25 Jan

5 Best Innovations of January 2015

It’s fun to get back into the swing of things with Take Me To Your Leader. Our post covering the Best of CES 2015  covered everything from intelligent miniaturized robots that teach kids to program, to home security systems that recognize family members via facial recognition.

But that was nearly a month ago. By definition, the world of innovation keeps on moving, as yesterday’s innovation turns into today’s reality and then becomes tomorrow’s history. So what has been new, exciting and innovative in technology during January 2015?

Microsoft Augmented Reality: HoloLens

Microsoft’s boffins have been feverishly working in secret to produce what they hope to be a new game-changer – their hologram headset the HoloLens. Actually it technically isn’t a hologram, it’s an augmented reality system, or as they prefer to put it a “mixed reality experience”. This is the brainchild of Alex Kipman, whose first inspiration for Microsoft resulted in the Xbox Kinect. This is at a whole different level again, though.

So far only a few select journalists have been privy to Project Baraboo, or B for short. It’s not quite ready for the world to see – but it’s not too far away.

So what is the HoloLens? At the moment the unit is in two parts, the mechanics hang around your neck, and the visual part itself is a decidedly fragile headpiece. The production model will have everything in one (hopefully sturdy) headpiece.

microsoft-hololensYou put the headpiece on and you instantly see a semi-transparent rectangle floating mid-air in front of you. Being a Microsoft product, there is inevitably a Windows logo on it. At this point there are many choices as to what you do – the demonstrators choose the story at the moment, but presumably you’ll have a choice of path to follow when you’re using it in the real world.

Journalists at Polygon and Wired were able to experience the technology first hand. Some of the situations they were allowed to experience included walking on Mars learning about rock samples, electrical wiring in a room (helped by being able to “see” an instructor and diagrams he drew on the wall by a lightswitch), creating a 3D product, and inevitably playing an immersive game.

It seems clear that the HoloLens is about to become very real. This is not just marketing. The HoloLens isn’t virtual reality, and its augmented reality style approach seems to lend itself to more functional uses.

Being delivered by Microsoft gives the opportunity for this to be produced on a huge scale and there is likely to be integration into a number of productivity products that are used by significant numbers of businesses, students, and general consumers. Its connections to the Windows gaming world and the Xbox One give it a huge reach in the gaming market which has proven to be an important factor in device adoption in the last ten years.

HoloLens has the potential to be transformational technology in the way that we interact with computers. We moved past the click generation to the touch generation of computing, and now we’re exploring territories that remove the barrier between humans and computers – ultimately creating more personal and intimate experiences.

A Device That Can Alter Your Mood: Thync

Thync is an electricity-pulsing headband to improve your mood and alertness.

It uses neurosignalling (waveforms that signal to neural pathways) to change peoples’ moods. Now how many sci-fi movies have you seen based around mood-changing devices?

Assuming that it can’t be misused, as it invariably is in the movies, it can be an aid to help your levels of energy, calmness and focus.

thyncThync comes with pads that attach to your temple, back of neck or your ear, which wirelessly deliver small electrical pulses, which are controlled by a smartphone app. The mood-improving effects can last in your system for up to three days.

It does make you wonder, though. If a device can alter your mood in the same way that alcohol, medication, or meditation can (pick your flavor) how would it be used? Would it be used in a similar fashion or could it even be used in conjunction with other technologies like Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s Hololens to create even more immersive experiences that you not only see and hear, but actually feel at a deeper level.

Robot Controlled With a Worm’s Brain

The boundary between science fiction and science fact seems to be blurring all the time. Remember the times when the communicators in Star Trek were whizz-bang futuristic devices, dreamed up by imaginative screenwriters? Now they are less advanced than today’s cell phones that even young children possess.

One area of science fiction that has clearly just been fictional though, is the idea of uploading a brain into a computer, allowing the brain to live as a form of digital consciousness.

Yet, in a very simplified form, scientists have done just that – using a simulation of the brain of a parasitic lungworm and a robot made out of Lego.

The tapeworm C. elegans, is a pretty simple animal with only 302 neurons. Scientists in the Openworm project have mapped these neurons and uploaded a simulation to a Lego robot (with similar parts to the tapeworm). The artificial brain, managed to operate the Lego, just like the actual tapeworm controlled its own body.

This video shows the Lego model in operation, with only the simulated tapeworm brain controlling it.

The scientists’ next step will be mapping the human brain and replicating the test on a larger scale!

Why is this important? Scientists are continuing to make huge steps forward with mind controlled limbs in recent years that have huge implications for the disabled. But what if we could take it beyond that? The goal of this experiment is to show we can replicate a mind digitally – they’ve succeeded on a limited level.

We’re a long way from this being possible with humans, but this is an important step in making this possible. Is this the future definition of immortality? The implications are profound and would force us to re-evaluate, amongst other things, what the definition of life is and what happens when time becomes irrelevant.

Robotics Advancement: One Well Balanced Metal Foot Forward

Last year the Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS robot was created for the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. It was considered quite an advanced creation at that point. The creative team have not rested on their laurels, however. They’ve kept perfecting their creation. There is now a faster, stronger, quieter, battery-powered version.

The main purpose of this robot is to go where it is unsafe for humans to go. Hence it is designed to have similar proportions to humans. As such it has been made smaller, so it can fit anywhere a human can.

This is what the latest incarnation of the robot looks like:

This has the most fluidity, balance, and strength a robot has ever displayed. Look back at how quickly Atlas has been developing and recognize how rapidly it’s evolved.

As at October 2014:

As at May 2014:

Now look 5 to 10 years into the future. We’re on the cusp of true humanoid robotics combined with increasingly miniaturized high powered computers like the Intel Curie.

Facebook Filters Out Hoaxes (But Sadly Not Stupidity) From Your Feed

How many times have you been fed a fake piece of “news” on your Facebook thread? Probably the worst examples of these are where there are threads devoted to the death of someone famous, who is still happily enjoying being very much alive. I am sure that I would have had free McDonalds food for a year by now if I believed every free offer that they were supposedly giving away!

Facebook have begun to realize that these fake messages are not what their users actually want. Sure there is fun and frivolity on Facebook, and there is room for satirical pages. But Facebook wants to hide messages that are, well, downright malicious lies.

Facebook has created a new option where you can mark a post as being a hoax. Their algorithms will look at posts marked as hoaxes, as well as other tell-tale signs like posts being deleted after being shared.

When people don’t like what they find in their newsfeed they tend to blame Facebook – so Facebook feels that they need to do something to improve the user experience (and to reduce the complaints they have to handle).  Hoax emails simply are a waste of people’s time, and sometimes their emotions.

Social media is a wonderful tool for staying connected with friends but it’s also proven to be a powerful conduit for rapidly spreading hoaxes that gullible people fail to fact check. It’s easy to laugh these off but the reality is that these stories get spread and they truly have a negative impact on public perception on frequently important issues.

Now if we could just figure out how to stop those stupid email chains your grandmother always forwards to you…

Honorable Nod: Elon Musk

Elon Musk had a dream to build a re-usable rocket that could be used to navigate into space and then land back on a football field sized off-shore platform on Earth in such a state that it could be sent up into space again.

Elon was almost able to land his re-usable rocket and he announced his incredible ambitious vision for low orbit satellites to bring next level internet access to the world.

When he moves to successfully landing his rocket and launches his first satellite for that plan it will make this list, but at TMTYL we only cover the emerging technology that is now reality.

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