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.

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.

 

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.

09 Feb

5 Recent Innovations You Might Have Missed

The world is changing rapidly. There are always new ideas, new techniques, new ways to look at old problems, new problems to be solved. There is no shortage of truly innovative technologies to be found and examined.

This week’s round-up contains everything from anti-aging technology to robotic warfare to innovations around personal identity.

Reversing Aging By Decades in Humans

A new bioengineering technique has been discovered by Stanford Medical Center scientists which can extend the length of human telomeres, which are protective caps we have on the end of our chromosomes designed to stop the tips of the chromosomes from falling to pieces.

As we age, it is normal for our chromosomes to gradually lose bits at each end with each cell division. Over time, however, our chromosomes reach a point of no return – some critical point where our DNA refuses to let itself shrink any further. As individual cells reach this point they stop dividing and start to die. This is effectively what happens to us as our body ages.

A team of Stanford Medical Center scientists, led by Helen Blau, have developed a bioengineered RNA, creating a telomere-extending protein. The result is that cells continue to multiply as they did when they were younger, splitting and multiplying up to a further forty times.

The treatment they use is only temporary, meaning that the cells have not been immortalised. So bad news you can’t be forever young just yet. As a consolation prize you can watch this 80’s gem: Forever Young by Alphaville.

Even in the very short-term, before the techniques can be put into practical medical use, this finding will help scientists understand how aging affects the molecular machinery of cells.

Why is this important?

Human beings have been seeking the fountain of youth in some form or another since the beginning of humankind. Beyond the obvious vanity-driven desire for a return to youthfulness, this innovation could bring about new ways of treating, or potentially even preventing, diseases related to aging. When I think about any innovation that extends life I worry about it’s impact on our booming population and over-taxed planet. On a positive note I’m hoping that extended life allows humans to look at the world with a longer-term view of their actions.

Virtual Reality – What’s next beyond Oculus VR?

The field of virtual reality gaming is continually advancing. There have been a few recent innovations that have been made public.

The Stem System is a full immersion wireless, motion tracking platform for video games, virtual reality (VR), and more. The various bits of the system work together to monitor your position, movement and orientation in 3D space.This will have a huge impact on gaming. It is designed to be usable with virtually any game, and there are already a number of games supported by the system. When you combine it with a virtual reality headset, like the Oculus Rift, you end up with a highly immersive gaming experience, as demonstrated in this lightsaber fight.

FOVE is an eye-tracking head-mount display, which also has huge gaming potential. The headset senses your head position and orientation, which is combined with eye-tracking technology. Some of the games that have been designed to let you use this technology enable you to control devices simply by altering your gaze, for instance in one game you can fire lasers from your eyes, visibly destroying the enemy on your screen.

Less of a game, but nonetheless a fun 3D experience, is Faceshift, which can create a 3D avatar of you, using your voice and expressions, but animating them on the avatar. In many ways this is the first domestic use of the sort of technology that has been used for a few years in the movies, creating characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It essentially uses facial-tracking software with a high degree of precision which is used to drive real-time character animations.

Why is this important?

Oculus VR might be the poster child of virtual reality, yet ultimately virtual reality is about immersion. Oculus, in it’s current form, only satisfies one of your senses. Technologies like the Stem System and FOVE are critically mimicking how humans interact with the world. The Stem System understands how you move through a three dimensional space and FOVE helps to understand what you’re actually looking at as opposed to just making sure you can see what’s around you like with the Oculus Rift.

Faceshift is important as they are thinking about how to represent the user in the virtual world as a virtualized avatar. Real-time mapping of facial expressions to an avatar are an important step of that, as passing a user’s voice is only part of the identity we create for ourselves online. I’ve had some experience with avatars at my previous startup and I am now working with real-time facial analysis at my new role, so I can vouch for how challenging this work is.
Think about what the internet or video games looked like 10 years ago. Now think 10 years into the future.  Virtual Reality is much closer than most people think.

Digital Drivers’ Licenses

Around 40 states are working on a projects to introduce a digital driver’s licence in the form of a fully-secured smartphone app. The states are working with a vendor, MorphoTrust USA, on the development of the app, with the hope that there will be a pilot program underway this year, with a full roll-out in 2016.

As things like Apple Pay and Google Wallet drive us toward digitizing our financial transactions the need for our wallet is in decline. Your ID would be one of the last remaining reasons to carry a wallet in the future. The digital driver’s licence will even reduce that need. Of course that won’t do you any good if you’re out of batteries!

The app would still be optional, with “hard copies” of licences being available in the foreseeable future. While there will always be innovators, happy to be the first to implement new technology, there will also always be laggards and technophobes, who will drag their feet at changes such as this.

When you (or a law enforcement officer) open up the app there will be all of the usual information shown on a licence, for example your name, address, birthdate, photo, signature and driving-related details like whether you currently have valid driver’s licence and what class it is.

For security purposes there will be facial, fingerprint or voice recognition, allied with a requirement for the entry of a PIN code.

The concept has rung a few alarm bells for libertarians, concerned that the app may provide access to other information stored on the phone. It has also raised a few practical questions like how an officer deals with a phone with a flat battery, and indeed how would they “confiscate” a licence without physically taking the phone.

The developers, and proponents of the app, have come up with proposals to reduce the concerns, for instance they have proposed locking a smartphone when the licence is on the screen, and giving officers their own mobile apps to use when checking licences, so that there is no need to take a phone out of the owner’s view.

Why is this important?

As the world becomes increasingly digitized former abstractions of our identity are becoming obsolete. How can we tell for certain that somebody is who they say they are? Does a small piece of plastic with a picture that looks vaguely like the person sitting in the driver’s seat with a similar looking squiggle for a signature, actually prove that person’s identity?

We must remember that much of what we use to establish our identity is really simple abstract tools designed to help machines understand who we are.

The security measures that will go with this app are a good example of how things are developing. Yes, there will still be the relatively old-fashioned need for a PIN code, but the other security measures more reflect how computers can determine that you are uniquely you. For instance if you use facial recognition it will recognize the picture as you because it will have remembered the width of your smile, the color of your eyes, the length of your nose and the shape of your face.

The days where one unlicensed brother, who can remember his sibling’s birthday and has a family resemblance, can pretend to be his fully-licenced brother when stopped by a law enforcement officer, will soon be over.

A New Dawn For Sports: Robotic Fighting

After a hiatus of more than a decade an old television favorite returns to national t.v. No, I’m not talking about the new dawns of Doctor Who or Star Trek, or even the soon-to-be-aired new version of Thunderbirds, I’m talking about the great Battlebots challenge.

Battlebots fought their way through five series in the early 2000s. It was a formative experience for many technology-lovers of the era, as home-made robots battled (actually it was more realistic than some of the wrestling that was a favorite on t.v. with the kids at the time).

robots

And they are about to commence battle again! Hopefully by now, they will have fixed the problem of robots getting stuck if you flip them onto their back, which made some of the old battles a little too formulaic.

Why is this important?

Here are multiple reasons why this innovation is important – not necessarily ranked in order of importance.

It’s important because it’s awesome. Seriously? Robots fighting?

It’s important because I made a bet in 2009 with several friends who said that this would never happen. To ensure that they never forgot said bet I documented this prediction on TakeMeToYourLeader in this post.

Beyond the sheer joy I get from these kind of advancements I think the best part about this kind of innovation is that it has a network effect. Public interest in robotics drives further investment, which drives further innovation, which will drive further public interest, and then the loop continues. These mainstream displays in Robotics are good for the entire field as robots continue to become an everyday part of our reality.

Portable Energy Windmill

One of the real problems that emergency services face whenever there is a natural disaster is that the essential services have often been knocked out, and it can be quite some time before repair crews can get out there to repair them, even to a level that is usable solely by the emergency team.

Windstream Technologies were asked to come up with a solution to this problem; to find a way that would get emergency services up and running much more quickly in their quest to find and help survivors.

They developedphoto_featured the MobileMill. This is a portable trailer, that can be towed behind any vehicle, that collects solar and wind power, and which can enter the disaster sites before the electricity has been reconnected.

The MobileMill combines solar photovoltaic panels and vertical axis wind turbines. It can be made operational within one minute of its arrival in the disaster zone and it instantly starts producing renewable energy. It includes an 18 kWh battery array which can power emergency services for up to three days.

It can easily be turned into a full mobile control centre, powering the necessary computers and radios.

Why is this important?

The importance is fairly obvious. The first few hours of a disaster are vitally important, particularly for people who are trapped and in need of rescue. Unfortunately there have been too many times in the past where the disaster relief team have been hamstrung by a lack of power and communications. Anything that can speed up their first response has to be very positive.

This is a great innovation that everyone can feel good about. I hope they develop it fast and are able to use it in the field in the near future.

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.

22 Jan

5 Best Innovations from CES 2015

CES has been and gone for another year. For the few people who have never heard of it, like those hiding in the hills near Hobbiton in New Zealand,  CES stands for the Consumer Electronics Show, held each year in Las Vegas to showcase electronics and technology to trade professionals. It has become the traditional launching ground for many new innovative products.

The 2015 Show was huge, with 3,600 exhibitors and 170,000 attendees. With so many exhibitors it has been hard to sift through the insanity to determine what I think are the five best innovations; the five things on display that I think will have the most meaningful impact on the human experience.

Toyota Freeing Up its Patents

At a show where you normally goggle at new devices and are inspired by totally outside-the-box gadgets it may seem strange to turn my focus to what is really a firm letting others use some of its big secrets. But the reality is that this is a huge change. Toyota has broken the cardinal rule of big corporations – provide information to help others, possibly even competitors!

They made available over 5000 patents they hold relating to fuel cells and similar technologies. Other firms will be able to use the technologies that these patents cover for their own creations, without the need to pay any royalties to Toyota.

Toyota obviously believes that fuel cell technology is very important and that they can help develop the industry if they provide some of the secrets behind their technology to other developers. If more manufacturers develop fuel cell tech the market will develop, costs will come down and more people will move in that direction.

The deal only lasts until 2020, but that should be enough time to see other developers and manufacturers produce their own versions of hydrogen fuel cells. By doing this, Toyota has probably made a huge inroad into the development of the hydrogen-powered car.

Toyota has used CES as a platform for an announcement that will have an enormous impact on what is rapidly becoming one of the most important technologies of this century.  If man is going to decrease its strain on the planet then we need to take these technologies seriously, and any company that helps them is okay by me.

Intel Curie

There was a time when computers filled entire rooms, and by today’s standards, had tiny capabilities. Indeed the reason we have the term “bug” in our computing language today is because a bug literally flew into one of these room-sized computers and caused it to malfunction.

The Intel Curie, on display at CES this year, is a real sign of how computers have changed over the last fifty years. It is a computer the size of a small button. Indeed when it was demonstrated as part of a CES keynote speech it was pulled off a button on Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s jacket.

Curie has real potential in the wearable sector. It gives the ability for smart watches to really live up to their name. It really symbolises the mantra of the computing world: smaller, faster, better, cheaper. This is the winning combination of features for computer chips and the Intel Curie definitely follows that trend. Smartphones became our PCs in our pocket, and we are now increasingly moving to computers being on our wrists or in other innocuous places. I can see the Intel Curie driving a huge number of products over the next couple of years.

OZOBOT Bit

There was another innovation on display that demonstrated the smaller, faster, better, cheaper mantra. Robots have been part of our lives for years, and you have even been able to get them to vacuum your floor for the last decade.

It is probably no surprise therefore, that there were quite a few robots on display at CES, demonstrating different levels of their artificial intelligence. One however, stood out as being a little bit different or, some might say, differently little?

The Ozobot Bit is one tiny fellow, coming in at just one cubic inch. However he wowed the CES audiences with the possibilities he offered children learning to program. He can remember 500 different commands, doing everything from dancing to finding the way out of a maze.

The Ozobot Bit comes with an app, which lets children program the Ozobot’s moves in a language called Blockly and then wirelessly transmit the program to the Ozobot itself. Blockly is a very visual programming language, so children can easily play with and rearrange blocks of code, just as if they were building bricks.

So why do I consider this robot one of CES’s great innovations? The Ozobot Bit not only continues a trend towards teaching children to code at an increasingly young age, but it also introduces them to robotics which is likely to be very large in the field of business in 15 to 20 years, just as those same children will be entering universities and subsequently the workforce.

Netatmo Welcome

Netatmo displayed the newest product in their range at CES and it became an instant hit. The Netatmo Welcome is a camera that can detect people’s faces. It can then notify the owner about who it has “seen”.

It takes HD images of the faces of anyone who comes into its range which it compares with the photos it has in its database. It’s most common use is for security purposes.

Suppose you’ve left the kids at home. They’re old enough to be left alone, but you do worry about them. If you have a Netatmo Welcome you can have the camera set up to send you messages about anyone who comes into the range of the camera. It will tell you when it sees your kids … and it will tell you if it sees anyone else there, including strangers.

Netatmo also has a complementary device called Welcome Tags. You can attach these to doors, windows or gates and they will automatically message you when they are disturbed, for instance by a door opening. You know you have visitors, welcome or otherwise. Combined with the Netatmo unit itself, you can find out who the visitor is (or see if it is a stranger) the moment they come within camera range.

So what’s so special about this technology? It is, in many ways, a simple innovation, expanding on the range of home security products that have become so pervasive over the last couple of years. It has moved the thinking away from security as such, and, thanks to its facial recognition technology, towards understanding WHO is actually entering your home. Is it actually anyone you know?

The Netatmo Welcome Tags by themselves are not overly innovative – there have been many motion detectors telling you that you have visitors on the market for some time. Being able to tell who it is that has come through your door is definitely an advance, though. I expect some type of technology will actually be opening our doors in the future as well (just without the whooshing noises that seems to come with them in the sci-fi movies).

Autonomous Driving Concept Car from Mercedes

The Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion research vehicle made its debut at CES. It has a sleek, space-age shape. It has four seats that can turn to face each other. Oh, and by the way, it drives itself.

This is definitely a car of the future that has been produced as a concept car today. Virtually everything you do in it can be done with gestures without having to touch anything. There are display screens around the car where every passenger (remember there is no driver, so even if you are alone, you are a passenger) can see any piece of information relevant to them, and make any modifications by gesturing.

Because the occupants don’t need to drive, the interior is more reminiscent of a lounge than a typical car.

As the Mercedes has to drive autonomously in compete safety, yet share the roads with traditional human drivers, there are many sensors built in to help with the driving. The car has large LED light modules on its front and rear.  These allow the car to communicate with and safely operate in the outside world. The LEDs glow blue when the car is driving autonomously and white when it is being operated by a driver. If these cars come on the market and become commonplace, these lights will provide a good guide to other drivers and pedestrians about the status of these cars.

Of course there are still many legislative hurdles to overcome before autonomous cars become a feature of our roads.

It is a concept car. It is simply Mercedes’ vision of how the autonomous car should look (and because it is from Mercedes, luxury is a key part of the equation). So why is it so important?

This concept car helps to show what happens when you rethink all conventions of human interaction with an automobile. Just as companies like Tesla completely rethought the design when the mechanics of motor vehicles changed, we can now start to rethink the design of user experience. The whole way we use a car changes if we are not actively driving. What will I do with the time when I am travelling, but normally driving the vehicle? How would I shift between activities? How does this affect my passengers? What will be my interactions with the passengers? It is a very exciting new territory to explore.

So CES 2015 has been and gone. I’ve picked what I believe will be the innovative winners from this show? It will be most interesting to see where these products go over the next 12 months, and what will be the winners from the 2016 show.