December 18, 2012
Within the next week or so, the year-end reviews will start rolling out like strips of prize tickets in a games arcade.
Most will revisit events that we’ll all remember, albeit some we’d rather forget. My own list is a little different. I want to look back at ideas that haven’t received a lot of attention, but struck me as being particularly clever and ripe with potential. Chances are you haven’t heard of many of them. But chances also are you will.
Here’s Part 1 of my list of a dozen ideas whose time is about to come:
1) Sadly, it does not say, “You’re getting warmer.”: Are you flummoxed by how often you lose things–your keys, your TV remote, your glasses. Have I got an invention for you. It’s called Stick-N-Find and it works like this.
You attach one of the Bluetooth-powered stickers to whatever object you’re tired of losing, then download the Stick-N-Find smartphone app. The app will tell you how far away you are from the missing item–it has a range of 100 feet–and you can set off a buzzer in the sticker. If you’re in the dark, you can trigger a blinking red light. Where has this been all my life?
2) Will it do nails? It may be a while before we see it in action, but Dyson, the British company that makes those high-powered Airblade hand dryers, has filed a patent for a tap that would wash your hands with water, then dry them without you having to move an inch. Put your hands under the tap and sensors release water. Move them slightly so that they’re under two connected tubes and warm, dry air shoots out. You’re wet, you’re dry, you’re outta there.
3) All hail plastic: Using nanotechnology, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University has developed a plastic material that glows like a soft white light when an electric current is run through it. Its inventors say it’s as efficient as an LED light and twice as efficient as a fluorescent bulb. But what makes it so innovative is that because it’s plastic, it can be made into any shape. Imagine a soft glowing ceiling panel replacing those hideous fluorescent lights above your head.
4) And all hail fewer jerks on planes: Gemma Jensen used to be a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic so she has seen more than her share of airline passengers doing the jerk. I’m talking about that moment during long flights when just as you’re starting to nod off, your head tips forward. End of snooze.
So Jensen has invented the J-Pillow. It’s a step up from the familiar U-shaped pillow that keeps your head from falling from side to side, but can’t stop it from dropping forward. Her pillow comes with a “J-hook” that goes around the neck and under a person’s chin. Doctors seem to like it because it keeps your spine aligned while you’re sleeping on a plane. Which explains why a panel just chose it Great Britain’s Best Consumer Invention of 2012.
5) Cause that’s how they roll: Two former MIT students have designed a camera that bounces and rolls. Who needs a bouncing camera, you ask? How about firefighters who have to see inside a building or a swat team looking for hostages? That’s what Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young had in mind when they invented their ball-shaped device outfitted with six wide-angle cameras packed inside a rubber casing.
The idea is that first responders could toss it into a space they need to survey. Its cameras could snap pictures every second as it rolls, then send them wirelessly to a smartphone where they would be stitched together to provide a 360-degree view.
6) Can I make Kit Kat bars in that thing?: There’s nothing new about 3D printers, but Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has come up with a novel way to give its students access to the nifty replicating devices. It has set up something it calls DreamVendor, which it has described as a “vending machine with infinite inventory.” What it is is a station of four 3D printers where engineering students can load in their designs and wait for the printers to do their magic. It’s free for the students, but it’s not hard to imagine some entrepreneur refining the idea of vending machines that print stuff.
Video bonus: And under the category of an idea whose time is still coming, there’s the LuminAR lamp system invented in MIT’s Media Lab a few years ago. Still being refined, it allows you to screw a LuminAR device–it’s combo projector/camera/wireless computer–into a standard light socket and turn your desk into an interactive surface. See for yourself.
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December 7, 2012
Yes, this is the time of year for getting together with family and friends and chowing down like you’re eating for all of them. It’s also a time when, during the height of shopping madness, we get a chance to reflect on just how clever we humans can be.
The truth is, though, not all of us got around to inventing something this year. Let the following list serve as inspiration for 2013.
1) Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be tracking you: Sometimes you follow your heart, other times you listen to your wrist. So it goes with the Nike+ Fuelband, a slick little bracelet that tracks every step you take during the course of the day. But it doesn’t stop there. It tracks all of your physical activities and lets you know how many calories you’ve burned–whether you’re doing push-ups or lifting a cup of coffee. You can set a daily target and follow your progress and, if you hold up your end of the deal, you’re rewarded with a big flashing “Goal” on your wrist, which is way better than a corsage.
2) Break a lag: For those whose body clock is out of whack because of jet lag or working overnight shifts or just forgetting about the whole sleep thing, consider the Re-Timer. Invented by sleep researchers in Australia, the Re-Timer is a pair of glasses without the glass, but instead has LED lights that emit a soft-green glow on to your eyes. And that light is of a wavelength, according to the scientists, that has the effect of resetting your body clock so that your circadian rhythms get their beat back.
3) Although probably only your mother would agree to watch it: So if we expect bicyclists to stop at red lights, why shouldn’t they be able to look down at their smart phones while they’re waiting just like everyone in the cars around them. Now they can, thanks to Biologic’s Bike Mounts–there’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones. But this isn’t just some little attachment that connects to the handlebars. It pivots so your phone can shoot photos or video of your ride.
4) Why deal with the added stress of watering a plant: It’s safe to say that most people know how to water a plant but, strangely, so many are unable to pull it off on a regular basis. That’s why the self-watering flower pot from Click and Grow is such a godsend. It has sensors, batteries, a pump and a water reservoir that delivers water to the otherwise neglected plant as needed. If it needs a refill or the batteries run out, a light on the pot blinks. Think you can handle that?
5) Look, I’m just a cup but even I wouldn’t eat this: While we’re on the subject of products that remind us of how lame we can be, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a measuring cup that talks. That’s right, it tells you how much of an ingredient you’ve added because why should you have to look for yourself?
6) Are your toys smarter than a fifth grader?: In today’s gaming world, just how cool could a set of little cubes be? In the case of Sifteo Cubes, very cool, because each cube has it own small LCD screen and a built-in acceleromenter and they interact with you when you shake or flip or tilt them. Or they’ll connect wirelessly to each other, exchanging info, like numbers and colors, so you can play puzzle games or take on number equations. They’re supposed to be for kids, but we know better.
7) But let’s draw the line at handkerchiefs: In most places these days, every day is casual Friday. But every man still has a few occasions when a team jersey just won’t do. And that’s why a business like Tie Society just might make it. Started in Washington, D.C. last year, it’s been described as the Netflix of ties. We’re talking rental ties. It works like this: For a monthly fee, starting at $11, a person can select ties and keep them until he wants to trade them in for a new set.
8) Does a man tweet in the woods?: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you need to act crazy and let your gadgets lose power. The Biolite CampStove not only allows you to avoid lugging cannisters for cooking–it burns twigs and pine cones and anything else combustible you find lying around–but it also converts the heat from your fire to electricity that can recharge your stuff.
9) Rock faster, grandpa, I need to shop: Sure, it’s relaxing, but killing time in a rocking chair can seem oh-so-unproductive. No more. Zurich-based Micasa Laboratories has come up with a way for grandpa to contribute to household peace by doing his part to keep the old iPad charged. The iRock looks like a rocking chair and works like a rocking chair, but it’s also a charging station. The back-and-forth motion actually creates enough power to juice up an iPad. Okay, so it costs $1,300, but we’re talking Christmas miracle here.
10) Video bonus: Ready for liftoff? Maybe this is the year you’ll finally get that jet pack you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Neiman Marcus can get you the the Jetlev R200 for under $100,000. Such a deal.
December 4, 2012
It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.
Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.
In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.
Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.
Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.
But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.
When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?
Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.
The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.
There’s no longer an app for that
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.
By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.
Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.
And that’s why they call it a smartphone
Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:
- Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
- Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
- Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
- Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
- But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.
Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.
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November 30, 2012
A little refresher:
Back in late 2005, the guys running a small San Francisco startup named Odeo were feeling desperate. They had planned to make it big in the podcasting business, but Apple had just announced that iTunes would include a podcasting platform built into every iPod.
So the Odeo group started scrambling to come up with a new plan. One of the employees, a guy named Jack Dorsey, came up with the idea of a system where you could send a text message to a number and it would be delivered to all of your friends.
Someone came up with the code name twttr–a takeoff on Flickr–and when they looked up twitter in the dictionary and saw that it meant 1) A short burst of inconsequential information and 2) Chirps from birds, they agreed, Dorsey recalls, that the name “was just perfect.”
Such a tool
This is just to remind all of us that Twitter was born not as a grand vision, but more an act of desperation. And that it was originally meant as nothing more than a cool way to send reports of your status to all of your friends at once.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that these days Twitter is being hailed as everything from a barometer of the nation’s emotional health to a conduit for the flow of linguistic invention to a tool for urban planners to map travel routes.
Oh, and earlier this week, a young mother reportedly named her newborn daughter “Hashtag.”
There are those, of course, who think way too much is being made of Twitter’s capacity for capturing the zeitgeist. But there’s no question that it’s gaining status as an analytical tool. Here are just a few of the ways it’s being taken seriously:
1) It’s not the tweet, it’s emotion: Last month tech giant SGI rolled out something it calls the Global Twitter Heartbeat, a Big Data analysis of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets tapped out every day.
The tool takes geotagged tweets over a period of time and converts them into a “heat map” designed to show the tone and intensity of what’s being said where. It’s first big effort was during Superstorm Sandy.
2) Pocket of politeness? Or pool of profanity?: The company Vertalab created its own Twitter heat map a few months ago, but that one focused on the use of two particular phrases on Twitter. While many weighed in with a conventional “Good morning,” a surprising number posted a two-word phrase rhyming with “duck flew.” .
True to form, the well-mannered tweets tended to bubble up from the South, particularly parts of Texas and Tennessee, while the cursing flowed freely around New York, Toronto and especially Los Angeles.
3) I hear ya, bruh: Researchers at Georgia Tech analyzed 30 million tweets sent around the U.S. between December 2009 and May 2011 and concluded that new words, at least on Twitter, tend to first pop up in cities with large African-American populations, then spread.
One example they gave was “bruh,” a Twitter version of “bro,” that first appeared in several cities in the U.S.’ Southeast, then leap-frogged to California.
4) The roads most traveled: Data-mapping expert Eric Fischer tracked millions of tweets from around the world and laid them over maps of highways to get a sense of how many people are heading where. He thinks urban planners could use this kind of data to fine-tune existing transportation systems and figure out where new routes are needed.
5) Exit polls are so last century: Go ahead and scoff, but some think Twitter analysis can even help predict an election. Barack Obama’s victory in the recent presidential race didn’t come as a big surprise to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed 2,500 online conversations in the two months leading up to the election. It found that a much higher percentage–58 percent–of the comments about Mitt Romney were negative, while 45 percent of the tweets about Barack Obama were harsh.
At the same time Twitter did its own analysis of which tweets by both campaigns provoked the strongest responses in which states. One key indicator: Obama had a high engagement level in the key swing state of Ohio–determined by retweets and favorites–while Romney had only a moderate engagement level there.
6) When military intelligence is not an oxymoron: Three U.S. Defense Department units are field-testing a software called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), to see how effective it is at gauging public opinion in political hot spots around the world. The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The hope is that intelligence officers could use the software to understand people’s moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.
7) I’m not a doctor, but I play one on Twitter: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were pleasantly surprised to see that people are using Twitter to share information on medical subjects that wouldn’t seem the stuff of tweets, such as cardiac arrest and CPR. Their analysis of a month of tweets found more than 15,000 messages that contained specific and useful information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.
8) When short stories aren’t short enough: And finally, it is here at last, the first annual Twitter Fiction Festival. Since Wednesday two dozen authors from five continents have been posting their mini-stories in five different languages. The fare ranges from Iowa writer Jennifer Wilson posting photographs of gravestones, then writing “flash fiction” in response to epitaphs submitted by followers, to French fantasy novelist Fabrice Colin writing a serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus. Stop by at the Fiction Festival website–it will be over before you know it.
Video bonus: Here’s another SGI heat map, this one tracking Obama and Romney-related tweets during election week.
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November 20, 2012
Most Americans have already kicked into Thanksgiving mode, looking ahead to Thursday when they’ll sit down with family and friends, pile an unfathomable amount of food on their plates and then sleep it off to the soothing sound of supersized men smacking helmets on TV.
But between now and then madness lies. There will be traffic jams and long security lines and countless other aggravations that will make you wish that this year you had stayed home and opened a can of tuna.
Don’t despair. Believe it or not, traveling is getting easier. Here are 10 innovations that can help you now or give you hope about the future.
1) You’re the one who likes his cranapple juice shaken, not stirred: British Airways is breaking ground in showing passengers how much it knows about them. As part of its “Know Me” program launched last summer, the airlines is using data it has accumulated about its customers to allow flight crews to give them particularly personal service.
For instance, say a person is flying business class for the first time. That would be flagged 0n the crew’s iPads and a flight attendant could offer a special welcome and make sure he or she knew how to use the seat. Or someone who usually flies business class might instead be in coach taking a vacation trip with his family. A crew member might offer a free drink and make a fuss in front of the whole gang. That’ll score some points.
The big question, though, is when does knowing so much a customer slide from solicitous to creepy?
2) People you meet at airports can be so shallow: When they started showing up at a dozen or so airports around the world this summer, greeter avatars were by no means a sure hit. There was some concern that arriving passengers would be creeped out by holograms that go into a 90-second rap on airport info–location of baggage claim, bathrooms, etc.–as soon as anyone comes within 30 feet of them.
But generally the response has been positive, with plenty of passengers reaching for their cell phones to snap shots of these virtual women for the folks back home. And why not? They’re happy to be on a first-name basis. (Hi, I’m Eva…or Paige or Emily or Heather or Carla.) And they no doubt they bring back memories of Princess Leia, only they’re taller, have much better hair and are way too cheery to bring up anything having to do with Death Stars.
3) Because the real adventure starts after you leave the airport: Last year the Australian start-up Rome2rio launched its search engine designed to provide you with all the travel details for any trip–not just airport-to-airport, but door-to-door. So it includes train schedules and prices, driving routes, even ferry times, if that’s part of the journey. And just last month, it came out with an iPhone app that digs up the same info for you.
4) But can it make the cheapest be the fastest?: Madrid-based Amadeus has been in the airfare search business for several years now, but next year it hopes to take a big leap forward in simplifying the process for travelers.
Using a technology it calls Featured Results, it will be able to do a high-speed search of all possible fares between two locations and, in a matter of seconds, provide the top option in three different categories–the cheapest, the fastest, and the most popular.
5) The next best thing to not having a layover: Another tech product that’s been around for a few years is the mobile app GateGuru. It gives travelers the lowdown on the mysterious world beyond the gate–where you can find the best food, the best airport bar, the fastest security lines, a place to get a massage, the ATMs.
Now it’s entered into a partnership with JCDecaux, a company that handles advertising at airports. Which means the GateGuru content will soon be showing up in digital displays in airports. The first will be at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
6) And then you shoot on down to LA: You have to admit that Elon Musk has earned some cred when it comes to transportation. He’s co-founder of Tesla Motors–its Model S was just chosen Motor Trends’ “Car of the Year”–and founder of SpaceX–which last month flew the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
So when he talks about a transit system that he says could move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half hour, you can’t dismiss him as someone who’s been munching on a bowl of crazy. Musk’s idea is something he calls “Hyperloop,” which he described as a cross between the Concorde and a railgun. Based on the few details he’s provided, it would be some kind of tube vehicle that would be able to leave as soon as you arrive and then get you to SF or LA in half the time a plane would take.
7) While you’re in the neighborhood: Airbnb started out as an online service that hooked up people looking for a place to sleep in another city or country with people willing to have strangers stay over. And it’s grown quickly–it has listings of 250,000 properties in 30,000 different cities around the world.
Now it’s taken a leap toward becoming more of a full-blown travel service by launching guides to the lesser-known neighborhoods where Airbnb clients are more likely to be staying. So far neighborhood guides have been rolled out in New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro.
8) What did you expect in Vegas, a milk store?: Given the location, this seems long overdue, but now an operation called the Liquor Library is open for business in Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. It’s just as it sounds, a place where travelers can pick up beer, wine or booze–and not in some duty-free shop, but in a real live liquor convenience store that calls itself a library.
9) Surprise! There’s a Cracker Barrel in your future: Yes, we’d all like to be able to predict the future, but sometimes we’d settle for being able to know what’s off the next exit. That’s where mobile apps, such as Road Ninja, can make your life easier. It not only lets you know what’s up ahead, but you can also call ahead or read a restaurant review, although there’s only so much you can say about Denny’s Grand Slam.
10) What, no free cocktails for the parents?: Early next year, Air Asia will start setting aside a kid-free zone on its flights. And now a California consulting firm, RKS Design, has gone even further by dreaming up how an all-family airline might work.
They’ve named it cAir and it would feature express check-in services, stroller rentals and play lounges to keep the kids amused. The seats would be arranged so parents would face their kids, bathrooms would be large enough for diaper changes, and sound curtains could be pulled around a noisy little tyke. A kid would even be able to pick out a toy to play with during the flight–which parents would have the opportunity to buy if they can’t wrench it from his hands.
For now, it’s only a concept–no one’s sure if you could actually make a business out of the idea.
Video bonus: The Hobbit opens soon and fittingly Air New Zealand has started airing safety videos featuring a few flight attendants who look like they took a detour from Middle Earth. Sit back and relax, my precious.
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