December 4, 2013
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
More from Smithsonian.com
December 2, 2013
As one of the most ubiquitous crops in the world, the potato is poised to feed the entire world. Along the way, scientists discovered that the popular staple of many people’s diets may also have potential to help power it as well.
A couple years ago, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem released their finding that a potato boiled for eight minutes can make for a battery that produces ten times the power of a raw one. Using small units comprised of a quarter-slice of potato sandwiched between a copper cathode and a zinc anode that’s connected by a wire, agricultural science professor Haim Rabinowitch and his team wanted to prove that a system that can be used to provide rooms with LED-powered lighting for as long as 40 days. At around one-tenth the cost of a typical AA battery, a potato could supply power for cell phone and other personal electronics in poor, underdeveloped and remote regions without access to a power grid.
To be clear, the potato is not, in and of itself, an energy source. What the potato does is simply help conduct electricity by acting as what’s called a salt-bridge between the the two metals, allowing the electron current to move freely across the wire to create electricity. Numerous fruits rich in electrolytes like bananas and strawberries can also form this chemical reaction. They’re basically nature’s version of battery acid.
“Potatoes were chosen because of their availability all over including the tropics and sub-tropics,” Rabinowitch told the Science and Development Network. They are the world’s fourth most abundant food crop.”
But besides being rich in phosphoric acid, spuds are ideal in that they’re composed of sturdy starch tissue, can be stored for months and won’t attract insects the way, say strawberries, would. Additionally, boiling the potato breaks down the resistance inherent in the dense flesh so that electrons can flow more freely, which significantly bumps up the overall electrical output. Cutting the potato up into four or five pieces, they researchers found, made it even more efficient.
The potato battery kit, which includes two metal electrodes and alligator clips, is easy to assemble and, some parts, such as the zinc cathode, can be inexpensively replaced. The finished device Rabinowitch came up with is designed so that a new boiled potato slice can be inserted in between the electrodes after the potato runs out of juice. Alligator clips that transport the current carrying wires are attached to the electrodes and the negative and positive input points of the light bulb. Compared to kerosene lamps used in many developing parts of the world, the system can provide equivalent lighting at one-sixth the cost; it’s estimated to be somewhere around $9 per kilowatt hour and a D cell battery, for another point of comparison, can run as much as $84 per kilowatt hour.
Despite the advantages, a recent BBC report that followed up on the group’s initial discovery found that the group has since been beset with a number of extenuating circumstances that have hindered their efforts to scale up their idea to places like villages in off-the-grid parts in Africa and India. Economically speaking, food-based energy systems can only be viable as long as they don’t eat into the needed food supply and that such enterprises don’t compete with farmers who grow them for market. The technology is also having a difficult time establishing a niche among more fashionable forms of alternative energy like solar and wind power, where infrastructure and investment seems to be headed mostly. Thus far, no commercial investors or non-profit organization has stepped up to help expand or distribute any of the prototypes Rabinowitch has developed.
To really make an impact, perhaps the potato needs to stop being so humble.
November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 22, 2013
Let’s be honest, paying with change is a nuisance. Coins are heavy and cumbersome, and it’s nearly impossible to count them quickly. Some people think coins are such vestigial organs of an old payment system that there are campaigns to stop minting pennies and nickels altogether. As more and more people use credit and debit cards instead of cash, it appears as though coins will increasingly become a thing of the past—except for one Coin, which might completely change the future of how we pay for things.
Coin, a San Francisco-based start-up, announced its first product earlier this month—a credit card sized device that purports to simplify your life (and wallet) by acting as a kind of all-in-one card. With Coin, you can store up to eight different cards—from credit to debit to gift to loyalty cards—on a single device, and toggle between them using a circular button. Coin works just like any other card with a magnetic strip, and can be swiped or even inserted into ATMs.
To load various cards onto the Coin, users need to have a smartphone (currently the model works for iOS and Android mobile systems) and a Square-like attachment to swipe your cards, provided with a Coin purchase. After users download the Coin app onto their phones, they simply use the attachment to swipe their cards and then take a few pictures of the cards—the Coin stores the information, displaying the last four digits of the card number along with the expiration date and the CVV. The makers of Coin say that this makes Coin less susceptible to forms of credit card theft where people take pictures of a card, because the complete credit card number isn’t shown. You can still use your individual cards even after uploading them into Coin—something that might be useful at a bar, where you’d need to give the bartender a card to keep your tab open.
In the interest of security, Coin also sends out a low-energy Bluetooth signal when
the card is a certain distance from your phone. So, if you absentmindedly leave your Coin somewhere, you’ll receive a message alerting you. You can also configure your Coin so that if it loses contact with your phone for a period of time it deactivates. It’s a way to protect against your card being stolen or lost—and though some have worried that it’s a double edged-sword, since the times you find yourself without phone battery might be the most important times to have access to cash, Coin has added a security feature that deals with this issue. If your Coin deactivates for any reason (your phone dies, you lose your phone, etc.), you can unlock the card manually, by tapping a “Morse-code-like” password on a button.
Coin CEO and founder Kanishk Parashar
learned some key lessons from his previous start-up attempts, which centered around peer-to-peer payment apps that attempted to create seamless mobile payment experiences. Parashar found that even though the apps were fairly well received, it was too difficult to encourage users to pay in a way so outside of their normal habits.
“When we released these apps, we got decent traction, but a month or two in we weren’t getting any payments coming into the system,” says Parashar. He realized that there just wasn’t enough critical mass to inspire users to change their normal payment habits. “The existing solutions are already pretty good. [Any new product] needs to be able to interact with infrastructure that already exists,” Parashar explains.
So he went back to the drawing board and created Coin, which he thinks can more seamlessly integrate into the way we conduct transactions.
Some tech writers are concerned that by trying to integrate itself into existing infrastructures, Coin doesn’t go far enough. As Will Oremus at Slate writes:
To me, the only real problem with Coin is that it feels like a stopgap technology, like those CD-changer cartridges that were popular for a little while before everyone switched to mp3s. Replacing eight cards with one may lighten your load by an ounce or two, but is that enough to convince people to take the leap of faith involved in adopting a new payment system?
Over at The Verge, however, Ellis Hamburger praises Coin’s potential universal appeal. “It could end up being very useful for everyone from design nerds to moms and dads,” he writes, “because the value it offers is obvious: on the surface, it takes eight pieces of plastic and turns them into one piece of plastic.”
Coin isn’t the first product to combine multiple cards in one place; in 2010, Dynamics Inc. released a product known as Card 2.0, which worked much like Coin, allowing users to input multiple credit and debit cards onto a single device (Card 2.0 had no related app). Its release was met with much excitement from the tech community, and it won both the first prize and the people’s choice award at DEMO, a conference held in Silicon Valley for start-ups. But Card 2.0 didn’t quite catch on, because consumers could only obtain them through financial institutions.
When it came time to release Coin, Parashar made sure to cut out the middleman and market to individuals.
“First and foremost, we went directly to the consumer,” says Parashar. “When you try to change something that is core to a consumer, like paying for things, what you have to do is bring a full solution that replaces the way they did things. Basically, Coin is going to be a lifestyle, and I feel like that resonated with consumers.”
For the next few weeks, early-birds can pre-order a Coin for $50, before the price is raised to $100. Parashar estimates that early-buyers will recieve their Coins in summer 2014.
Parashar acknowledges that, as with any new technology, Coin will be subject to scrutiny, but he welcomes feedback as a way to improve the user experience.
“Anytime there is a new technology that comes into play, there’s always some level of scrutiny. A lot of new products come out and there’s always a lot of analysis about it. First and foremost, we need to technically meet challenges,” says Parashar. “The bottom line is that when you build a product that everyone loves, there’s going to be a good result.”
Untold reams of paper, barrels of ink and reels of film have been used to analyze and pick apart every detail of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza 50 years ago. But now there’s an entirely new way to examine the tragic event, made by Danish graphic designer Leif Sørensen: an interactive 3D diorama that shows the surrounding buildings and area, the path of each of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gunshots and the position of Kennedy’s car at these fateful moments.
Sørensen originally built the model for the Danish newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende to use in printed graphics, then uploaded it to the Sketchfab site, a platform for sharing interactive visualizations. “I thought it would be interesting to give people a feeling of what the place was really like,” he says. “A lot of people have seen maps, but this gives a little more feeling of the surroundings.”
He created the model using historic photos and maps, and used three straight lines to depict the three gunshots fired by Oswald from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The green line represents a missed shot fired by Oswald—likely the first shot he fired, shortly after Kennedy’s limousine turned onto Elm Street, according to the Warren Commission, the body of Congressmen and other officials that investigated the assassination. The shorter red line shows the second shot, which hit the president in the upper back, passed through his body and hit Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of him. The longer red line shows the third shot, which hit Kennedy in the head after his car had traveled a bit further down the street.
The model also shows a number of other key observers, including Abraham Zapruder, who inadvertently shot the most complete footage of the assassination (he’s shown in gray, standing on top of the curved concrete pergola structure) and Bill and Gayle Newman, who dropped to the grass near Zapruder to cover their children (shown in yellow, near the grassy knoll).
“Of course, we could have added many more people to the scene, and even more shots, but this is the official version, according to the Warren Commission’s report,” Sørensen says. “So we wanted to depict this as accurately as possible.”
Sørensen’s isn’t the only 3D model of the event—ESRI, the mapping software company, has also produced their own digital visualization, used in the video below: