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.
More from Smithsonian.com
August 6, 2012
If you’re over 50 and bought a new car recently, you’ve no doubt had the same reaction to the dashboard that I did, which was: “What is all this?”
I realize that these days data is to be revered and that a moment without infotainment or, perish the thought, a Web connection, is viewed as life not worth living. Yet I can’t shake the notion that the point of getting in a car is to drive it somewhere and that this has generally not required that I be so well-informed or emotionally fulfilled.
The above statement, of course, lowers me deep into the pit of fogeyishness and I know that frankly, no companies, save those that sell medications, see me and my ilk as a valued demographic. For carmakers, certainly, the target is the generations for which any screen, including a dashboard, should be a gateway to friends and music and info gratification. And it’s become critical for them to start delivering on that expectation since research suggests that the younger slice of that market isn’t as enanmored of the whole driving thing as their predecessors were–the percentage of young licensed drivers in the U.S. keeps dropping.
A new digital divide
So we’re moving quickly into the era of the connected car, with vehicles seen as rolling smartphones with easy access to Facebook and Twitter and to mobile apps, such as Pandora and Yelp. Any question about when this is going mainstream was answered a few weeks ago when Honda announced that starting this fall, a system called HondaLink will be offered in new Honda Accords. It will allow drivers to stream Internet radio, download audiobooks, see ratings for nearby restaurants and have Facebook feeds read to them.
With HondaLink, as with similar systems on other models, your smartphone will feed info from the Web into the dashboard display. But when is all the stuff on the screen too much? Well, it depends on your age. While three out of four car owners in a new Harris Poll said in-car connectivity could be too distracting, when people were asked about the appeal of connected cars, the results broke down along a generational digital divide.
Less than 40 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 66 think it’s important to have a connected car; drop down into the 18-to-35 age group and the approval rating jumps to almost 60 percent. And two out of three people in the younger group said a car’s technology would likely influence their next car-buying decision; in the older group, the number was under 50 percent. One other notable difference: Younger drivers were more concerned about privacy, specifically what connectivity would reveal about their driving habits and how that could affect their insurance rates.
Siri, tell that guy’s car that he’s a jerk
Automakers say all the in-dash technology will make drivers less likely to use their phones while they’re at the wheel. The big question, of course, is whether one distraction is simply being traded for another. Given that within the next five years, at least an estimated 80 percent of the new cars in North America and Europe will have Internet access, this is no small matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation already has weighed in with voluntary guidelines, which basically tell carmakers to keep it simple. It’s true that distracted driving will become less of an issue when driverless cars hit the market, but that’s still years away.
The focus now is on finding the most efficient ways to get our cars to do our bidding. Ford, whose MyFordTouch system has made it a leader in what’s known as in-car telematics, gives you three options: you can use a new and improved touch screen in the middle of the instrument panel, you can use secondary controls on the steering wheel or you can just speak your mind with the hope that the machine will catch your drift.
Actually, you have a much better chance these days that your voice commands will be understood. There’s little question that Siri, the iPhone’s digital assistant, has racheted up the capabilities of voice recognition. So it’s not surprising that most of the major automakers, will the exception of Ford, are seriously considering integrating Siri’s Eyes Free into their new vehicles. It’s a feature on the steering wheel, which like the button on the iPhone, would allow you to strike up a conversation with the ever-servile Siri.
Or you can just talk with your hands. And your face. Harman, the car infotainment systems supplier, has developed a concept car in which you can control the dashboard techonology with gestures. A wink turns the radio on, a tilt of your head to the left or right turns the volume up or down and a tap on the steering wheel skips to the next song. And if you want to make a call? Right, thumb up, pinkie out.
Here are more of the latest advances using car sensors and other fresh tech:
- When cars talk: A year-long research project involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will analyze how enabling cars to talk to one other reduces collisions. The study will also try to determine whether warning sounds or visual signals are better at helping drivers avoid crashes.
- You’ll feel a sneeze coming: Ford has just come out with an Allergy Alert app. It aggregates info from Pollen.com to let drivers whose cars have Ford’s Sync system know about the pollen levels where they are. Also the asthma risk and the level of ultraviolet rays.
- Straighten up and drive right: More cutting-edge stuff from Ford. It has developed a technology called Traffic Jam Assist that uses cameras and sensors to ensure that your car stays in its lane and keeps pace with other vehicles in traffic.
- I brake for crashes: As of 2014, the European Commission will not give its five-star safety rating to any car without autonomous emergency braking. It’s a system using sensors and cameras to track the distance to a car in front of you. If it sees the threat of a crash, the brakes apply on their own.
- Bad moods: Toyota is developing technology that will use a camera to analyze drivers’ facial expressions. If you look sad or angry, the vehicle will sound warning alerts sooner since research shows that people in those emotional states are less alert to road hazards.
Video bonus: Here’s a Smart Planet video that explains how cars talking to one another could dramatically reduce the number of crashes, particularly in intersections.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 23, 2012
Nothing like a hot, sticky July day to make you think that driving would have been one of the circles of Hell had Dante had a bad commute. These are the days when the grind can seen eternal, when it feels that life has become an endless trail of brake lights leading to the horizon, and that it shall always be so.
But take heart, my friends. To keep hope alive, I’ve compiled a sampling of some of the freshest thinking about changing the experience of getting around, and not just in cars. Some are imminent, others may never reach fruition. Yet most are focused on making this slice of our lives a little more bearable.
1) The flowing rate: If the highways near you are jammed every day, meet what may be your future. Xerox is working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a pilot program based on the idea that drivers pay a higher toll if traffic is heavier. Starting this November on notoriously crammed I-110, solo drivers will be able to pay to enter what used to be HOV lanes. The toll will start at 25 cents a mile, but can rise to as high as $1.40 a mile. The plan is to guarantee a consistent speed of at least 45 miles an hour. And they hope to do that by using algorithms Xerox is developing to control traffic flow by raising and lowering the toll as needed.
2) Rain, rain, go away: Know how headlights can sometimes seem pointless in a bad rainstorm? Well, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh noticed that too, and now have invented a model that can see through rain and snow. It works like this: A digital projector illuminates raindrops for several milliseconds while a camera mounted on the side of the projector captures each raindrop’s location; software predicts where those drops will come down within the driver’s field of view. Then light rays that would normally hit the raindrops are automatically switched off. That reduces glare and leaves only beams of lights that travel between the drops showing what’s up ahead. This is so much cooler than pulling over.
3) That’ll teach ya: Talk about getting tough on texting drivers. Researchers at India’s Anna University of Technology have developed a device that not only jams the phone signal of the person in the driver’s seat, but also sounds a tone to let people in nearby vehicles and passengers in his or her own car know that the driver’s distracted. But it wouldn’t stop there. The Cellphone Accident Preventer also has the capability to send your license number to the local police. That’s harsh.
4) Parting is such sweet sorrow: Or you could take the approach devised by Florida inventor Ronald Pothul. He calls it a “Dock-n-Lock” and it requires the driver to place his or her phone in a locker compartment. Otherwise the car won’t start, due to a non-removable ID chip on the phone. Only after the ignition is shut off will the locker open.
5) The road to power: Some day it will seem silly that we had to plug in electric vehicles to juice them up. A team of Japanese engineering students has taken the first steps in what could be our EV future by designing a way for the road itself to provide the power. They call it EVER–Electric Vehicle on Electrified Roadway–and it involves transmitting an electrical current through concrete and up through the vehicle’s tires.The group at Toyohashi University was able to transmit between 50 to 60 watts of power through a 4-inch block of concrete and produce enough of a current to light a bulb. Right, that’s a long way from juicing up cars on the interstate, plus the cost of building electrified highways would be enormous. But maybe, just maybe it will gain traction. (Forgive me.)
6) Bring on the peanuts: Later this year Qantas Airlines will start putting free digital tablets in the pockets of all seats on its 767 flights–and not just those in first class. Everyone will get access to 200 hours of free video and audio. And the airline ultimately saves money by no longer needing the in-flight entertainment systems that add weight to each plane.
7) But will there be iPads?: No one less than NASA is taking a run at reinventing the helicopter. Its Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR) looks like a plane, but with two huge rotors at the end of each wing instead of small propellers. At take-off and landing those rotors spin parallel to the ground just as in a helicopter. For flight they swivel into position to act like propellers. The LCTR would be able to carry up to 90 passengers and make trips as long as 1,000 miles.
8) Don’t you hate being so predictable?: Here’s an innovation that’s not so much about how you get somewhere, but about where you’re going to be. Scientists at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have developed an algorithm that uses, in part, the movements of your social group to predict where you’ll be 24 hours from now. The predictions proved to be far less precise if the “mobility patterns” of friends–defined as contacts on a person’s cellphone–weren’t factored in.
9) Park it anywhere: The idea’s been around since 2010, but now SoBi Social Bicycles programs are about to roll out in Buffalo and two still unnamed West Coast cities. Bike-sharing is starting to take off in some American cities, but SoBi takes the idea to the next level by combining it with GPS. Each bike has its own on-board computer which can be accessed through a SoBi mobile app. It tells you where a SoBi bike is nearby and then you have 15 minutes to get there and unlock it, using its keyboard and a confirmation code you’ve been given. When you’re done, you can leave the bike anywhere, instead of needing to return it to a share station. A combination of pedal power and a small solar panel helps charge the system.
10) Video bonus: Park it anywhere II: Check out this video of the Hiriko, the electric urban share car designed at the MIT Media Lab. It’s tiny to begin with, then folds up so you can fit three of them in the parking space one ordinary car would need.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 27, 2012
The United States and China are different in so many ways. We borrow, they lend. We like to fly solo, they value their roles in larger groups. We follow the exploits of people named Snooki, they do not know the depths of Snookiness.
Then there are electric bikes. China loves them, America, not so much. Actually, hardly at all.
Let’s run the numbers: Last year, about 25 million e-bikes were sold in China; in the U.S. the number was under 100,000. According to Pike Research, U.S. sales might climb over 100,000 this year and could reach as high as 350,000 in 2018. But that would still be a sliver of projected global sales in 2018, just under 50 million. And it would not only be dwarfed by the market in China–which will still account for almost 90 percent of worldwide sales–but also will fall well below e-bike purchases in India, Europe and Japan.
So why have e-bikes been in such tepid demand here? After all, they run on a battery inside the frame, which has a range of roughly 30 miles on a full charge. They’re very clean–no gas combusted–amazingly efficient, and can go almost as fast as a moped, up to 20 miles per hour. And they can flatten hills that make grown men weep. Or as Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told Outside magazine, it’s like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”
Okay, there is the price. A good electric bike can start at $1,000, about three times the cost of a quality bicycle; some models, such as the ones now being used by the Los Angeles Police Department, can cost as much as $5,000.
But it’s more than that. A bigger problem is that the people most likely to use electric bikes in the U.S. don’t much like them. In fact, ask most cyclists what they think of e-bikes and they’ll tell you they consider them just one notch above Segways on the sloth meter. A bike with a battery? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t the whole point to pedal?
Plug and play
Well, yes and no. In China, particularly, electric bikes are a cheap way to get to work. Fitness is not a big part of the equation. You can pedal, but most Chinese don’t. The sensation has been described as something like gliding on a moving walkway at the airport.
Even outside China, e-bikes are coasting closer to the mainstream. Last fall Hertz started renting e-bikes in London. Also in the U.K., the first Electric Bike World Championship–appropriately an uphill race–will be held in Bristol this June. In Amsterdam, where pedaling to work is as routine as morning coffee, almost one out of every five bikes sold last year were battery-powered.
There are trends that could turn things around in the U.S. The obvious one is rising gas prices. Every time they flirt with $4 a gallon, electric bike sales in the U.S. bump up. If they hit $5, the bump could become a boom. There’s also the matter of aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who like to ride bikes, but no longer yearn to feel the burn. For them, it’s glide time. In fact, that’s a big part of the e-bike business in Europe.
While fewer than 2 percent of Americans bicycle daily, there’s no question that the number of people biking to work in U.S. cities increases every year. And as the packs of bikers grow in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where the hills are beyond brutal, expect a lot more of them to avoid the heavy pedaling and go electric.
An update: Since posting this piece, among the responses I’ve received was an email from
Boris Mordkovich, a greentech entrepreneur from New York who’s in the middle of a cross-country odyssey to promote e-bikes in the U.S. He emailed from Milwaukee a note including the following comment:
“You’ve mentioned that a big problem in the U.S. is that most of the people who are likely to use them don’t like them. It’s actually not entirely the case. Most of the people in the U.S. either aren’t familiar with electric bikes or have misconceptions about them, confusing them with scooters, motorcycles and everything in between. As long as that’s the case, they fail to see the benefits in them. However, as soon as they are explained what an electric bike is and how it actually works, or better yet, take their first ride on it, the perception changes drastically.”
Batteries not included
Of course, a lot of cool things are still happening with non-electric bikes. Here are a few of the latest innovations:
- A light touch: There’s no shortage of ideas for making bikers visible at night, but one of the more ingenious ones is GLOBARS, in which plastic tubing containing LED lights is wrapped into the handlebars.
- Glow with the flow: A bike called The Pulse provides an even more stylish way to keep urban bikers safe. The middle of the frame is coated with photo-luminescent powder to make it glow in the dark.
- Can a bike ever be too thin?: The aptly named ThinBike is designed for the urban biker with zero storage space. It features collapsible pedals and handlebars that can be twisted without moving the front tire, allowing the bike to shrink from 21 inches to six inches wide.
- I’m pickin’ up wood vibrations: Okay, this isn’t for everyone, but it sure looks like one sweet ride. It’s a bike handcrafted from ash wood in Spain that demands that you don’t dare wear sweat pants when you climb aboard. Or if your taste in wood runs more tropical, check out the creation of designer Craig Calfee, who has built a bike of bamboo, right down to the spokes.
Video bonus: How could electric bikes not be mainstream if Jay Leno has one? Watch him take it out for a spin.
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.