September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 7, 2012
It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?
And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.
Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.
But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.
I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.
But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.
Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.
Submarines in space
No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.
Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:
1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.
2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.
3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.
4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.
5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.
6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.
7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.
8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.
Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.
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
June 26, 2012
The planet probably won’t become dramatically more sustainable as a result of what happened last week at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, lofty speeches were delivered and hundreds of billions of dollars of pledges were made, but the chance of a meaningful climate change treaty coming out of one of these events is now none and noner.
Yet one thing that has become painfully clearer with each passing U.N. climate summit is that the key to sustaining life on Earth is to get smarter about how we develop and reshape cities. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by mid-century it will be closer to three out of four people.
The need to find more space, along with the desire to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to keep cities running, is spurring urban planners to look for unconventional solutions. And they’re finding that more of the answers may be beneath their feet. It’s a big shift. As Leon Neyfakh wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward.”
But cities around the world are adjusting their aim; the underground is becoming the next urban frontier.
Here are a handful of projects pushing the possibilities:
1) When there’s no place to go but down: The showpiece of all the potential underground projects is a 65-story inverted pyramid known as the “Earthscraper.” Instead of reaching for the sky, it would burrow 1,000 feet into the ground beneath Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. Taking an elevator 40 floors down into the Earth may not sound like anyone’s idea of an awesome way to start the day, but it can be much better than it might seem, insists architect Esteban Suarez, of BNKR Arquitectura, who imagined this plan.
As he sees it, the Zocalo plaza would be covered with glass that would serve as the building’s ceiling. The Earthscraper’s center would be left as open space to allow natural light and ventilation to flow through each floor. And every 10 floors, there’d be an “Earth Lobby” of plant beds and vertical gardens to help filter the air down there. Suarez envisions the first 10 floors nearest the surface as a museum, with the next 10 down reserved for condos and shops and the next 35 floors designed as office space. The Earthscraper faces a lot of challenges, including an estimated cost of $800 million, and plenty of skeptics think it will be true its vision and never see the light of day. But urban designers are keeping an eye on this one to see if it’s the project that moves cities in a whole new direction.
2) When progress means going back into caves: The hands-down leader in plumbing the possibilities of subterranean life is Helsinki, the only city in the world that actually has a master plan for underground development. The Finnish capital sits above bedrock close to the surface, which has allowed it to start building out another city beneath itself. It’s carved through the rock to create an underground pool, a hockey rink, a church, shopping mall, water treatment plant and what are known as “parking caverns.”
But the most innovative feature of this netherworld is, believe it or not, a data center. Usually, data centers are energy hogs, burning up massive amounts of power to keep machines from overheating. Not under Helsinki. There the computers are kept cool with sea water, and the heat they do generate is used to warm homes on the surface. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to follow Helsinki’s lead in moving the unsightly parts of urban life–treatment plants, garbage transfer centers, fuel storage depots, data centers–into underground caverns.
3) When cities suck, but in a good way: The small, but fast-growing city of Almere in the Netherlands has become a model for cities dealing with the mountains of garbage they generate every day. For years Almere has whisked away its trash through a network of underground suction tubes, but more recently it has added litter cans to the system. The bins automatically drop their trash into the vacuum tubes once sensors indicate that they’re full. So the litter never overflows or ends up in piles that make only the rats happy.
A similar underground trash suction system, also designed by the Swedish firm Envac, has been handling garbage from New York’s Roosevelt Island for years and now feasibility studies are underway to see if it can be extended to serve the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and Coney Island’s boardwalk.
4) When a walk in the park gets really deep: Among the many things most people couldn’t imagine doing underground, having a picnic likely would be high on the list. But that hasn’t deterred two innovative thinkers, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, from pushing for the creation of New York’s first underground park. Their idea is to take a dank, subterranean trolley terminal that’s been abandoned since 1948 and turn it into a place where people can stroll under Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The key to making this work, says Barasch, is using the latest fiber-optic technology to direct natural sunlight into the space–enough sunlight, he insists, to grow grass and plants. To spark the public’s imagination, they’ve been calling it the “LowLine,” an echo of the celebrated elevated High Line park on the city’s West Side. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property, would have to buy into the plan, it got a nice little boost in April. Barasch and Ramsey pitched their idea on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $100,000 to start the design work. Instead, they’ve raised $150,000 in pledges from 3,300 people.
In the land down under
More notes from underground:
- I love the smell of mocha blend in the morning: Researchers at the City College of New York say they’ve found a way to take the stink out of sewers. Their remedy? Coffee grounds cooked to about 800 degrees Celsius.
- A fungus among us: A pair of “horitcultural artists” have created some truly authentic underground art in an abandoned London railway station. It’s been designed so that mold, fungi and even edible mushrooms will sprout from and spread across the surface over the summer.
- And such a tasteful way to hide the unsightly tourists: You know that going underground is coming into fashion when you hear the Paris city council is considering building a welcome center and ticket counter underneath the Eiffel Tower. It would be designed to reduce the crowds in the plaza around the tower and allow tourists to line up in dry, air-conditioned comfort.
- A nice little place from which to rule the world: And here’s a bit more evidence that going beneath the surface is trending glamorous. Apple’s new spaceship-esque research center to be built in Cupertino, California will include a huge underground auditorium. And it is there where Apple will unveil its latest products to the universe.
Video bonus: For a closer look at how Helsinki is setting the pace for tapping underground potential, this CNN report takes you down below.