December 2, 2013
When you clicked on the link to read this article, your computer, tablet or phone sent a request that traveled hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles at the speed of light. After leaving your house or office, likely via a fiber optic cable, it traversed the continent, crossing through a handful of Internet exchanges along the way. Ultimately, it reached a data center in Chicago where Smithsonian.com stores its data—the “cloud,” of course, isn’t really a cloud—and triggered a packet of data to be sent back in the opposite direction, bringing the text, images, and links in this article to your screen.
Soon, though, the packers of data your computer requests when you browse the web might make a slight detour as part of its journey to a data center and back to your house. Much like how, when you call for tech support, you’re likely to speak to someone in India, we might be on the verge of an age where we routinely outsource much of our data to the frigid island of Iceland.
“There is no reason why Iceland shouldn’t have a major market share in international data hosting in the next ten years,” Isaac Kato, a CFO at Verne Global—the company that’s currently expanding their year-old data center near the capital of Reykjavik—told me last month when the company brought me to Iceland to see their new facilities. As he courts customers, his company’s selling point is simple: Iceland is a perfect mix of fire (as in geothermal energy) water (hydropower) and ice (cold air, to cool racks of servers without AC). In the data storage industry where the biggest cost is electricity, Verne Global claims they can provide enough cheap, 100 percent carbon-neutral power to make the trip more than worthwhile.
Their idea isn’t entirely new—Facebook is building data centers in northern Sweden, near the Arctic Circle, to similarly take advantage of natural air conditioning, and the company Advania operates a smaller data center in Iceland as well. But Verne could be a harbinger of a much bigger trend: Hosting the data of international companies that have nothing to do with Iceland, thousands of miles away from their operation.
What make all this possible are the undersea fiber optic cable lines that connect Iceland to Europe and North America. Because fiber optic data travels at the speed of light, a trip from New York to Iceland and back takes about 80 milliseconds. But plenty of countries are wired with fiber optics. Given the immense power consumption of data centers—Google’s suite of data centers, spread all around the world use enough electricity to power a city of 750,000 people—Iceland’s uniquely attractive attribute is the fact that it is literally overflowing with carbon-free energy.
Iceland built its first hydroelectric plant in 1937 as part of an effort to supply many of Reykjavik’s houses with electricity for the first time. One of the first places I visited upon arriving to the country was Irafross hydropower plant on the River Sog, built a few miles downstream from the first plant in 1953 and now one of 13 hydropower stations operated by the state-owned power company Landsvirkjun. Given that Iceland is trying to brand itself as a waypoint for the digital information that keeps the world connected, it felt ironic that the 45-minute drive to the power plant from Reykjavik was strikingly sparse and remote. Craggy, windswept lava flows run underneath high-voltage transmission lines, and grazing sheep dot the landscape.
After entering the building, we donned hardhats and descended a four-story concrete spiral staircase, walking past whirling turbines and through a moss-covered access tunnel. “Be careful to watch your head,” said Rikardur Rikadsson, a genial company representative, shouting over the gushing of nearly 40,000 gallons of water per second, discharged back into the river after spinning a series of turbines that can produce up to 48 megawatts of electricity at any given time. In the scheme power plants as a whole, this output, which can power somewhere on the order of 15,000 homes, is a fairly small number; a typical coal plant can produce 600 megawatts of electricity.
In the U.S. and most other countries, renewable electricity is a boutique industry. In Iceland, it’s the only game in town. Currently, 26 percent of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal energy and 74 percent comes from hydropower. When you plug your television into a wall outlet in Iceland, the juice coming out is entirely carbon-neutral.
But for a sparsely populated country of about 320,000 (a bit larger than the population of Corpus Christi, Texas), this is actually too much power. The nation produces almost twice as much electricity per capita as any other country and is actively trying to figure out what to do with it. Sources of renewable energy, unfortunately, can’t be shipped in barges like coal. Plants can’t send waterfalls or geothermal heat across an ocean. Plans to build an electricity transmission line to Europe are occasionally discussed, but it’s estimated that producers would lose 7 percent of the electricity during transmission and the necessary infrastructure would be excessively expensive.
“For years, the power companies here thought, ‘How do we get the power from Iceland to Europe?’” says Jeff Monroe, Verne’s CEO. “We believe we’ve found the most efficient way to do that. We’re shipping power out of Iceland and around the world in the form of bits and bytes over fiber optic cables.”
* * *
“For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was,” writes Andrew Blum in his book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Verne’s new data center, built on a decommissioned NATO base outside of Reykjavik, is one of these real, physical places.
The company was founded in 2007 by Isaac Kato and others who hoped to capitalize on the world’s rapidly growing data streams and Iceland’s unique energy situation. But shortly after they announced their plans, they were abruptly halted. “I came on board in September 2008—a week or so before the crash,” says Monroe, referring to the crippling financial crisis that caused the country’s GDP to fall by 5.5 percent in a six-month span. “No matter what you were doing in Iceland, you were impacted.” By the end of 2009, though, when the undersea fiber optic links to Europe and North America were completed, the situation had improved, and Verne decided to press forward. In 2011, the company purchased an existing warehouse from NATO, repurposed it with their own infrastructure and opened for business, though it is still expanding and filling the space with more servers and machines.
Given how open, in many ways, our new digital age seems to be, there’s something surprising about the back-end places where our bits originate; they’re intensely secretive. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the area of the data center with the actual server racks, and getting our tour group into the facility necessitated an elaborate security procedure that involved fingerprint-activated locks.
Once inside the aluminium-walled warehouse, we strolled through a frigid industrial hall filled with enormous machines. This was what one of the center’s “cold aisles,” filled with the devices that ensure the servers stay powered, cooled to the right temperature and kept at the correct humidity at all times. “I want to remind everyone that this is an active facility, so hands in pockets at all times,” Tate Cantrell, Verne’s technology officer and our tour guide, told us. At the end of the building, a freezing draft blew in through a two story-tall wall made up mostly of air filters. “The wind outside? That’s our free air-cooling,” he said. On average, half of a conventional data center’s energy goes toward cooling down the servers as they heat up, the same way your laptop’s fan starts whirring when you run a bunch of programs at once. Instead, at this facility, they simply piped in the wind and funneled it towards the backs of the machines.
Even so, when we entered the locked aisle that gave access to the front of the servers, the temperature felt like it immediately jumped up 20 degrees or so. Crunching data generates a ton of heat. Cantrell provided cryptic, jargon-filled descriptions of the hardware, but the sci-fi-styled server cage, I was told, looked more or less like all data centers: racks upon racks of servers strung with snaking cables, silently running lines of code and served bytes of data to users far, far away.
It’s impossible to say exactly what their purpose was at that very moment—a few companies (BMW and RMS, a catastrophic risk modeling company) have publicly announced their use of the Verne facility, but most are reluctant to for security reasons. But the basic idea is this: Of a company’s digital activities, there are some that need to be close to a geographical center—financial trading software, for instance, needs to be able to capitalize on the split-second response times that putting infrastructure in Manhattan allows—but for the vast majority, an extra 80 milliseconds of lag time won’t make a big difference. Companies that want to take advantage of this can either rent space in Verne’s server racks for their own hardware or buy computing capability as they need it.
Given all the benefits Verne claims to offer, why aren’t thousands of companies moving their data to Iceland right now? One reason is the perception of Iceland as a volatile place to do business. Apart from the financial crisis—from which the country finally seems to be recovering—there are natural disasters. The island itself is a volcano, formed by the continual spreading of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and a 2010 eruption spewed ash that shut down air travel throughout Europe for an entire week. Associated earthquake activity, though rare, is also a concern. Due to the use of natural air cooling, some worry that volcanic ash could infiltrate the center and interrupt operations, while earthquakes could damage infrastructure.
But Verne officials say these concerns are overblown. “No matter where you put a data center, there’s risk,” said Monroe, the CEO. “Northern New Jersey, for instance—there are a ton of data centers there, and we saw during Sandy how risky that was.” Gawker.com, for instance, was knocked offline during the storm due to power failures at its New York-area facility. To minimize their risk, Verne put its facility on the former NATO base, which sits on secure bedrock, far away from the island’s seismic activity and upwind from the volcanic activity, and have measures in place to shut down the outdoor air intake in the event of an eruption.
But for some customers, there may be one problem that persists no matter how many precautions Verne takes: latency. 80 milliseconds—the length of time it takes a piece of data to fly from New York to Iceland and back, under ideal conditions—might not sound like much, but for some companies, it might be a deal breaker. In the past, Google has found that merely increasing the time a search takes from 400 to 900 milliseconds causes a 20 per cent drop in traffic. Given the unavoidable delays already present (computing time, the time it takes for data to cross the continental U.S., etc.), tacking on an extra 80 milliseconds could be undesirable. And while Google might be able to build multiple data centers—those in remote, inexpensive places with abundant energy, like Iceland, and those near users specifically built for time-sensitive tasks—smaller companies might not have this luxury, and are forced to put all their eggs in one basket, says James Hamilton, an engineer with Amazon Web Services.
For larger companies with flexibility, it may be that getting used to the idea of outsourcing data is the biggest hurdle to overcome—the same way outsourcing call centers was a strange idea, until it became normal. “It’s hard to go be the first person to move your data there,” says Rich Miller, the editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge. “No one wants to take a risk and have it backfire.”
But it seems that Verne might indeed be at the forefront of a trend. In addition to leasing space in Verne’s facility, BMW has discussed building their own data center nearby, in anticipation of all the data that’ll be used by their increasingly connected cars, equipped with their new ConnectedDrive technology, which provides drivers with cloud-based voice control and real-time traffic information over a wireless connection.
Given the negative publicity companies like Facebook and Apple have received from Greenpeace campaigns protesting their heavy dependence on coal power, the eventual possibility of carbon emission regulations and the resulting increases in energy costs, and the fact that Icelandic utilities offer 20-year fixed-price contracts on carbon-neutral energy for industrial users like power centers, figuring out a way to power data with clean energy in the long term makes a lot of sense. Right now, the data running through your computer or tablet probably didn’t come from Iceland, but wait a year, five years, or a decade. Eventually, there’s a good chance that the cloud will have relocated to a frigid island nation across the Atlantic.
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.”
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
November 1, 2013
During World War II, amid a gasoline shortage, many European commuters had to improvise, often resorting to installing clunky power generators that converted wood into fuel for their engines. (Check out this rig!) But once fossil fuels were readily available again, these briefly popular machines were, for the most part, tossed into the dustbin of history.
Today, in a renovated former artists’ space in Berkeley, an alternative energy startup, has slowly begun resurrecting this more than century-old technology known as gasification. Over the course of five years, All Power Labs has sold over 500 made-to-order versions of their signature invention, a $27,000 refrigerator-sized biomass-converting device called the “Power Pallet.” Customers, most of whom reside in poorer countries like Ecuador, Haiti, Thailand and Nicaragua, obviously are drawn to the fact that the contraptions can generate clean burning fuel for about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, about one-sixth of what power companies typically charge. But that’s not the only perk.
Syngas, the synthetic fuel that’s produced from gasification, is created by putting biomass such as corn husks or wood chip through a decomposition process known as “pyrolysis,” where the combination of a low oxygen environment and heat removes impurities while leaving behind a byproduct known as biochar. A nutrient rich charcoal, biochar can be used as fertilizer to help grow trees, crops and many other kinds of plants that scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Technically speaking, the Power Pallet system may be the only carbon-negative energy technology on the market, meaning the entire gasification process removes more carbon dioxide than it generates.
“When you think about it, nature’s most tried and tested tool to take carbon out of the air is plants,” says Tom Price, the company’s sales director. “If you can grow a tree, you can capture a big chunk of what’s causing global warming.”
The company, made up of artists who occupied what was an artist space known as “The Shipyard,” can credit the city of Berkeley for inadvertently kickstarting their enterprise. A series of code violations left officials no choice but to shut down the facility’s electricity, thus forcing the residents to experiment with alternatives like solar, which didn’t work out so well due to higher costs. Gasification came about as an accidental discovery that began the day the company’s CEO Jim Mason found an old instruction manual and decided to piece one together using old plumbing parts. Since then, Price says the standard art has gone away and the new art has been about looking at ways to hack the global energy problem.
Since we’re talking about resurrecting old technology, many of the kinks that made gasification an unappealing option back then still exist. For instance, gasification machines require a large amount of water filtration, which leaves behind what Price calls a “toxic mess.”
“Solid fuel is very difficult to use compared to gas. You basically have to charcoalize biomass to create a vapor rich in hydrogen to run an engine, which isn’t as easy as piping it out of the ground and refining it,” Price explains. “So liquid fuels, in most cases, are preferable in all respects except one; they are killing the planet.”
Undeterred, the team tapped into the unwavering “maker spirit” that Silicon Valley’s tech scene has become renowned for and started testing out ways to apply the latest automation innovations, such as sensors and process computerization, to regulate parts of the reaction chain. The idea was that if they could control crucial aspects like the smoldering temperature and cracking of the tar with precision, they could eliminate the need for water filtration. Ultimately, what they did was give the old gasifier a high-tech makeover.
Over the phone, Price mentions that he recently sold a Power Pallet to a family living in a rural part of Iowa. Yet, he doesn’t think gasification would make sense for filling the need for energy in the developed world—not now at least. Pumping out hydrogen gas to the degree that it’s practical involves bringing in truckloads of wood and whatever usable forms of biomass are available. And in urban settings, like New York City, for instance, infrastructure is already built so that centralized power plants can supply electricity in a manner that’s convenient for everyone. Even so, Price finds this approach to be not only environmentally unfriendly, but also very inefficient, considering that communities have to rely on sources like coal and constantly-maintenanced power lines to keep buildings and streetlights running. The most fertile ground for developing and implementing a new, less centralized power grid system, he argues, are undeveloped regions of the world that have remained largely agricultural.
“We don’t have the automation to where you can push a button and it goes. This is machinery that requires a trained operator,” Price says.”But when you’re in a place in which the alternatives are either nothing or something very expensive, the effort becomes worth it.”
An example of a situation in which the company’s technology has enabled locals to operate a fully self-sustainable business can be found in Kampala, Uganda, where product engineer Richard Scott helped another local energy startup named Pamoja Cleantech to develop gasifiers that use leftover corn cobs as an energy source for corn flour mills. Instead of being left out to spoil, growers not only can turn the crops into cash, they can also turn the discarded bits back into fuel to run the mills.
With business booming, the All Power Labs team has shifted some of its focus toward developing new reactors that can run longer, with less maintenance, and use a wider variety of biomass, like rice husks, found in abundance in large swaths of farmland in Asia. He hopes that in five years these machines can make fuel from any form of biomass.
“No one’s trying to pass this off as a new idea. Heck, there’s even open source blueprints on our website that you can download and use to build your own,” he adds. “But sometimes, the best ideas are the ones we already had.”
July 31, 2012
Walking into an indoor rock climbing gym can be overwhelming: Climbers dangle from the ceiling like an army of Spiderman clones, leaving a cloud of chalk in their wake. And as they scramble up walls speckled in colored, polyurethane holds that mimic the rock formations found in nature, good luck finding a route that’s open after 6 p.m. on a weeknight.
Earlier this summer, LUNAR Europe, a Munich-based design studio, thought it came up with a solution to the crowded-gym doldrums: Why not bring the climbing wall to your living room and make it pretty? The new in-home climbing system, the Nova, functions as a bouldering wall and doubles as an ambient piece of art when not in use. This dual-use concept is intriguing, but the product’s practicality remains in question.
The pattern-cut-outs, which replace the colored holds usually found on training walls at the gym, have built-in sensors that are synced with an iPhone app that can record and analyze climbing sessions. Select the level of difficulty (ranging from “Mt. Everest” to “Mt. Kilimanjaro”) and the app lights up the route and then rates your performance based on speed. All of this sounds pretty awesome when you consider what trekking up some of the world’s tallest mountains would be like, but the rating system doesn’t match up well with official climbing standards. Regular routes are rated on a scale ranging from 5.5 to 5.15d, explained in this conversion chart. Not surprisingly, grades like “Mt. Everest” do not translate.
Aesthetics aren’t everything—some climbers have their doubts. Those looking for a challenge require dynamic movement, horizontal overhangs, finger-crimping holds and…chalk. Not even a super-sleek design like the Nova can hide from the inevitable white cloud of dust a climber leaves behind.
It is also safe to say that the traditional climbing clientele wouldn’t be too concerned if their wall didn’t fit well with the “surrounding decor.” Pioneers like Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, for example, certainly wouldn’t be impressed by a little ambient lighting. Chouinard said in a Q&A with Smithsonian.com in April, that gyms simply don’t replicate the real spirit of rock climbing, that “Climbing without risk isn’t climbing.” With new gadgets like the Nova hitting the market, “risk” may be a relative term.
The Abridged History of the Climbing Wall
The history of climbing is extensive enough to fill a few books. But, per the debate over the Nova, the most important innovation was the advent of the first artificial climbing wall, which was installed in 1964 by Don Robinson, a lecturer in the physical education department at Leeds University. And let’s just say his design wouldn’t meet modern indoor gym safety standards. The holds were made of real rocks—as though he chipped them off of a mountain himself—that were glued into a hallway at the university. By the ’70,s University of Washington, Evergreen State College and Hampshire College followed suit with a few bare-bones slabs of their own. It wasn’t until 1987 that the first commercial climbing gym in America, Vertical World in Seattle, came to fruition.
Materials have evolved significantly since 1987—from concrete, fiberglass, wood and steel—though the most common type of artificial climbing wall is a composite. Usually it will consist of a textured surface that gives it more of a “real rock” feel that overlies a plywood frame that is attached to weight and force-bearing steel frame. The Nova and a few other new concepts for climbers have made quite a departure from the traditional wall. These artificial climbing contraptions, for example:
Perhaps More Practical Applications of Climbing Technology
- Using the Rotor dynamic wall from Climblock is what climbing on a hamster wheel would feel like. It makes use of an automated rotating drum instead of the usual vertical wall, measuring in at 16.4 feet high, which makes sense for vertically challenged climbing facilities. For someone’s living room? Not so much.
- The ClimbStation, a Finnish innovation by Joyride Games, is a no-rope no-harness personal rock-climbing simulator that looks mostly terrifying. Some selling points: It allows for warm-up climbing and users can measure strength, choose from 12 levels of difficulty and monitor results with an accompanying touch screen. Though the “endless” wall only reaches a safe height and “does not require a specific supervisor” according to its website, a qualifier for those afraid of falling from any distance might be in order. Oh, and it costs $44,000. That too.
- If climbing “the rope” in gym class was a scarring event during your prepubescent years, do not go near Mt. Everclimb. The 12-foot high, continuous rope-climbing machine uses a pulley wheel and looped rope attached to its steel frame to create a never-ending climb. Though it sounds more like the parable of Sisyphus than an in-home gym, the basic model will set you back $4,500. If you’d like the coin operated version, it’ll cost you another two grand.
There’s no word from LUNAR as to whether the Nova will be sold commercially just yet. My guess though, is that the design might not be as cool as it’s chalked up to be.