20 Dec

5 Innovations Transforming Biotech

Biotech is an area of technology that affects all of us in some way or other.  It’s an area that I’ve grown increasingly interested in over the last couple of years as its innovations feel more and more like stories from the realm of science fiction.

There are completely new ways to create food or even to replicate human organs. It is now relatively easy to “design” DNA patterns. Moreover, perhaps the most exciting advance of all is a revolutionary way to provide medical tests, completely avoiding the need for a physical laboratory, which will have an incredible effect on improving the medical treatment of people worldwide.

Modern Meadow Printed Meat

First, we had 2D printers that printed copy using ink onto paper, or occasionally other items (like screen-printing for shirts). Then engineers created the 3D printer. Suddenly we are able to create entire 3D objects, often “printing” a near-perfect replica of the original item (depending on what material is used in the printing process). People now “print” everything from engine parts to replica guns.

Of course, you do not use ink in your 3D printer. You vary the “ingredient” depending on your needs. One unusual application of the 3D printer was to “print” bars of chocolate that are perfectly edible.

Now Modern Meadow has taken printing one stage further, with its bioprinter, designed to “print” artificial raw meat. This is, of course, bioprinting part of a living creature – a completely new level of advancement!

To enable this to happen, scientists collect stem cells from animals via a biopsy. These stem cells can replicate themselves. Once there are enough of the cells they are placed in a biocartridge, effectively they are a form of “bioink”.

Once the meat has printed, to whatever shape want, it fuses to become living tissue.

Why is This Important

Modern Meadow believes that they have a way to solve the world’s food shortage problem. Although 3D printed food obviously costs a fortune now, like all technology the costs will greatly diminish as it becomes more established. Ultimately, this might be a cost-effective way to help the parts of the world that currently suffer from a lack of food and malnutrition. Imagine the possibilities once this technology becomes affordable enough for people to use in the drought-stricken parts of Africa.

Will synthetic meatloaf join the mobile phone as a technology from the original Star Trek that has eventually made it into the real world?

3D Printed Organs

Let us continue with the theme of products made using 3D printers. There are already replacement body parts created using the equipment. To date, these are really just a quick and easy way to make artificial parts that do not include any body tissue – just like any other artificial limb.  The most common use has been using 3D printers to produce titanium replacement hip joints.

An obvious extension to the creation of 3D-printed meat, though, is the creation of 3D-printed organs, using human tissue as the ink, to use for transplant purposes. So far, most of the scientific trials have been with animal organs, but it was only a matter of time before tests advanced to creating human organs.

There have previously been a number of successful experiments involving the creation of organs for rats and mice.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, have come one stage further, though, with the “printing” of a prototype human outer ear. Among the materials used for the ear are hydrogel (to create the ear-shape), cells that grow to form cartilage, and silver nanoparticles to form an antenna.

Why is This Important

Of course, there are many things to consider before governments permit scientists to regularly create human organs. It is very important to ensure the public can distinguish between the very real possibilities of this technology and the fictional work of Doctor Frankenstein creating his monster.

There is one clear difference between creating 3D-printed meat and creating 3D-printed organs. Once the meat is created, its growth process is over, and people eat it. In the case of the organs, surgeons need to be able to transfer them into a human body and they will continue to “live”.

This will definitely be a topic that will keep the sociologists and ethics lawyers in work for some time, as they ponder just how far we are happy to let scientists advance this area.

CRISPR Selective DNA Editing

CRISPR began as a self-defence mechanism for bacteria, essentially, a way to self-vaccinate against invading viruses and plasmids. However, scientists have now retooled the CRISPR-Cas9 system into a more globally viable technology. The genetic code of nearly any species can be modified, and now that means for more than simply self-protection.

CRISPR is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – definitely a reason to use the abbreviated term, and correctly pronounce it as crisper! The exciting thing about the CRISPR/Cas9 system is that scientists now use it for genome editing. Genomes are the genetic material of organisms. The human genome consists of 3.2 billion nucleotide pairs and the order of these nucleotides gives each of us our individual genetic code.

In simple terms, we each have our own individualised genes. Our genes are made up of our DNA. Our DNA, in turn, is made up of chromosomes (23 pairs per person), and our chromosomes each consist of four nucleotides. Therefore, at its heart, CRISPR is a system that can be used to alter the basic elements of our DNA.

Why is This Important

The ability to use CRISPR for genome engineering will revolutionise genetic analysis by providing a targeted mutagen. Scientists now have the ability to precisely modify the DNA of virtually any organism. This gene editing could be used to bestow genetic advantages that previously took large amounts of evolutionary time or complex genetic breeding strategies to acquire.

Organs-on-Chips

There is a new technology known as microfluidics, that uses tiny networks of tubes on microchips to pump minute quantities of air, blood, nutrients and bacteria through, and which, are lined with human cells. In many ways they mimic silicon chips, except it is biological chemicals that are being pushed around trace quantities of human organs.

Why were these organs on chips invented? They exist mainly as an alternative way to test pharmaceuticals, without having to experiment on live animals.

Researchers started a company called Emulate in 2014, which is now performing pre-clinical testing with pharmaceutical companies.

Obviously, although these chips are at a micro level, there is a need to replicate the structure of organs on the chip – with great precision. They, for instance, can emulate the patterns of breathing.

Why is This Important

There are many problems inherent in the pharmaceutical research programs. Using animals for testing is very much a topic of concern in recent years, and does nothing for a company’s image (there are numerous books and films bases on the premise of things going wrong). Just as the microchip revolutionised the information industries, Organs-on-Chips has the potential to completely change how the pharmaceutical industry operates, making testing substantially cheaper, less controversial and easier.

 

Quantumdx

For years when we have had medical issues we have given various types of samples to our doctor, which have been sent away to a lab for analysis. Often we have waited for days in nervous anticipation for the results, hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. The further down the queue you are at the lab, the longer your sample takes to be processed, the longer you go through the agonising wait.

QuantuMDx has changed this normal pattern, with the invention of their Q-POC Handheld Laboratory. This is literally a portable laboratory that can be held in a physician’s hand.

How does this work? Your doctor will place your sample into a disease-specific cartridge, which is then inserted into the handheld reader. He or she simply presses a ‘Go’ button and waits for an analysis, which will only take 10-15 minutes. It can quickly detect the DNA signature of not only any diseases it detects but also the specific strain within your blood sample. It can even suggest which drugs should be used to fight whatever disease or infection the diagnosis finds.

Imagine, you can have a medical analysis while you wait at the surgery – or if you do leave, the prognosis will be known before you reach home.  Medical staff can start treatment virtually straight away. Apart from anything else, this minimises the risk of infection. The equipment is expected to sell for approximately $1500, and the tests only cost $5-$15, depending on what they are looking for.

Why is This Important

This has real potential to change the health of people worldwide. With such a rapid turn-around, treatment of illnesses and diseases will begin so much quicker, which obviously increases the chances of a successful result.

With the relatively cheap price for these units, along with affordable tests, there is real potential for patients who would not have had tests before to receive affordable and good treatment now. As the devices are completely mobile, they can even be used in remote regions that would never have had the opportunity for medical tests before.

The QuantuMDx Q-POC is set to revolutionise our medical diagnostics and, therefore, treatment. This is a chance for a revolutionary change in the wellbeing of people worldwide.

15 Jun

11 Virtual Reality (VR) Glasses Compared

Virtual reality glasses and head mounted displays have jumped out of the realms of sci fi and into reality in recent times. They are not ubiquitous, or even part of the mainstream yet, but they are definitely gaining something of a cult following.

VR glasses will soon be common enough, however, and it is not just niche cutting-edge futurists that are entering this marketplace. Many of the big name technology companies have now developed and are creating their version of glasses and headpieces for us to wear, as we enter the realms of virtual reality. Many are not on the market yet, but they will be in your headspace very soon.

The world of virtual reality appears to be going down two alternate paths, with full immersion experiences like the Oculus, Morpheus, and Vive, versus augmented reality experiences like Hololens and Magic Leap.  And then there is Google, who has made virtual reality accessible to anyone through Cardboard. Helping people understand virtual reality’s potential, even at the simplest level, will inspire more people to explore and adopt the technology.

Chet Faliszek, game developer at Valve, has another way to motivate people to jump into VR games quick: “Rule No. 1 is if someone has a headset on and you don’t, it’s your fault if you get punched”.

Sony Morpheus

Sony, of course, has invested many millions of dollars into making the PlayStation 4 a complete gaming, and indeed entertainment, experience. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they have developed a virtual reality headset to help you immerse yourself in your gaming even more deeply. They have named their product Project Morpheus (there definitely seems to be a Matrix connection going on here).

It incorporates a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED screen (indeed it is now 1920 x 1080, 960 x 1080 per eye), so you will definitely be immersed in a high-definition world.  It has a high refresh rate at 120Hz. You have a field of view of nearly 100 degrees.

Sony expects the Morpheus to enter into the marketplace in the first half of next year. At this stage, they say that it will sell for “several hundred dollars”

People who have trialled this unit talk about how they become fully immersed in their games, reacting to what they see around them and others in their virtual world reacting to their movements. They can hold onto the Move controllers and use them as items in-game. For instance, one player reported hearing a cell phone ring, in the game, and was able to pick up the Move controller and use it in the game like a real cell phone. Very shortly afterwards, the controller in the player’s hand morphed into a shootable gun.

The users suggest that it gives a high quality immersive experience, but it is let down somewhat by being uncomfortable to wear – clearly an area for Sony to focus their future development work.

One advantage that Sony has over much of the competition is that they have developed their product for an existing gaming system. There are now more than 30 games announced that will function using the Morpheus headset.

Microsoft: Holodeck and Hololens

Microsoft is, of course, a big player in the gaming market, with their Xbox One following on from their Xbox 360. It is no surprise, therefore, that they would want to be at the fore of immersive gaming.

They took a different tack initially, by inventing a system that turns your room into a gaming environment. This makes your lounge into your personal holodeck. This involves projecting your gaming environment over your whole room (not just your television screen) and you being able to react to it. While this is still very much an experimental concept, RoomAlive (as they have called it) involves using Kinect sensors and six projectors to map your environment onto your room. You can touch, shoot and dodge items in your virtual environment. Although not virtual reality or augmented reality as it’s classically recognized this did breach into territory that seems to carry over into their latest innovation.

Microsoft has also gone down the VR glasses route with the Hololens, as I have previously looked at. These are svelte as far as virtual reality glasses go. Microsoft has placed holographic capabilities in Windows 10.

At the recent E3 show, Microsoft demonstrated a new version of Minecraft, designed for people to play while wearing a Hololens headpiece.

As the video below demonstrates, Microsoft sees their Hololens as being used for much more than just gaming.

One obvious difference with the Hololens compared to most of the competition is that the Hololens does not make your world totally immersive. You can use it in your everyday life, and you effectively use holograms as you go about normal activities.

HTC Steam / Vive

HTC and Valve Corporation have combined to produce the HTC Vive virtual reality head mounted unit. It is part of Valve Corporation’s SteamVR project.

This unit (which in all reality does not look anything like glasses – it looks like a black box covering the upper part of your face) is still in its development phase, although it has been demonstrated at a couple of tradeshows, including recently in HTC’s keynote speech at the 2015 Mobile World Congress, as I covered at the time. There is a tentative release date of November this year.

There are two screens, one per eye, each with a resolution of 1080 x 1200, and a refresh rate of 90fps. It works with Steam VR base stations, which you can use to set a specific area in which to track your motion. You can use wireless controllers to represent the tactile objects that you can control within your game, for instance guns that you pick up mid game to fire.

The relationship with Steam, which is the largest player in the PC gaming market, means that this headpiece, also has the advantage of a ready-made audience.

Valve has also just announced a relationship with Microsoft. This means that the Vive should work well with Windows 10, and possibly Xbox One games (although that has yet to be confirmed).

 

Oculus Rift

Arguably, the best known of all the VR glasses prototyping at the moment is the Oculus Rift. Indeed the initial excitement about this product was so high that Facebook bought the product for $400 million in cash, $1.6 billion in Facebook stock, and an additional $300 million subject to Oculus VR meeting particular financial targets.

To be honest the initial versions looked somewhat clunky, but as Oculus moves closer to production, the product certainly has started to look less like a stylised gas mask that has climbed up the face. In fact, the version shown to the public this week looks like a normal consumer product. You can even wear it over your normal prescription glasses.

It is a pity that it still is not wireless, though. Unlike much of the competition, Oculus believes that virtual reality is best experienced seated.

Oculus has realised the importance of having software available, and have managed to get Oculus support in a number of Xbox 1 and PC games. Microsoft is certainly getting involved in the VR world! Interestingly it will come packaged with a normal Xbox controller – no need for a fancy virtual reality sensing device… yet.

Like many of these products, expect to be able to buy an Oculus Rift in the first quarter of 2016.

Oculus has demonstrated an exciting new addition to their virtual world at E3. The Oculus Touch comprises two handheld controllers. Each provides haptic feedback, so users can feel vibrations that correspond to their actions in their virtual world. There are six degrees of freedom tracking and a multitude of sensors can that recognize hand and finger movements such as pointing or giving a thumbs-up. Now when you punch someone in that fighting game you will actually feel the pain!

Google Cardboard

Remember those quaint devices from your childhood (or your parents’ childhood, depending on your age) called View-Masters. You used to stick circles of little pictures into them, bring the device to your eyes, and click your way through a story, lit up before you in something approximating 3D.

Now the View-Master is back for the 21st Century.

A while ago Google introduced their budget entry to the virtual reality world, Google Cardboard. This is basically a do-it-yourself device consisting of cardboard, lenses, magnets, Velcro and a rubber band, with your cell phone inside the box; definitely low tech! There is even an official Cardboard app for your android or iPhone.

I bought one a couple of weeks ago and honestly it’s been a lot of fun to demonstrate virtual reality’s potential to friends and family. There is a fun integration with Google Streetview that allows you to move around virtual spaces like Tokyo or the Eiffel Tower that has been a bit of hit regardless of it’s simplicity.

There is now a View-Master version of the app where you lay a View-Master disk of pictures on a table, and then look at them as if they were in your Google Cardboard glasses. The software takes the images from the table in front of you and makes the images appear in front of your eyes.

The  Samsung Gear VR

Samsung’s Gear VR operates like the Google Cardboard product, but exclusively with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 phones. It aims to be a phone-powered cut-down version of the Oculus Rift. Indeed, Samsung has worked with Oculus, and it incorporates some of the Oculus technology. One reason that Samsung has chosen that particular phone to use in this product is that it has a 2560 x 1440 5.7-inch display (better than many of the more expensive specialist VR sets). The glasses themselves are more user-friendly and better designed than much of the opposition, too. Unlike some products, including the Oculus that it is based on, being cell phone-based means that there are no cables tethering the glasses to anything. They are completely self-contained.

Outsiders Competing in the VR Glasses Marketplace

The above devices are the big guns of the virtual reality world. They do not have the space to themselves however. A number of smaller firms have also tried to enter the marketplace… some more successfully than others!

Magic Leap

Magic Leap is developing an augmented reality platform. They are done it almost by stealth, building it up without much publicity until they received $542 million of funding from a number of investors, including Google and Weta Workshop, late last year.

Magic Leap’s augmented reality headset works by shooting light directly onto your eye, rather than having a screen in front of it, as most of the other headsets do.

They have released a demonstration of how you could play a first person shooter game with it, inside your office.

Although it is still early days for the Magic Leap, they are now training developers on how to create games for this system.

Razer OSVR

Razer is developing a VR headset, as part of the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) ecosystem. They are part of an open standard for virtual reality.

There is also a $199.99 Hacker Development Kit available for people; to purchase and then build their own headpieces from this coming July.

It is good to see firms try to design products for the affordable side of the market; however, it appears that there is still quite some development needed yet.

3D Head

The 3D Head has been marketed as the “Oculus Killer”. Well … maybe.

What is it? In essence, it is simply a tablet strapped to your head. Not quite the immersive experience that the big devices will give you, but definitely different. It is a big helmet, with a tablet in the end, as far away from your eyes as it can get without looking too silly. There is some 3D technology in there, too.   It comes with an “interesting” controller, (which for some bizarre reason incorporates another tablet).

3dhead4-3c0475a13d68615b

What does the 3D Head have for it above the big name devices? Well, you can actually buy it now.

Sulon Cortex

The Sulon Cortex consists of a screen mounted in front of your eyes and a camera mounted on the back of your head. The camera can create a 3D model of the room you are in and feed the image back to the screen before your eyes (along with whatever “extras” you want added to your environment.

There is still quite some development needed. The virtual reality suffers from a low frame rate, certainly when compared to the better name units. There is also an issue of with the camera and your eyes not lining up when you are looking at the real world, along with picture delay. The object tracking also lacks precision. It is early days, however, and I hope Sulon can sort these issues out before the Cortex actually ships.

StarVR

Starbreeze Studios has just announced the StarVR virtual reality headset. It will have dual 5.5 inch LCD displays, at an astounding 5120 x 1440 resolution. It will include 360-degree head tracking, with a 130-degree vertical FOV, 210-degree horizontal. It’s engine, Valhalla, supports the Steam OpenVR framework, and they expect to publish games for the unit on Steam.

This definitely looks like it will be a high-end system, and those specs are higher than any of the competition that have currently been announced. The first game to be announced for it is The Walking Dead.

Why are These Important

As with many of the sci-fi writers’ staples, virtual reality is indeed virtually becoming a reality. The models on the market now are all either low-powered, or lacking in real capability, but the prototypes that appear at electronic trade show are improving in leaps and bounds.

It is only a matter of months until we have practical, lightweight, effective, and moreover fun, devices available. We will truly be able to see our world from a completely new perspective.

While it is inevitable that the initial focus has been on uses of these virtual reality glasses in gaming, it is only a matter of time until people develop other uses, whether it be virtual travel, virtual schooling or even virtual surgery.

05 May

Five Best Innovations of April 2015

April was a great month for innovation, ranging from exciting announcements from Tesla, Yahoo, and Microsoft to bleeding edge innovation from a group of British scientists.

Tesla’s Home Battery

Tesla have now widened their product range beyond cars with the creation of Tesla Energy, which focuses on reducing the use of grid power in households. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has just demonstrated the launch product of Tesla Energy – the Tesla Powerwall, which stores solar power until it is needed. These batteries store sufficient electricity to be the primary form of energy needed to power a house.

The Tesla Powerwall can be attached to a wall. Just like the more typical smaller batteries we currently use, you can combine Tesla Powerwall batteries together – up to nine of them can be combined to work as a power source.

The batteries will come at two power levels: 7kWh (costing $3,000) and 10kWh (costing $3,500).  As these are wholesale prices, and do not include installation costs, customers will end up paying more.
Like all batteries, these store energy. If you have solar panels the primary energy used to charge the batteries is solar. However, they also hook into the grid, to ensure that you can charge them, even at times when there is little sunshine. The system is intelligent enough to know that if grid power is needed it chooses to charge during lower cost periods to do its charging, typically overnight.

Why is this important?

Home energy storage is an important step in the process of transitioning the world to renewable energy. Giving individuals greater freedom to manage and store their personal energy requirements would change the world. Musk believes that 160 million battery packs could transition the United States to renewable energy. 900 million units could transition the entire world. I believe, although ambitious, this could be achievable in the next 25 years.

Ears Become Useful Biometrics

Biometrics is the new key to the door. If you want to be certain about identity for security purposes, the best way is to use some feature of a person’s body that is unique to them. For years, fingerprints have been used for that purpose. More recently people have successfully used facial recognition to determine identity. Now more body parts can be used as a biometric marker including your ear.

Researchers at the Yahoo Labs designed Bodyprint to be used as security on your smartphone. It determines your identity by comparing your ear (or another body part like your knuckle, palm or fist bump) with an image of that part already registered in your smartphone. A smartphone screen is not of high enough resolution to read a single fingerprint. It is much easier to scan a larger body part, like your ear, to ensure this is read with accuracy.

It certainly makes the old 4-digit PIN number seem so old fashioned and passe.
Ears are remarkably distinct and  the system claims a 99.5% accuracy rate. Tests show a much better performance when using your ear as the biometric measure, compared with the other body parts suggested.

Why is this important?

Passwords are an insecure archaic practice and biometrics are increasingly the most secure way to interact with machines. When more contact points and body parts can accurately and securely be used to interact with machines it makes the experience more accessible to consumers and subsequently more likely to be brought into the mainstream.

Projecting Emotions From Computers

First there was sensurround. Then there was Smell-o-vision. For years, there have been inventions that have replicated and enhanced our senses and emotions. Now we have the SenseX.

 

The SenseX uses UltraHaptics technology to radiate specific emotional feelings to those nearby. They use a variety of ultrasonic emitters that produce ultrasonic energy that in turn provides sufficient radiation pressure to be felt by the skin. Apparently different emotions can be prompted by applying pressure to different parts of people’s hands, e.g. short bursts of air to the thumb, index finger and the palm will make you feel excited.

Ultrahaptics appears to offer opportunities for advanced interaction in social apps and gaming. Now imagine if this system could somehow be wired into cinema seats, and operate as you sat through a horror movie!

Why is this important?

I work with technology that can detect emotions at Kairos, but being able to project emotions through technology is an entirely new field. Recently our CTO wrote an article on Affective Computing, which is when technology can detect how you feel, to enhance the experience.What are the implications of when a computer can project back emotions using technology like SenseX?

Everything Will Run On Windows 10

All of the early testers of Windows 10 have indicated that there will be quite a few changes, both on the surface and under the hood. A significant difference is that Windows 10 shares the same code base for all platforms that will use it – desktop, tablet and phone.

Microsoft is making it much easier for developers who have created apps for the competing systems. They have made it very easy to port apps that have been developed for the web, Android and iOS into the Windows Store.

Windows Chief, Terry Myerson, told developers that they can use the existing code in these non-Windows apps when they port them to the Windows store. The developers can continue to work on the code (even if it is non-Windows) in Microsoft Visual Studio and even add Windows-specific features, such as Xbox Achievements.This means that you can relatively easily port any app or tool developed for any of the major systems onto any Windows device.
This also gives a chance for the two separate halves of a Windows machine to come together. At the moment, we have traditional desktop programs separate from the apps in the Modern UI (formally Metro). In Windows 10 the desktop applications can be ported into he Windows store as easily as any other apps.

Why is this important?

 Windows is still one of the world’s dominant operating systems. It is also still the largest operating system for consumer personal computers. This move positions Windows as a universal operating system that tears down the barriers between Android, OS X, iOS, and Windows. It could cause a significant uptick in Windows’ use and help Microsoft regain some of its former glory.

Windows Phone 10 is a Full Blown PC

Microsoft managed to nab two spots on this month’s best innovation list. The other key point to come out of Microsoft’s recent announcement was the fact that all of the Windows 10 variants will be based on the same code. This gives new possibilities for the power of mobile computing.

One feature connected to this is Continuum for Phones. It allows smartphones running Windows Phone 10 to transform into something approaching the functionality of desktop PCs when they connect to larger screens. Microsoft has given developers tools they can use to create software that can run on PCs, tablets, convertibles, smartphones, and the Xbox. Continuum for Phones helps with this process. When the smartphone connects to a screen, it looks and functions like a desktop PC, but the phone is powering it.

Of course, your smartphone will need to be powerful enough to handle his task. It does not matter how sophisticated your software is if your phone comes with a measly 512MB  RAM and 8GB memory card.

Why is this important?

For years, people have been holding up their smartphones and saying “it’s like having a computer in your pocket!” I think we are reaching the point of convergence where rather than seeing people abandoning their laptops for a tablet, they may well be abandoning their tablets and their laptops for a phone.

For most computer users who check email and surf the web, a lightweight device would be sufficient.

When that same device seamlessly lets you move from home, to your commute, to your workplace, with one device tucked neatly in your pocket with all your same apps, settings, and software, you have another revolution in computing on your hands.

 

15 Apr

5 Innovations Breaking the Boundaries of Digital

For the last thirty years, since the birth of the Internet, both the physical and digital worlds have continued to evolve, with innovation after innovation. For most of that time, they have been two separate entities but the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds are crumbling.

Here are five innovations that are doing their utmost to break these barriers down.

Holographic Protesters

Unhappy people have protested what they believe to be unfair or unjust treatment for centuries, possibly even millennia. It is part of human nature to stand up for what they believe.

One topic that is particularly likely to fire up a protest is an attempt by those in power to take away that very right to protest. I suppose in many ways that that is an example of the Streisand Effect – whereby if you try and gag discussion about something you generate more publicity than ever about that very act.

Spain is about to implement what has become known as a “gag law”. The Citizens’ Security Law aims to eradicate unauthorised street protests, giving a maximum 600,000 euro fine to participants, a 30,000 euro fine for distributing unauthorised photos of policemen, and even a 30,000 euro fine for covering your face in a demonstration.

A Spanish protest group has created a “protest, that isn’t a protest” with nobody actually present. Instead, thousands of holograms did the legwork, protesting outside the lower house of Spain’s Parliament. These holograms provided a reminder to the politicians that even with the highly restrictive new laws, protest can still happen – just without protesters risking having their bodies on the street.

Why is this important?

As the world becomes increasingly digital, the lines between the physical and virtual world will continue to blur. Laws that apply in the physical world may not apply to you in the digital world. This is an exciting example of what happens when you bring your digital self to the physical world. Your message is the same, your feelings do not change, but in this scenario, you are no longer breaking protest laws. It inspires serious and fascinating questions for the future, and I can’t help but wonder when we’ll have our first million-man march in the same manner.

3D Billboards

Times Square is about to gain a whole new look, thanks to the latest in marketing displays. 3D digital billboards (more technically called outdoor autostereoscopic displays) will soon dominate the intersection, sending their very visual images jumping out at the passers-by. Moreover, the 3D images will be visible to anyone in a 10 to 70 meter range, without them having to wear special glasses. The images are projected using high-powered lasers, meaning that they will be visible even in harsh sunlight.

The technology works by producing two distinct images, one for each eye. This gives another possible use for the displays. At times, instead of creating a full-blown 3D image, it is possible to have two distinct images on the billboard. The particular picture any person saw would depend on where they were in relation to the screen. There could be different adverts visible for people coming out of different shops.

For fans of 80s movies it’s hard not to think of the classic Back to the Future II scene with the 3D ‘JAWS 19’ billboard gobbling up Michael J Fox (jump to 1:05)

Why is this important?

We might not be clamoring for more ads in this world, but I doubt many of us won’t appreciate some of the new areas for creative thinking this will unleash. The use of glasses-free 3D in such a high profile location will likely only drive further adoption of this kind of technologies in the mainstream world. If this technology takes off the days of sitting at the movies, wearing those geeky glasses may be numbered.

Google Fiber TV Ad Platform

Modern internet advertising is clever. No matter where you go online, you seem to see ads for the same juicer you have been searching for. You look over your shoulder and wonder if someone has been stalking you. It does know what you have been viewing. It learns your interests and likes, and tries to match up the most appropriate ads for you. If you have shown an interest in something, it keeps on reminding you of that.

Modern television advertising works very much the same way it did in the 50s. Google is (finally) trying to replicate the online media approach with television advertising. No longer will you be a passive recipient of televisions ads that someone else decides to serve to you and millions of other people. Now you will be receiving the ads that are most suitable for your tastes and interests.

The ads delivered to Google Fiber subscribers will be selected based on a viewer’s geography, the kind of show they are watching and that household’s viewing history.

Because the ad serving is so highly customized, advertisers will only be charged based on how many times their ad has been served. Advertisers can limit the number of times that a particular ad plays on a specific TV.

Why is this important?

Traditional TV advertising, although it has a broad reach, is a shotgun approach to reaching consumers. Google is bringing the power of digital advertising to TV. Many people might not love advertising, but they typically hate non-relevant advertising. This will create better experiences for consumers and better value for advertisers. Bluntly, this has been a long time coming.

Art in the Form of Virtual Reality Immersion

Art is a very wide-ranging field and often involves the participants receiving many sensory experiences. Seeing-I is a very different social-artistic experiment where artist Mark Farid will spend 28 days wearing a virtual reality headset, experiencing life through another person’s eyes and ears.

Interestingly Mark knows very little about the man whose life he will be “living” (known as the Input) apart from the fact that he is a heterosexual male who is in a relationship.  The Input will be wearing glasses that capture audio and video in an 180-degree field of vision.

While the Input will be living a normal life (well, as normal as you can be with these special glasses on 24/7) Mark will spend the 28 days as the “artwork” on public display in an area that simply has a bed, toilet, and shower area. For one hour a day (while the Input is sleeping), the audience will be sent away, and Mark will spend time with a psychologist specializing in neuroscience.

As he “lives” the life of the Input, will he begin to think like the Input? Alternatively, will he keep his sense of self? Will Mark begin to take on the characteristics and mannerisms of the Input? Will freewill override everything?

Why is this important?

We’ve covered Virtual Reality many times in Take Me To Your Leader. This isn’t a fad; VR is a technological inevitability, and its sociological impact will be as profound as its technical one. When VR quality is good enough will it really allow us to leave our lives and adopt any persona we want? What impact will that have on our individual perception of self and each other? This artist is exploring some fascinating areas by being, arguably, one of the first people to truly immerse themselves in another’s life through VR.

Actual 3D Displays

3D data has been part of the spreadsheet for many years now. However, what if our spreadsheets were really, physically 3D. Imagine if you could have a practical tactile interaction with your spreadsheet.

Researchers are developing the next generation of displays, and some of these have 3D reconfigurable surfaces. Your “flat screen” will be able to deform itself into other more appropriate shapes. They will adapt its shape to the content being presented. If your displays allow pixels to protrude from their surfaces, this creates a whole new ballgame for tactile interaction. Imagine using a CAD program using such a display, or doing terrain modeling where you can create a 3D world at your fingertips.

A team at Lancaster University led by Jason Alexander has begun experimenting in this field. They have already created the 3D spreadsheet device (or at least a 10 x 10 interactive bar chart). This can represent data visualization tasks like displaying data, filtering data, and organizing it into different rows and columns. Alright, this is not yet a dynamic flowing touchscreen, but it is a movement in the right direction.

Users found it extremely simple to manipulate the data points and compare datasets, when they played with the physical bars on the graph. Although you can easily do this in Excel, the results are so much more vivid in actual 3D.

Why is this important?

With the mass adoption of touchscreens on smartphones, tablets, and laptops, we’ve very much entered a touch-centric computing world. Touch screens form a blank pallet for communications and creative interaction models with users. By dynamically adding another dimension to screens, we are further extending the possibilities of creative and effective design. It is a natural evolution of the screen that I think will become quite common in the future.

19 Mar

The 5 Best Innovations at SXSW 2015

After attending SXSW nine times I’ve seen all manner of innovations, from the meaningless to the profound, there. I’ve launched a startup at SXSW in 2013 and even had my work recognized at the Interactive Awards. I want to claim SXSW has lost relevance, and that the marketers have ruined it, but have to admit there are still some wonderful innovations on display.

BioBots

BioBots was, deservedly, recognized as one of the most innovative startups at SXSW.

BioBots offers plug and play desktop 3D bioprinting that enables users to easily make functional three dimensional living tissue from human cells. This has huge potential for medical testing purposes, and possibly eventually for transplants.

Bioprinting involves recreating the 3D structure of a tissue with a fabrication technique using a computer program to slice up the biological structure into discrete layers and rebuild them using some sort of biomaterial extruded from a printhead that can move up, down, and side-to-side.

The 3D printer was invented by Danny Cabrera and Ricardo Solorzano, initially students in Miami Dade College, before they moved on to the University of Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania that they were able to attract funding and begin the development of their project.

Biobots are ultimately focused on further developing  their research to enable cost-effective 3D creation of artificial organs. The medical implications of this are profound.

Exiii Robotic Hand

Japanese company, Exiii, brought their first customer to SXSW to demonstrate their product: a prosthetic arm with a robotic hand. The customer had lost his arm two years ago in a factory accident in Japan.

Prosthetics have, of course, been in use for many years. So what’s different about this product. Well, firstly, as far as artificial limbs go, this one is actually quite stylish and futuristic looking.

Secondly, the robotic hand is actually very usable. It has sensors that can detect any movement that muscles make. These sensors send signals to the wearer’s smart-phone, which in turn controls the robotic hand. The hand has many of the movement capabilities of a natural hand, including moving the “fingers” and picking up items weighing up to 500 grams.

Exii have plans of making their prosthetic devices available to be printed at home on a 3D printer. They hope that this will lead to prosthetics being available to everyone who needs one.

Immortality Through Robotics

Martine Rothblatt, America’s highest paid woman and CEO of biotech firm United Therapeutics was recognized as the best speaker at SXSW this year. She has been involved with quite a few projects on the cutting edge of biotech, including using organs from genetically-modified pigs for human organ transplants.

One of the more unusual of her projects however, is that she has hired a team of robotic scientists who have created a robot that is a “mind clone” of her wife, Bina Aspen. Bina’s robotic twin contains a “mindfile” containing many of the original’s mannerisms, personality, memories, feelings, values and attitudes.

In many ways the robotic Bina can mimic the human Bina. “She” can hold a conversation, use social media, express jealousy, “feel” pain and act in a similar way to her human counterpart.

Rothblatt believes that we are about two decades away from the mindfile being developed enough to be real and common, however the development with Bina is advancing fast.

When the human Bina eventually dies, the robotic version will live on. In time “mind clones” might not just be imitations but true clones. Does that mean they’re self aware? If so, does this equate to immortality through transcendence past our own bodies?

A Sexy Turing Test

Twitter views of AvaThe last “mind clone” innovation touched on the concept of self-awareness in machine derived from a human’s mind. In the world of artificial intelligence the concept is a frequent point of discussion. The Turing Test is a method that scientists use to determine if a computer is capable of thinking like a human. This week many at SXSW were exposed to their own form of a Turing Test via a promotion for the excellent new film Ex Machina.

Tinder chat with AvaMany singles seem to spend a lot of time hanging out on Tinder – swiping left and right to reject or select potential new matches. Those attending SXSW were no exception, and many busily swiped away on Tinder while they were in town hoping to find their perfect match.

Many of the guys were being matching up with an attractive 25-year-old woman named Ava.

Those who wanted to chat to Ava usually found that she would sensibly and intelligently chat with them, and even ask them thought-provoking questions like “What makes you human?” She would then send them to her Instagram account to see more of her. One can only guess what they were hoping to see on Instagram.

What they actually found when they opened Ava’s Instagram account was a photo and video, both of which promoted Ex Machina.

The thing is, this is not just a case of Tinder spam. Ava is actually Swedish actress Alicia Vikander who plays an artificial intelligence in the movie. The marketing while clever gets a nod today due it’s effectiveness in getting it’s audience to pause and consider the underlying message of the movie.

 

Arousal Detecting Dresses

They may not be entirely new, having first been seen in the world of fashion in 2011, but the Intimacy 2.0 dresses were definitely an eye-opener at SXSW.

These dresses, which are the design of Studio Roosegaarde are definitely high-tech. What is particularly unusual about them, though, is that the material they are fashioned from becomes more transparent the closer they are to people – well at least people that arouse the wearer.

The fabric is embedded with heart rate sensors, and as the heart rate quickens the dress slowly transitions from opaque to partially transparent.

Looking to the future it’s interesting to see other uses for the myriad of biometric sensors that are being added to wearables and smartphones. It was only a matter of time before this data was integrated in a way that was a form of expression. I expect to see these concepts flourish in more conventional clothes in the next year or two.

The original dresses, Intimacy Black and Intimacy White, were made out of smart e-foils, with the “interesting” color-changing effect whenever there were any close and personal encounters. The newer Intimacy 2.0 dresses add leather to the mix and are more suitable for wearing on the red carpet.

04 Mar

The Six Most Awesome Innovations At MWC 2015

It’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) time again, which for anyone who doesn’t know is the world’s largest trade exhibition for those in the mobile industry. It’s where the manufacturers get to show off what’s new and great in the world of mobile technology. Of course the definition of mobile technology has definitely widened over the years, and the stars from this year’s show are a light year away from the humble mobile telephone, where it all began. Mr Spock, as played by the late lamented Leonard Nimoy, would have been stunned by how far behind the times his communicator has actually become.

Virtual Reality from HTC & Valve

HTC are traditionally known for producing smartphones, but their latest offering on display at MWC, while definitely smart, is anything but a phone! They have produced the Vive virtual reality headset, powered by Valve’s VR platform. Valve dominates the PC gaming market with over 120mm users on the Steam gaming service. The new product will be available to consumers, as well as in a developer edition, later this year.

You wear the Vive virtual reality headset like a mask, and compared to most of the competition it appears to be light and comfortable to wear. You have a HD display in front of each eye, refreshing at 90 frames per second. It envelopes your entire field of vision, and moves with your movement, giving effectively 360-degree views.

It’s secret sauce are the Steam VR base stations, which track your movement, enabling you to physically walk around virtual space, in areas of up to 15 feet by 15 feet. In a game, for instance, you can be walking around as the character you are playing, interacting with the game environment. The base stations create a boundary to your artificial world that recognizes the limitations of the physical world you are operating in.

There are also wireless controllers which can be used in your virtual reality thanks to hand tracking, for example in a shooting game you can use a controller as a gun, although there are undoubtedly many other potential non-game uses as well. One reviewer has described using two of the controllers like gloves to whip a soup in the kitchen of a virtual restaurant.

Why is this important?

Virtual reality has seen unprecedented levels of investment in recent years as companies like Facebook, Sony, and Microsoft have raced to own this maturing medium. No one has cracked it yet. Having a sense of movement in your three dimensional space is imperative to a true sense of immersion. Valve and HTC’s approach is unprecedented.  The feedback from people reviewing the tech is that it was mind blowing or the best tech demo they had ever seen. We may have a new front runner for the Virtual Reality market on our hands…

Metaio Augmented Reality

Now this really is cutting edge technology, still in its infancy, but the possibilities are intriguing. Metaio uses the heat signatures from your fingerprints on physical objects as a way to input information.

metaio-thermal-touchFor instance in one demonstration at MWC they placed an iPhone in a Flir One heat-sensing case, and used their special demo app. They pointed the iPhone at a poster on the wall that depicted a number of album covers. The demonstrator then touched the poster on the album covers depicted. As he touched a particular cover on the poster a track from that album played on the phone. Effectively, the heat-sensing device turned the poster into a giant touchscreen. It can be seen in use here.

They also made demonstrations using the iPhone with heat-sensor as a wearable device. Yes, at the moment they look weird, and you would definitely get some strange looks wandering around the streets wearing it, but it is still early prototype days.

Why is this important?

Google Glass might have been perceived as a failure, but the reality is that it was an early prototype of technology that will become mainstream at some point in the future. Continued improvements in technology miniaturization and valuable technologies like augmented reality, that have a natural and truly useful application in wearables like Google Glass, are the key to the future success of these platforms.

Merging computer vision and thermal imaging allows anything to become a surface. Imagine turning any surface into a keyboard or an interface through Smart glasses!

Immersion Haptic Technology

Immersion took the opportunity of MWC 2015 to announce the Instinctive Alerts Framework. Essentially it is a consistent framework for manufacturers of haptic devices, indicating the levels and intensities of “feeling” that their devices should give in different circumstances.

For instance something like changing the mode on your wearable device would give you a short, light vibration, simply enough to let you know that the change has been registered. At the other extreme an incoming phone call will give a prolonged, strong vibration, to ensure that you definitely know that you are receiving the call.

They have divided activities that would give haptic feedback (i.e. touch feedback) into five categories: Changed This, Review This, Do This, Know This and Now This. These range from the lightest, shortest touch (Change This) to the strongest, longest tactile notification (Now This).

The hope is that manufacturers will follow this framework, and that users will be able to distinguish different types of alert, simply by the level of urgency in the tactile sensation they feel.

Immersion has brought some of this thinking to life with an SDK enabling developers to bring stickers to life. For example, if a consumer uses a sticker in a chat application, then using the device’s vibration motor, allied with animation and sound, the sticker can give the impression of laughing, pleading, cheering, dancing, sleeping etc. This is definitely a step-up from the normal smiley-face emoticon. You can see, hear, and feel the smiley faced-character laughing!

Why is this important?

Smartphones and wearable technology have put enormous computing power in our pocket, wrist, face, and even in our clothing. They’re ever present in our lives and new methods of machine-interaction like haptics not only allow for more expressive human-like communication by adding another dimension of touch, but they also allow for a subtle communication method in this always-on, increasingly connected, world that doesn’t interrupt the experience of the moment for you or those around you.

Qbo Robotics

With the Qbo series of robots we really do seem to be getting closer to having truly personalized artificial friends.

The key difference with these robots is that they can be programmed to recognize identity. They use a combination of the Festival Speech Synthesis System and the Julius open-source speech recognition engine.

As can be seen below, a very important step for a Qbo robot is to learn to recognize itself in a  mirror.

Once a particular Qbo robot can identify itself, you can then teach it to recognize and distinguish other Qbo robots.

As can be seem the robots have been programmed to recognize identity in a similar way to the way that humans identify each other.

Are these the forerunners of the Star Trek droids? They definitely look a bit like mini-R2D2s, but the speech is definitely more C3PO.

There is even a Robot App Store, where you can buy your own Qbos, either pre-assembled, or ready for you to put together, with your own custom touches. When you’re ready to get your Qbo operating there are a number of apps you can download for self recognition, listening, object recognition, question-answering, and audio control.

Why is this important?

The robot is fascinating in its own right, but the simplification around software based customization through the Robot App Store is an important milestone. As robots become increasingly dexterous, and thus able to interact with the world around them more effectively, it will be, like their human counterparts, their mind that makes them more unique than their bodies. Being able to download new skills to make a robot more personalized to your needs, will be an important step not only in the ongoing development of robotics, but also their relevancy to mass adoption. After all, what was the iPhone before there was an App Store?

Advanced Biometrics

Technically these are our fifth and our sixth innovations, but we’re going to cover them together as their importance is intertwined.

There are a couple of new mobile devices using biometric methods to enhance their security.

The first is the ZTE Grand S3 smartphone. At first you might look at its features and think ho hum, another smartphone … The big point of difference with the ZTE Grand G3 is that it incorporates eye-based biometric security. If you want to authorize mobile payments, unlock the screen or access secure content, you have to prove your identity, by having both your eyes scanned. The system is known as Eyeprint ID and is was developed by EyeVerify.

The second biometric development premiered at MWC is Qualcomm’s Sense ID ultrasonic fingerprint scanner. As it is ultrasonic there is no need for there to be contact between your finger and the actual device, and there is no concern about contaminants on your finger giving a misleading reading (as has been the case with all previous cases of mobile fingerprint technology). The ultrasonic sound waves will break through most contaminants. They can also scan more deeper into your body, giving more biometric data than could be gained from simply rubbing your finger against the surface of your phone. They effectively create a 3D image of your fingerprint’s outer skin layer.

The fact that it can work through glass, plastic and metal, gives phone manufacturers opportunities to utilise the scanners in ways impossible until now. There will be no need for a separate scanner outside the phone’s screen area (like on the iPhone) – the scanning should in the future be able to happen on the screen itself, possibly behind a virtual unlock button.

Why is this important?

The market for biometric authentication systems is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 14% until 2020. Traditional passwords are becoming obsolete and advanced security even in consumer devices will become the norm. Technologies like Eyeprint or SenseID are the types of technologies that make this a reality: mobile friendly, simple to use, and easy to integrate into mass market devices and products.