November 16, 2012
While it’s still not possible to definitively predict the course a nasty storm will take, we can say with absolute certainty that once it does arrive, two things will happen.
First, we will be treated to the last remaining example of slapstick on TV–weather reporters trying to remain upright in a gale. And second, we’ll see footage of a convoy of utility vehicles headed to the scene of the storm, the cavalry as bucket trucks.
The former is always loony, the latter usually reassuring. Yet there’s something oddly low tech about waiting for help from people driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Yes, our power grid has been described as a “model of 20th century engineering,” but what has it done to impress us lately?
Sadly, not much.
In fairness, no amount of innovation could have prevented the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy, when more than than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. But this is an industry for which, until very recently, the only way an electric company would find out about an outage was when a customer called it in. Not quite cutting edge.
Given the likelihood that more frequent extreme weather will bring more blackouts–the number of major outages in the U.S. has already doubled in past 10 years–power companies know they need to go about their business in different ways, that they need systems that can predict problems and respond automatically.
And it’s not as simple as burying all power lines. That’s really not a very good option in many places, particularly cities, where the cost, according to the Energy Information Administration, could be more than $2 million per mile–almost six times what overhead lines cost. Plus, repair costs can be higher for underground lines and, of course, they’re more vulnerable to flooding.
So what’s the solution? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated. But it undoubtedly will involve making power systems much smarter and also using, in a much more strategic way, the enormous amount of data becoming available on how consumers consume and how grids perform.
Here are five examples of companies and governments exploring new ways to keep the lights on.
1) Is your grid smarter than a fifth grader? With a boost of more than $100 million in federal stimulus money, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee converted its power grid into what’s known as a “self-healing network,” which uses high-speed fiber optic lines to report what’s happening on the system. About 1,200 new “smart switches” track what’s going on with the power lines and make adjustments, if necessary.
Say a falling tree takes out a line. The nearest switch would cut off power to that immediate area and reroute it around the problem. Which means fewer homes and businesses would be affected.
That’s just how it played out during a big windstorm in the city last summer. About 35,000 homes went dark, but city officials say that without the smart switches, another 45,000 houses and businesses would have joined them. The city’s utility estimates that the new system saved it $1.4 million during that one storm alone.
2) Your lights may go out. Oh, and it’s 73 degrees: To get better real-time data on how weather affects its grid, San Diego Gas & Electric Company built 140 little weather stations throughout its network.
They provide up-to-date readings on the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction, and pay particular attention to any signs of wildfires that could bring down the network.
3) Where you go off the grid to stay on the grid: Next year, Connecticut will become the first state to help its cities and towns start building their own “microgrids.” These will be small, self-sustaining islands of power that run on state-of-the-art fuel cells.
The idea is that these systems, able to disconnect from the main grid, will be capable of providing electricity to police and fire departments, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, college campuses, shelters and other key businesses, even if the rest of the city loses juice.
4) Welcome to Texas, where even Big Data is bigger: By the end of the year, Oncor, the utility serving most of north Texas, will have installed more than 3 million smart meters in homes and businesses. When you consider that each of them sends data to Oncor every 15 minutes–in the old days the utility took a reading just once a month–well, that’s a whole lot of data. Add in all the grid sensors along the system’s 118,000 miles of power lines and that’s more data than…well, that’s a whole lot of data.
So Oncor has partnered with IBM, the King of Big Data, to install software that will make sense of the all that information and, in the process, allow the company to detect outages much more quickly.
5) A tweet in the dark: Finally, it should probably come as no surprise that now one of the more effective ways for utility companies to track outages is through Facebook and Twitter.
So in January, GE will make available new software called Grid IQ Insight and one of its features is the ability to superimpose social media data–namely tweets and Facebook posts–over a power company’s network. So utilities won’t have to wait for customers to call in blackouts; they’ll just see their tweets pop up on a map.
Video bonus: So, what is a smart grid, any how? Scientific American lays it all out for you.
Video bonus bonus: And I ask again: What is it about hurricanes that makes people act stupid?
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November 9, 2012
This is what election night is like in America these days:
I had gathered with about dozen other people, ostensibly to watch the results on TV. But the TV received, at best, divided attention.
To my left, my wife Carol had fired up her laptop and was foraging for results on websites that might have vote totals more current than what was on the big screen. To her left, another woman was zeroed in on her smart phone and to my right, two more guests were doing the same. So was I, for that matter. I kept one eye on the TV so I didn’t miss any states changing color, but my good eye was focused on my smart phone, where I was following the running commentary of Facebook friends.
Of the people in the room, at least half were furiously working another screen.
And then, when NBC called the election for Barack Obama, our hostess jumped up and, with her smart phone, snapped a picture of the announcement on the TV screen, closing, for one fleeting moment, the screenfest loop.
Earlier that same day, appropriately, the Norwegian company never.no launched an interactive content tool called Sync. It’s designed to give advertisers the opportunity to jump on to the second screen so a commercial gets the attention for which the sponsor has paid. But we’re not talking about just showing the same ad at the same time on a smaller screen. That would be both lame and annoying.
No, Sync is meant to actually put an ad in play on the screen where the action is. You’d be encouraged to interact with it–answering poll questions, getting more info about a product, maybe even sharing a clip about it on Facebook and Twitter. And as this approach gets more sophisticated, the thinking goes, it will become possible to flip things around so that the audience can influence an ad in real time, perhaps by selecting an ending from several different choices.
For advertisers this would be a beautiful thing–genuine viewer engagement in an experience that makes an ad personal and extends its life beyond its 30 seconds on screen. All while tracking the behavior of all those people interacting with it.
Screen on me
Other companies have also been trying to master the two-screen shuffle, including Shazam, the outfit best known for creating the mobile app that can tell you the name of a song once it hears the music. Starting with the Super Bowl last February, when it worked with more than half of the event’s advertisers to steer owners of its app to bonus content, Shazam has been refining the process of using mobile phones to connect viewers in more personal ways to TV programs and advertisers.
It still follows its original concept of recognizing sounds or music to identify a show or sponsor, but now it takes the next step of actually providing opportunities to bond with a product.
The latest example rolled out in Ireland a few days ago, an ad for Volvo. Anyone with the Shazam app on their phone–and there reportedly are now more than 250 million people around the world who have it–can “tag” the Volvo ad when it comes on TV and that, among other extras, allows them to then sign up for a free test drive and get a chance to win an iPad mini.
Take this personally
Okay, but how many of us really want to engage with a commercial? Don’t we do just about anything to avoid watching them? People in the multi-screen business acknowledge this. They know people tend to resent the intrusion of ads into the personal space of their phones and that many would much rather play Words With Friends during commercials than get all chummy with a bathroom cleaner.
And yet while recent research found that at least three out of four TV viewers say they use some other device while watching, a nice chunk of them–more than a third–say they’ve used their cell phone or digital tablet to browse for products spotted in a show or ad.
So the inclination is there. The key for advertisers is learning to create true value for viewers in the experience they provide on the small screens, a real reason to interact, not just some shrunken message of what they put on the TV screen.
Which brings me back to the election. There’s already talk that four years from now, political advertising will need to move into the multi-screen world of the 21st century. It will need to evolve beyond the thinking that volume is everything, that the days are over when the winner invariably was the side that could hammer home its message most often.
A case in point: An analysis of Super PAC spending published this week by the Sunlight Foundation found that American Crossroads, which spent more than $100 million on campaign advertising this year, had a success rate of just 1.29 percent.
Here are more recent developments in efforts to reach people on multiple screens:
- Life imitates TV: NBC will begin using a social TV app called Zeebox, which not only allows viewers to converse in real time with friends watching the same show, but also now will provide them with info on how they can purchase items in shows, particularly clothing and kitchen products.
- When you wish you were a star: A live ad for the recent launch in Great Britain of the popular Xbox video game Halo 4 featured a “roll call of honor,” a display of the names and pictures of randomly selected gaming fans who opted in via Facebook. The ad also showed, in real time, the number of people playing Halo 4 on Xbox Live.
- You make the call…in 140 characters or less: Also in the U.K., a recent campaign for Mercedes-Benz allowed viewers to vote on Twitter to determine how an ad featuring a chase scene should end.
- Will only redheads see ads for ginger snaps?: Earlier this fall Allstate worked with DirecTV and the Dish Network to target the audience so that only renters saw an ad for renter’s insurance.
Video bonus: Here’s a taste of the Mercedes-Benz ad that viewers controlled through Twitter.
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September 25, 2012
About a year ago I wrote about the first meeting of the 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS), a conference designed to keep scientists focused on what it will take for humans to be able to travel outside our solar system.
Luckily, they still have about a century to figure it out. NASA and DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, are behind the project, and the latter has kicked in $500,000 to start wrestling with the ridiculously difficult challenge of traveling trillions of miles in space by 2100.
Last week, at the second 100YSS meeting, there actually was a bit of progress to note. Along with a discussion of how many pair of underpants would be required to make such a trip and a rendition of the “Star Trek” theme song by Lt. Uhura herself, came a report that warp drive might actually be possible, that it would require far less energy than previously thought for a spaceship to travel several times faster than the speed of light.
Good news, but still a long, long way from making real something we used to see happen on TV every week. It reminded me, though, of the iterative, and often methodical process of science and how too often the focus on innovation is more about the potential of new ideas and technology and less about how they actually evolve in the real world.
So here are updates on five innovations I’ve written about in the past year. Some are already making their mark; others remain on a low boil.
1) When robots play nice: Robots work great by themselves, but mix them in with humans and it can get a little dicey. Most robots, while amazingly efficient and powerful, can also be dangerous to people nearby because, to put it simply, they don’t know we’re there.
That’s not the case, however, with a new model designed by Boston-based Rethink Robotics. It’s called Baxter and it’s been given the artificial intelligence to slow its motions when it detects a person approaching. And, to alert humans that it’s aware of their presence, its face turns red.
Next month Rethink will start selling Baxter, which can be trained by humans to do different tasks. The goal is to expand the robot market beyond big factories by providing a model that’s safe and relatively inexpensive–Baxter will cost $22,000, a steal by robot standards.
2) Replicator 2! Coming soon to an office near you!: Much has been written about 3-D printing as the future driver of manufacturing. But Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries, has always believed in the more personal side of 3-D printers. He thinks they belong in people’s homes right next to their PCs.
Since 2009, the company has sold 13,000 of its MakerBot models. But buyers have largely been hobbyists who ordered their printers online. Now the company is taking things up a notch. Last week Pettis unveiled The Replicator 2, a sleek, stylized and more expensive model, one designed to fit right into the suitably applianced home. Also last week, MakerBot opened its first real store, in Manhattan no less.
Ah, but there’s also a bit of a dark side to giving people the power to print objects at home. Last month, a Wisconsin engineer showed readers of his blog the working gun he made.
3) Every picture tells a story. Or three: When it came on the market early this year, the Lytro camera had some people saying it would do for cameras what the iPhone did for cell phones. It made photos interactive, allowing you to change what’s in focus in an image after the fact. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was impressed enough to include a Lytro in its 2012 Smart Home exhibit.
The Lytro still may transform photography, but not this year. Probably not next year, either. For now at least, most people seem perfectly content with the photos they can take on their smart phones, and they aren’t ready to pay $400 for a camera shaped like a stick of butter that allows them to do something with photos they’re not in the habit of doing.
This summer, Lytro founder Ren Ng stepped down as CEO, a move he said would allow him to focus on the company’s vision and not get bogged down in day-to-day operations. This likely has a lot to do with how quickly Lytro, which raised $50 million in private funding, has grown. It still isn’t able to fill online orders immediately–it won’t share sales figures–but Ng says it has reduced the wait time to about a month.
In case you haven’t seen how Lytro photography works, here’s a sampling.
4) Apple has spoken: A lot of attention has already been paid to the new features of the iPhone 5–its bigger screen, 4G speed, longer battery life. But it’s also worth noting something it doesn’t have–a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip.
That’s what turns a smart phone into a mobile wallet, enabling it to make payments by waving it at checkout devices in stores. There was much speculation that if Apple gave NFC its blessing, it would push the technology mainstream in the U.S.
But Apple balked, in part because not many stores in the the U.S. have been willing to upgrade their checkout systems with NFC devices. Customers haven’t exactly been clamoring for them and besides, if Apple’s not buying in, why bother, say store owners. (Ah, the vicious circle.)
This is not good news for Isis, a partnership of mobile carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, and credit card companies, such as American Express and Capital One. The day after Apple introduced its new smart phone–minus a NFC chip–Isis announced that it was delaying the launch of its NFC mobile payments service.
5) But who’s going to blow the horn?: Since I first wrote about it in July, 2011, Google’s driverless car has received big boosts in Nevada, which last spring became the first state to issue license plates to autonomous vehicles, and California, where last month, in an extremely rare case of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to overwhelmingly pass a self-driving car law. It directs the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol to develop safety and performance standards for robotic vehicles.
But Google’s just getting warmed up. It’s following up its success in lobbying officials there by pushing similar legislation in Florida, Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma. And this is a concept that’s trending: BMW and Audi are known to be working on their own versions and no less prestigious an organization as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recently predicted that by 2040, 75 percent of the vehicles on the road won’t have human drivers.
Still, it’s not all open road ahead. Automakers have raised questions about their liability if they start selling driverless cars–although Google is quick to point out that its fleet of autonomous Priuses have so far logged 300,000 miles without one accident. And a consumer watchdog group in California fought the driverless car legislation, raising privacy concerns about how all the data gathered by the vehicles is used. Could you start receiving ads based on where your car drives?
Video bonus: This was probably inevitable. A candidate in Florida has come under fire for his support of driverless cars and now one of his opponent’s campaign ads features an old lady with a walker nearly run down at a stop sign by, you guessed it, a car without a driver. In case you miss the point, the large type next to her asks: “Will Driverless Cars REALLY Slow for Pedestrians?”
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September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
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August 23, 2012
It’s not often that shoes make news and when they do, it usually has something to do with Nike and latest sports deity whose feet it has shod.
So it was again earlier this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that when Nike rolls out its LeBron X Nike Plus model this fall, sneakers could break the $300 barrier.
For that tidy sum, you’ll get the same type of shoes LeBron James wore in the Olympics gold medal basketball game in London and you get sensors–four scientifically-placed sensors embedded under each sole. They will measure downward pressure from different points on your foot and, together with an accelerometer, also under the sole, they’ll gather data and send it to your smartphone, which will let you know how high you’ve jumped.
Not that I need sensors to tell me that the answer is “Not very.” Then again, I’m hardly in Nike’s golden demo. Still, while demand for pricey sports shoes has remained steady throught the recession, the sense is that if prices keep climbing, people better get more than a gilded Swoosh for their money. So Nike has also put the sensors in trainer models, allowing the shoes to track and measure a person’s workouts and share that info with his or her smartphone.
Which, if equipped with Siri, will one day be able to let you know how disappointed she is in you.
You are how you walk
Actually, the most intriguing story about shoes this summer came out last month in Pittsburgh. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) are working with a Canadian startup called Autonomous ID to develop biometric shoes that can identify who you are by the way you walk.
Studies have shown that everyone has unique feet and a distinctive gait, a signature as personalized as a fingerprint. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese government, in fact, have spent millions of dollars on gait research.
The CMU team has applied that knowledge to create what they’ve dubbed BioSoles for shoes. They can record the pressure points of someone’s feet, track their gait and use a microcomputer to compare that to a master file already made for that person. If the patterns match, the BioSoles stay silent. If they don’t, they transmit a wireless alarm message.
According to the scientists, the system knows by your third step if you are who you’re supposed to be. In testing so far, they say it’s been accurate 99 percent of the time. Now they’re broadening the sample so that a much wider range of society is tested–thin people, heavy people, athletes, members of different races and cultures, and twins.
How would BioSoles be used? Mainly at military bases and nuclear plants for now, where each employee would have his own shoes. That would provide security that’s effective, but less invasive than other biometric techniques, such as iris scans.
But since the devices are designed to detect changes in gait, some think they could end up being used to help spot early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. One of its first indications is a slowing walk or a change in stride.
Best foot forward
Here are other recent innovations from the shoe biz:
- At least your shoes will understand you: Engineers in Germany have developed a device called ShoeSense that allows your shoes to read hand gestures and pass on messages to your smartphone. Here’s how it would work: Say you’re sitting in a meeting and you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but don’t want to be rude. So you make a pre-arranged gesture under the table, such as holding up two fingers, and your shoes will tell your phone to send a text you’ve already written.
- The gaits have opened: A firm based in Oklahoma City, Orthocare Innovations, has created a prosthetic device that closely mimics a human ankle and can be controlled with a smartphone. The device includes a microprocessor, sensors and hydraulics that allow users to make adjustments to changes in conditions, such as moving from a level surface to an incline.
- Lost and found: There’s now a brand of shoes designed to help find Alzheimer’s patients who wander away. The GPS Smart Shoe has a GPS transmitter embedded in its heel and tracks the person’s location in real time and sends the info to a monitoring station.
- Hot off the printer: Continuum, a small firm that sells customizable fashion, is now marketing shoes made on a 3D printer. Customers can order different colors, styles or heel lengths. The cost? A cool $900 a pair. (Take that, LeBron).
- Road zip: To make it easier to pack hiking shoes, Timberland has come out with the Radler Trail Camp shoes. They fold in half and zip shut.
- Yes, there are bad ideas: Earlier this summer Los Angeles designer Jeremy Scott created for Adidas a model for a sneaker that came with a plastic shackle meant to encircle the leg above each shoe. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said they looked like “slave shoes.” Adidas made them go away.
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