Science, technology & design

Geocities of things

Imagine how much fun it would be if, instead of receiving a ‘beep’ or ‘ping’ each time you got a new email message, you got a soap bubble instead?

This is precisely what Ted, with no great technical expertise, has done in New York, simply by connecting a toy bubble maker to his inbox. Ted, like many others, is bypassing the big technology companies like Apple, HP, Google and Cisco to merge the online world with the physical one: the Internet of Everything.

Ted is a member, whether he knows it or not, of the growing maker movement of people for whom ‘why?’ is being replaced with ‘why not?’. They are buying various off the shelf components (usually online) to either hack products or to wire what they own in the physical domain to become more intelligent, more connected and, in the jargon du jour, more social.

But why would anyone want to use various chips, sensors and wireless devices to connect something like a pot plant or cuddly toy to the internet and thus to everyone else on the internet? Well, hobbyists have always been fascinated by making their own things, or their own versions of things. But this time the cost of doing such things is plummeting, so people like Ted are at the forefront of what is likely to be the next stage of internet evolution, where physical objects are incorporated into it – the so-called Internet of Things.

Until recently, it took a degree of technical knowledge to wire up your plants, cuddly toys or entire home, but no longer. Twine, for example, is a small block of rubber containing a micro-controller, Wi-Fi and acceleration and temperature sensors, so if you want to wire up your washing machine to tell you remotely when it’s finished all you have to do is place it on top of the machine and use an app to tell you when the machine has stopped moving. Twine, interestingly, was funded to the tune of $500,000 via a crowd-funding site called Kickstarter. An even simpler route is provided by a New York-based company called LittleBits. Instead of a black box, the firm supplies sets of sensors and widgets that connect together like Lego using magnetic strips and they require zero programming skills.

So what’s next? According to Tom Igoe, a professor of design at New York University, people will first get the hang of doing things themselves and then start to create devices that link themselves to other people and send or receive non-verbal messages such as “I’m thinking about you right now”.

This may seem horrendous. Do we really need more ways to avoid people physically and avoid meaningful connection? On the other hand, lamps that glow brighter when your significant other is at home or at work could have some value and clothing that can communicate joy, sadness or fear of others might work too.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 21 April 2012, ‘Make yourself at home’ by M. Campbell. See
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Search words: Internet, internet of things, makers, hacking
Trend tags: Internet

Mood meters

What if the screens that we looked at all day could read our faces? Facial recognition is developing rapidly and will probably appear on mobile devices shortly. But this could work another way too - empathetic devices that can read the mood of individual users or even the mood of a crowd or the entire nation - in real time.

The software to do this already exists. For instance, in 2009 scientists from MIT created a project in which the facial reactions of volunteers watching advertisements during the Super Bowl could be recorded using webcams. Data was then grouped to gauge reactions, by age, to certain types of advertisement.

In the future this could be done in real time and broken down by age, gender and other factors for anyone and everyone watching the event on a screen. So is this a clever new tool for advertisers?

Yes, but think a little more broadly. The concept of giving people a non-verbal voice and, in particular, of assessing the emotion of a large crowd could be useful in politics, especially during elections. It could be valuable to authoritarian regimes interested in judging the mood of a country or perhaps in identifying small groups intent on trouble. A small village that supports a dictator could be identified against one that does not, for instance.

Existing technology can already tell the difference between happiness and sadness, and between interest, disgust and contempt. In fact it can even filter out joyful smiles from sad or frustrated smiles. There’s still a long way to go because humans can read facial expressions and body language to a degree that machines still cannot, but expect such emotion-reading technology to develop, for better and for worse, in the decades ahead.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 26 May 2012, ‘The bare-faced truth’ by L. Grossman.
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Search words: Emotional machines, reading emotion, faces
Trend tags: Facial recognition, emotionally aware computing

Teleoperated robots

Researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan have, for the first time, designed a system where an fMRI scanner can be used to detect human brain activity in real time and then use this data to remotely control a robot located hundreds of miles away.

The ideas of remote control and telepresence have obviously been around for a while. What’s relatively new here is using human thought to build avatars or surrogate bodies that can remotely control machinery or allow paralysed people, or those with ‘locked in syndrome’ (people in a vegetative state) to communicate with the outside world of objects and other human beings.

Cameras mounted on the machine being controlled would allow users to see what’s happening from the machine’s point of view, but the aim here is not just to see or control something, but rather to make the operator feel the thing they are controlling is part of their own body and experience. This is done via the stimulation of sensory receptors in the human body known as muscle spindles, part of the muscle tendon. This allows the user to feel as though their limbs are moving when the machine moves.

This is a sensory illusion, akin to haptics, where vibration is used to give the impression that something is happening when it isn’t. In theory other remote sensations could also be added giving the machine user full remote sensory perception, at which point man and machine literally become one.

If the human brain can be fooled into thinking that something virtual is real, or tricked into incorporating an external reality as its own, then what is the difference between real life and virtual reality? Remote sex with an avatar could get very real, for instance, but would it constitute infidelity? Moreover, if surrogates or remotely controlled robots were to become commonplace in everyday life and it were not immediately obvious who or what was controlling them (or from where) this could be deeply troubling too.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 7 July 2012, ‘Embody a robot with your mind’ by H. Thompson.
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Search words: Robotics, virtual reality, reality, mind
Trend tags: Robotics

Micro Arial Vehicles

You’ve most probably read about UAVs – Unmanned Arial Vehicles - used by the military to identify targets and, on occasion, deliver payloads such as small rockets remotely. Well now we are on the cusp of something much more exciting (or sinister).

Previously the smallest UAV measured around 50 cm by 50cm and could only be used for short missions, although larger brethren have included a prototype that could remain aloft for a day or more. Micro Arial Vehicles (MAVs), such as the one developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, can feature a camera pointing downwards, which can be used to navigate, pick landing spots and even identify objects and individuals in a crowd.

All an operator needs to do is tell the MAV where it is before it takes off and communicate its mission objective. The MAV sets its own flight plan, navigates autonomously to avoid obstacles and finally returns home. Military uses for such machines are fairly obvious, but think for a moment about potential police use (no more expensive helicopters) and possibly even terrorist capability and consequences.

Currently, the world’s smallest AV is the PD-100 Black Hornet, which measures just 20 cm in length and weighs in at 15 grams. If they get much smaller, which undoubtedly they will, we will be much closer to the idea of robotic insects.

They could be used to pollinate crops or carry out metrological measurements, but could also stay aloft for days to conduct civilian monitoring, including listening in on private conversations inside buildings, or delivering tiny chemical or biological payloads targeted at terrorist groups.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 21 July 2012, ‘A small buzz in the air’ by W. Ferguson and D. Hambling.
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Search words: UAVs, MAVs, arial vehicles, pilotless planes
Trend tags: Robotics

Printable electronics and chemicals on demand

The technique of printing electronics has been around for a while, but new ways of printing electronics in 3D straight into a product could revolutionise the manufacturing of electronic products. If combined with so-called additive manufacturing, sophisticated products could eventually be 3D printed from anywhere, including the home.

Given that it’s already been proven possible to print electronic features smaller than a hundredth of a millimetre wide, this could include printing added electronic or connective capability onto everyday objects, such as display screens or security tags onto a pair of sunglasses, for instance.

In a similar vein, scientists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have developed a way of spraying batteries onto any flat surface. Traditionally, batteries are made by pairing layers of positive and negative electrodes with metal current collectors, with a polymer separator stuck in the middle. The resultant sandwich is then rolled up to create the familiar cylindrical, square or oblong shaped battery at least a few millimetres thick.

However, scientists have now created sprayable versions of each layer, each a tiny fraction of a millimetre thick. The resultant battery can be sprayed onto almost anything from a bathroom tile or coffee mug to a pair of glasses or shoes. In short, almost any object could become a battery.

You might consider the possibility of using 3D printing to create chemicals printed on demand. See our story, Print your own drugs, this issue. This idea is intended to augment existing business models used by the chemicals industry as it would allow firms to deliver standard products to far-off places.

This idea could undermine the business model of the entire chemicals industry and create a legion of intellectual property and safety issues too if hackers started to develop their own apps for novel chemical products. Printing your own recreational drugs might be one possibility, or printing guns and other weapons. This sounds far-fetched, but in the US, a law student named Cody Wilson recently got into trouble with the maker of a 3D printer because he was interested in developing designs for a printable handgun. This is trickier than it sounds due to the precise tolerances needed for gun components and the heat and explosive forces created when a gun is fired. You would also still need some chemically-based ammunition, but maybe in the future you will be able to print that too.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 28 July 2012, ‘Print me a phone.’
Also New Scientist (UK) 7 July 2012, ‘Spray on battery could bring more power to the people’ by J. Aron, New Scientist, 21 April 2012, ‘Apps beyond the digital’ (Leader) and New Scientist 6 Octobr 2012, ‘Want a gun? Press ‘Ctrl P’ by P.Marks.
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Search words: 3D printing, chemicals, batteries
Trend tags: 3D printing