinks.
Whether you augment the main course with a side serving of pumpkin pie or a heartier choice, such as mincemeat pie, the Breville Personal Pie Maker can enure that your dessert is loaded up and made piping hot within a fraction of the recommended 45-minute duration it takes to oven bake it. Kind of a like a waffle iron for pies, the mini-pie machine comes with a precut dough cutter and tamping tool to press the unbaked crust to fit each of the four (4-inch in diameter) pie molds. After adding and sealing in the filling, you simply close and lock the lid and in about 8 minutes, your pies are ready to serve. You can check out a thorough review of the pie maker on the site Baking Bites.
Even after the cooking is done, don’t let the nuisance of popping that all-important bottle of wine foil your Turkey day celebrations. For that, there are a number of electric corkscrews on the market that promise less fiddling around with broken corks. Though various models seek to differentiate themselves by offering a few unique features, the underlying mechanism is the same. Just remove the foil cap, fit the device over the cork and, with a simple press of a button, the winding metallic spiral worms itself securely into the plug before gently extracting it. Press another button and the device recoils, automatically spitting out the cork.
Wine tool specialist Metrokane is selling a version that includes an LCD screen that shows how many uncorkings are left before having to recharge. But a comprehensive review of select products in the New York Times found that the company’s Rabbit Corkscrew still needed some work, as a test run required a maddening intervention they likened to a “hasty C-section” to get the device to release the cork. Other models, such as the Oster Wine Vacuum Corkscrew, they found, were much more reliable.
November 18, 2013
During the previous decade, televisions bedazzled us by going wider, flatter and sharper. Now, a new breed of splashy TVs about to make their way into living rooms is seeking to not only impress in the looks department, but to also reshape our viewing habits.
OLED, heralded as the next evolution in home entertainment, outdoes current high end TV sets by boasting better picture quality than plasma, while being more energy efficient than LED LCDs—all in a lightweight, svelte design. The technology is also the first to enable screens to bend and curve so that, as LG, the earliest brand out of the gate with a mass-produced flexible OLED screen product, insists, “any hint of visual distraction” is removed, thus creating the “ultimate immersive viewing experience.”
Rival Samsung, in touting its recently unveiled 55″ 3D high-def S9C OLED TV set, is seeking to really up the ante with a special feature called “Multi-View,” which enables 2 people to enjoy different shows on the same TV simultaneously. For around $9,000, it’s almost like having 2 TV sets in one and essentially eliminating the potential for those unavoidable squabbles over who gets to watch what at a given moment. The teenage son can now enjoy the latest MMA match instead of wrestling with a sibling over exclusive rights on the remote control. Husbands and wives can sit close together on the couch while each being able to watch a favorite program. It sounds almost zen.
In “multi-view” mode, the display projects programming from various channels, which to the naked eye looks like one super-imposed blend. To receive signals from one of the concurrent programs, the user puts on a pair of special 3D glasses that locks on a specific program while actively filtering out the visual signals meant for the other person. The effect is achieved through the same physics of 3D technology; distinct visuals are flashed separately to the right eye and the left eye (that’s why basic 3D glasses have a blue filtering lens and a red one). The high rate of flickering between the two creates the three-dimensional effect, though sometimes the process can cause an image to leak into the other, an effect referred to as “ghosting.”
OLED monitors refresh at a rate 1,000 times faster than LCDs. And with the potential for “cross-talk” complications minimized, entire programs, movies and events can be flickered rapidly to numerous parties in either HD or 3D at full 1080 resolution. By pressing a button located on the left side of their 3D glasses,viewers can switch seamlessly between the various feeds as the accompanying audio is played into the built-in volume-adjustable earbuds.
Reviews for the technology have been mixed. Techlicious blogger Dan O’Halloran raved about the technology, praising the display’s picture quality as “impressive” and describing the imagery as “sharp and clear, the colors vibrant, and blacks deep.” Consumer Reports, however, points out that one of the major drawbacks with watching television in this mode is that you can’t adjust the picture quality. ”We couldn’t optimize the picture and found it to be over-sharpened,” notes the writer. Another criticism was that “resolution was visibly reduced when watching a 3D movie in the Multiview mode.”
Of course, it still all boils down to how actual couples take to the idea after an evening spent divvying up their screen. Reviewing the S9C for the Daily Mail, writer Ben Hatch and his wife Dinah had the kind of experience that made for a predictable story line.
At first, “it is utterly blissful. I could enjoy watching TV with my beloved wife without having to watch any of her unbeloved dross,” he writes.
She concurred, revealing that “At first, both of us revelled in our new-found TV independence. I looked over at Ben on the sofa, his face deadly serious as he absorbed the horrors of World War II, and felt pleased we had avoided the usual channel wrangle,” she writes.
But while their initial impressions were positive, Ben admitted to feeling ”lonely” and Dinah, being wary of welcoming something so disruptive into their home, ultimately gave the feature a thumbs down. “Overall, this experience is not great for our relationship,” she concludes. ”I noticed that Ben and I were sitting further apart on the sofa than normal.”
The takeaway, it seems, is that perhaps television is about a lot more than what’s on the screen. Mutual viewing, which has long served as a catalyst for bonding and quality time, is as ingrained as sharing supper together. And maybe those rare instances when DVRing a show won’t suffice (like when two live events are being broadcast simultaneously) should be thought of as a valuable opportunity for couples, roommates and siblings alike to cultivate one of the most neccesary relationship skills: compromise.