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.
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
November 21, 2013
For those who haven’t heard, there is such a thing as aquarium therapy. Watching fish, the evidence suggests, may reduce muscle tension, pulse rate and other symptoms of stress.
So you’d imagine that guests staying at the Manta Resort off the coast of Tanzania’s Pemba Island would depart feeling like a trillion bucks after soaking up the immersive panoramic views of exotic sea life made possible by the resort’s newly unveiled underwater hotel room. For $1,500 per room per night, visitors can sunbathe and stargaze on the upper-level sky deck, make relaxing use of the lounge on the water-level or descend down to the submerged chamber where they can cap the night by falling asleep atop a seabed surrounded by the nightlight glow of jellyfish and other bioluminescent marine creatures that swim by.
Anchored to the sea floor about 820 feet offshore at a remote location known as the “blue hole,” where a large number of densely-inhabited coral reefs encircle the floating structure, the resort’s “Underwater Room” is about as secluded as a vacation getaway can possibly get. For the building’s designer, Swedish architect Mikael Genberg, this hardly accessible locale is perfect in that the site meets all the delicate conditions necessary for such a complicated undertaking.
The 17-room hotel complex is situated on Pemba Island’s westerly coastline, facing toward the serene stretch of ocean that separates the island (population 300,000, with only a couple dozen tourists at any given time) from the mainland. Here, gentle tides barely ripple towards the beach, as the natural opening in the coral reef serves to break the waves. “The best places for something like this are usually lagoons,” says Genberg, who also designed Utter Inn, the world’s first underwater hotel room situated in a lake in Sweden. “Optimally, it should be where other people can’t really reach it.”
Identifying and securing such a “sweet spot” for these types of projects is often the most crucial part of the process. To date, the only other underwater hotels with ongoing vacancies (besides Genberg’s Utter Inn) are single rooms at Jules Underwater Motel in Key Largo and the Rangali Islands Resort in the Maldives. L. Bruce Jones, the developer behind an ambitious multimillion dollar proposal to establish an entire chain of five-star ocean floor dwellings, known as Poseidon Undersea Resorts, once offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who can pinpoint the perfect spot for his venture. Though the developers eventually settled on a chunk of land on one of the Fiji Islands, the project has stalled for reasons unknown.
But for as many ways as such a hard-to-reach region of the world turned out to be ideal, it also made the construction process quite challenging. After striking a deal with the hotel company, workers had to undergo the tricky task of shipping in all the various building materials from Sweden. Construction of the structure was carried out at a nearby yard and then towed to the site. Completing the Underwater Room, as Genberg described, was a two-year ordeal.
To ensure that operating a hotel room within the reef would remain an environmentally-friendly endeavor, Genberg noted that his team conducted “careful” studies to assess the likelihood of any detrimental impact on the surrounding ecosystem. Solar panels atop the roof deck are designed to supply 100 percent of the power needed, and the only people allowed onboard are guests and assigned resort employees. The real perk, he adds, is that the hotel will eventually become a coral reef, which makes it one of the few development projects that’s actually beneficial to the marine environment.
“If you take a close look at the exterior of the hotel room, you can see fish and other ocean life hiding in the structure,” Genberg says. “And there is already coral growing upon it. It’s like an artificial coral reef.”
Six guests have already stayed overnight in the underwater room, and the resort’s managing director, Matthew Saus, in summing up their reaction, described it as a sense of “awe.”
“You can hear dolphins when snorkeling around the room in the evening but we haven’t had a visit yet,” Saus told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Genberg, who had the honor of being the first person to sleep beneath the waves, felt being there has inspired him to ponder ideas for larger-scale projects, similar to the aforementioned Poseidon project and the proposed Hydropolis Underwater Hotel in Dubai.
“It’s a part of the planet not meant for us as humans to see,” Genberg says. “So I hope that it can give more and more people perspective on how fragile that world is.”
November 19, 2013
It’s either grossly unfair or perfectly logical. With fuel prices perpetually on the rise, airlines are enacting measures to account for the cost of any additional weight loaded onto each flight. While fees for extra baggage can be irritating for customers, a recent trend toward also metering human poundage risks really rubbing people the wrong way.
For instance, Samoa Airlines courted controversy earlier this year when the company announced that it would start setting ticket prices according to a person’s weight. In an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio, CEO Chris Langton defended the new business model as “the fairest way of traveling.” Past research has found that 59 percent of men and 71 percent of women living in American Samoa were obese. And in 2009, Michael O’Leary, the outspoken CEO of European discount airline Ryan Air, floated the idea of levying a tax on those deemed overweight, reasoning that the obesity problem has gotten so bad that passengers do not want to “tax fat people but torture them.”
Others in the industry are taking a milder, more diplomatic tact. Citing “trends in demographics,” aircraft manufacturer Airbus has given airlines the option of installing wider seats for customers who can’t fit into standard arrangements. And now Seymourpowell, a British design firm, has proposed a concept for adjustable seats that can morph to the space-demands and contours of an individual’s body.
To drum up interest, the design team produced a video that carefully glossed over the more controversial aspects of their idea; it kindly noted that “all people are different” while playing up the seating arrangement’s benefits to customers and airlines, such as “more choice for customers’ and “flexibility for airlines.” Rather than upgrading all the way up to first class, people can simply purchase enough space to feel comfortable or even lie down, which is the biggest draw of business class anyway. There’s even a case to be made that space-tiered pricing would bring down the cost for many passengers overall.
The best way to understand how the “Morph” works is to envision a row of seats as one long bench. In its default arrangement, the system resembles the standard 18-inch 3 x 1 window and aisle seating found on many commercial aircraft. But for each seat to be modifiable, the traditional foam cushions are replaced with a long flexible, yet strong fabric that’s stretched over the bottom part, with another large piece covering the entire back portion. A series of moving parts and mechanisms allows the seat to mold itself to the passenger’s particular shape and preferences. The system has an adjustable handrest and seat divider frame that can slide sideways and clamp down to form the desired dimensions. So, if a family of three purchases a row of seats—one for mom, one for dad and one for a small child, they can share the space accordingly. You can see a few different seating patterns in the illustration below.
Although this is only in the conceptual stage, it’s pretty much inevitable that airlines’ approach toward passenger seats will undergo a sea change of sorts at some point in the near future. Much of the cost-cutting, which began with minute changes, like revoking the complimentary peanuts, has gotten more serious. Some companies are experimenting with thinner seats to allow for additional rows. Ryan Air, with it’s reputation for nickel and diming passengers, has even floated the idea of having a “standing cabin” in place of the last ten rows of seats, allowing more people to pack aboard an aircraft. And considering the finesse airlines take in reframing what can be a dicey and sensitive public relations matter as a way to provide passengers more choice, should anyone be shocked that major manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are already interested?
“One airline told us that if they have an oversized passenger, they make them buy two seats,” says Jeremy White, head of transport at Seymourpowell. “I can’t think of anything more degrading or humiliating than forcing someone to buy two seats because they are a bit wide. Would they rather that, than tune their seats for a few more bucks so it fits them?”
While no one wants to sit next to someone who spills over his or her own personal space, isn’t this new seating arrangement, underneath it all, just an elegantly disguised means to discriminate?
November 13, 2013
Nissan believes that the BladeGlider, its latest vision for an electric vehicle, is so especially revolutionary that it wants to make it clear to everyone that the car is “more than just a concept.”
I know. Besides automobiles, sounds like the Japanese automaker is busy engineering some hype as well.
To be introduced at the upcoming Tokyo Auto Show, the BladeGlider is, to Nissan’s credit, unlike any street-legal car that you’ve seen. There’s the innovative use of space-efficient, in-wheel electric motors installed within the hub of the car’s rear wheels. Also, notice the unusual triangular seating arrangement that makes it that rarest of rare car breeds: a three-seater. This odd configuration, however, is fitting since it makes room for an aggressively aerodynamic redesign that looks to be inspired more by military aircraft like the F-14 jet fighter than anything on the road today.
“BladeGlider was conceived around delivering a glider-like exhilaration that echoes its lightweight, downsized hyper-efficient aerodynamic form,” vice president and chief creative officer Shiro Nakamura said in a press release. “This design is more than revolutionary; it’s transformational.”
To be sure, the BladeGlider doesn’t fly (it’s still essentially a car), though it does things that no other four-wheeler in production can. For instance, the drastic shift from the more evenly proportioned dimensions found in standard cars to an alignment where the rear measures about 6 feet across then narrows significantly to just 3.3 feet in the front reduces drag substantially, enabling faster straight line and cornering speed. It also features a unique lightweight carbon fiber underbody that’s not only sturdy but also generates significant downforce to keep the vehicle gripped to the road, eliminating the need for a rear wing. Such attachments are typically installed to help race cars, like sprint cars, hug the track during high-speed driving, but they consequently create drag, which also slows down the car.
In a way, the BladeGlider can be seen as a potentially street-legal version of Nissan’s experimental race car the DeltaWing. Both were drawn up by automotive designer Ben Bowlby and share a similar weight redistribution ratio with the front comprising 30 percent of the car’s weighted mass and the remaining 70 percent carried in the back. With the DeltaWing project, the development team successfully demonstrated that a dramatic overhaul of a car’s architecture would allow something with a much smaller engine to keep pace with some of the world’s fastest race cars when the vehicle finished in 5th place at last year’s American Le Mans Series season finale. Bowlby has since built upon these accomplishments with the development of the Nissan ZEOD RC, a hybrid electric version dubbed “The World’s Fastest Electric Racing Car” that is slated to make its debut at Le Mans next year.
The fact that the BladeGlider is powered by a pair of rear in-wheel motors (Nissan didn’t detail the specs) allows for greater fuel efficiency, because the nascent technology doesn’t rely on complex mechanical processes used by internal combustion engines to deliver energy to the wheels. A series of lithium-ion battery modules located in the rear fuels the motors. Nissan, again, would like to remind everyone that when the BladeGlider indeed “matures into production” it will be the first mass-market use of in-wheel systems.
Some experts, however, think the automaker may have to curb its enthusiasm a bit. “Translating the BladeGlider from concept to customer could be challenging,” writes Paul A. Eisenstein of the industry publication The Detroit Bureau. “Among other things, it will have to adapt to strict new crash standards that could prove challenging with the unusual shape of the vehicle’s nose.”
That said, he adds, ”Nissan seems as committed to using a Delta design on the highway as it is on the track.”