2015's Most Mind-Blowing Futuristic Tech
By Eric Griffith, PC Magazine, 21 December 2015.
By Eric Griffith, PC Magazine, 21 December 2015.
Having a great product can mean a lot of things: cutting-edge design, excellent service, and fast performance. But great products generally don't spring Athena-like from the head (or hands) of their designers. It takes work and is an evolution, not a revolution.
That said, sometimes, a new technology comes along that's not only a revolution - it's a revelation. And at the end of every year, we try to take stock of a few of those breakthroughs. This is the tech that may not yet be in a product - it may never, ever be in a product - but deserves highlighting for the potential it has to change everything. Not just the tech industry, but the world at large.
These are innovations, some might say, of pure technical excellence. A few you can buy today, others may never make it to market. All are worth a closer look.
1. Tiny PCs
Anyone who's put together a desktop PC knows that the engineering that goes into making something smaller - even a laptop - is pretty incredible. Recent "desktop" systems are the size of a book. Now, imagine cramming an entire PC into an enclosure the size of a thumb drive. The innovation caught on this year, in the Chrome OS-based Asus Chromebit or the Windows-based Intel Compute Stick (US$139.99 at Adorama). Stick them into a compatible monitor or HDTV, wirelessly connect input devices, and you've got an entire on-the-go PC system.
Both of those example are amazing, but not necessarily cheap. Arguably the most stunning achievement in PC reduction is the new Raspberry Pi Zero. While more for enthusiasts than those trying to get work done, the tiny (65mm by 30mm by 5mm) board complete with processor and memory has one utterly stunning feature: it's only five bucks. There's a future where Windows runs on tiny, US$1 PCs in every room of the house. (Okay, maybe Linux.)
2. Real Life Hoverboards
Hoverboards were squawked about all year, in particular during October, when we reached the date pegged as the "future" in Back to the Future Part II, the film that made us all want one. Sadly, an entire wave of devices with wheels has tried to steal the "hoverboard" moniker. Some are mono-wheeled, but more ubiquitous are the fire-prone two-wheeled balance boards that perform like a Segway without handlebars.
But real hoverboards could be on the horizon! First there's the Hendo 2.0 from Arx Pax, a Kickstarter-backed endeavor that uses magnetic fields. Also interesting is the Lexus Slide, from the car maker. It's a bamboo and carbon fiber board that hovers over concrete and steel in a specially made park. Lexus used superconductors to get a different kind of magnetic field - the kind used by maglev monorail trains. The fact that it uses liquid nitrogen inside to keep the superconductors at -321 degrees - causing the Slide to emit smoke-like vapor - makes it look even cooler.
When will we see the Slide on shelves? Probably never - it was more marketing ploy than actual product. But someday, someone will get this right. Then we as a society must rebuild all the sidewalks and streets in the nation with steel so the real hoverboards can work.
3. Personal Mobile Broadcasting
It's questionable whether anyone was looking for a way to make video blogging (vlogging) even more immediate, but they got it when Meerkat debuted this year, followed closely by Twitter's Periscope (recently named by Apple as the top iPhone app of 2015). These apps bring personal broadcasts (aka social live streaming) to anyone with a smartphone: instantly share what you're doing with your followers on the Internet, because you're simply that interesting. Even Facebook just got in on the act.
Personal broadcasts create a new way for anyone, citizens or journalists or what have you, to connect via video to an audience and get live feedback while doing so. So far viewing has been limited to the initial live broadcast (Meerkat) or a short 24-hour window of viewing after (Periscope), but Facebook Live will add permanent storage, because it has the server space to make that happen. None of this is necessarily new, but the move to make it ultra-simple on mobile devices is going to democratize it in a way we never had when broadcasters needed special equipment. (Not everyone agrees we need mass live streaming, of course.)
4. White Laser Beam
The typical laser beam has one color. You've seen them in red and green and maybe blue. It took a team of researchers at Arizona State University to combine all of those colors to get to a holy grail of sorts: a white laser. It might not seem like much - it's not going to slice through James Bond any more than a red laser could - but it does put lasers a step closer to becoming a potential light source, one that could replace light emitting diodes (LEDs). Laser powered screens could be in the future, and with that comes brighter, more intense, and more accurate displays, with 70 percent more colors available. It may also lead to "Li-Fi" - a Wi-Fi-like tech that uses light for communications, instead of radio. Li-Fi is already in development, but a white laser could provide even faster throughput. We've got years before they reach that efficiency, but this is the first step to the TV and communication you may have in a decade.
5. Wireless Power Transfer
Whatever you call it - WPT, wireless energy transmission, even radio frequency charging - it boils down to powering devices without needing wires to either run it or charge the battery. It's been theoretical since at least 2006. Strides in 2015 have included researchers in the Netherlands creating a microscopic temperature sensor that charges on radio waves (albeit an inch from the source of the waves). Closer to home, students at the University of Washington-Seattle worked with Sensor Systems Lab to create Power Wi-Fi, a system by which modified routers output a constant energy stream on the radio, which modified temperature sensors and cameras use as their energy source. It's theoretically possible your home router could someday be all you need to charge your phone or laptop or who knows what else...assuming enough power can ever be generated. The Power Wi-Fi managed only enough juice to snap one surveillance picture after 35 minutes.
6. Super-Hydrophobic Coatings
Here's one of the ways that Wikipedia defines hydrophobicity: creating "recessed areas on a surface whose wetting expends more energy than bridging the recesses expends." Not too many products, especially electronics, have embraced this process yet. They should. Until then, super-hydrophobic coatings for electronics - specifically smartphones - have arrived for do-it-yourself application.
If you've seen the NeverWet spray at a big-box store, you know the gist: apply the spray, then another, let it dry, and the surface becomes resistant to water (albeit perhaps not completely waterproof). Products like Nanostate's Flash Flood and Impervious Invisible Waterproofing are all about nanotechnology: microscopic objects adhering to the device to help repel liquid. Each has you treat the outside of your phone or tablet similarly, rubbing it in, then letting them "cure" for 24 hours. Tests by no less than YachtingWorld found them both very effective for protecting a phone against splashes, even water poured right on the screen. It's no guarantee for full submersion protection - but it can't hurt. If future smartphone makers start using the nanoparticle coating inside as well as out, we could all get fully waterproof electronics in our pockets that involve more than simply some extra rubber gaskets for projection.
7. Home Batteries
When Elon Musk, our real-life Tony Stark (minus the munitions and armor and goatee) unveils something new, it's usually worth checking out. The PowerWall - a US$7,000 (including installation) home battery - is certainly that, especially for those with sustainable energy sources like solar panels or wind. It's a home-oriented rechargeable lithium-ion battery like the one the Tesla car uses. There are two models, one like a backup generator, another for daily cycle use. With minimal needs (or multiple Powerwalls installed) the 210-pound, wall-mounted battery-beauties have the potential to take a household off the grid entirely. The Powerwall is already sold out through most of 2016, unless you live in a location where a utility company is getting them for you (such as California's SolarCity or Vermont's Green Mountain Power or Australia's SunEdison). Criticisms that it's for the rich - since it could cost more than double per kilowatt hour for electricity this way as is - may be valid, but as the technology improves, so to shall the economics, and the benefits for many. Naturally, other vendors are stepping into the field, including Mercedes-Benz and China's BYD Auto; the home battery can charge the electric cars, too.
8. Augmented Reality 3D
Virtual reality has to be 3D to feel real (that's what Oculus Rift wants to do). But augmented reality - an overlay of data on top of what we see every day - typically settles for appearing like you're inside the Terminator, or Iron Man's armor (that guy again). Some big names are combining the two, creating next-generation, 3D augmented reality that's perfect for gaming - whether building blocks in the living room, or fighting monsters on the street. Magic Leap, with its solution mixing stereoscopic 3D with projected images, has a more than half-billion dollar investment from Google. Microsoft announced its own plans in January when it showed off the HoloLens at a Windows 10 event; Asus is reportedly considering developing its own third-party HoloLens. Microsoft wants to go beyond games and create holography that can work in everyday life, from design to communication. Whichever device comes to market first may change how we look at the world, 3D, and reality - again.
The wearable era is in full swing, as everyone FitBits their way to health. But those devices have finite battery life and other limitations - like not being part of your body. While not everyone wants to get an implant, many could benefit from skin-based monitors that are permanent or semi-permanent. Wearable body wired sensors, aka biowearables, aka epidermal electronics, could be the solution. Consider temporary tech-tattoos that can collect and send out data - they might even include LEDs for user feedback. A company named Chaotic Moon has a proof of concept out. Some other researchers in Sweden are working on making an in-body intranet network so multiple sensors on the body could talk to each other (that way, an artery change could, for example, predict a heart attack). A company called MC10 plans to market BioStamp devices by next year. Considering what we can do with 3D printers, they'll likely be printing sensors directly to the skin in the future - like a machine-driven tattoo that does more than look nice and upset parents.
10. Continuous Liquid 3D Printing
3D printing something complex (or even not so complex) can take hours, as millimeter after millimeter of material is laid down to create the object. CLIP, short for "continuous liquid interface production," could reduce that time to minutes. It "grows" solid constructs out of a liquid bath. The researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill who developed the photochemical process have already taken the next natural step, creating a start-up named Carbon3D, which has already landed US$100 million in funding led by Google Ventures, and cut deals with companies like Ford. The video above displays exactly what it's capable of.
11. Fast, Safe, Flexible Aluminum Battery
Trying to use aluminum for a battery is nothing new, but Stanford University researchers this year hit on a combo that could work to replace the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power every type of tech we use today, from toys to laptops to phones to watches. The major upsides of this new battery tech are many: it's flexible (that's good for wearables), cheap, safe (drill through it while running and it won't catch fire like a Li-Ion), fast (charging a phone in a minute), and maybe best of all, it can handle about 7,500 charges - about 7.5 times more than a Li-Ion, which starts to loss capacity after 1,000. Even the 2 volts it holds is stronger than typical 1.5-volt alkaline batteries you buy off the shelf; but that's half of what the lithium batteries can do. Thus, it still needs work. They need to perfect the cathode material - they're currently using graphite, which thankfully doesn't disintegrate like cathodes uses in previous aluminum batteries. Still, it holds a lot of promise. You can read about it in the journal Nature.
12. Autocomplete for Animators
Microsoft Research, with the University of Hong Kong and the University of Tokyo, unveiled "autocomplete hand-drawn animations" at Siggraph Asia in October. It's a software tool that lets you draw a complete picture, then start a new cell with one line - and it auto-completes the drawing for you, saving time as you make the subtle changes needed for animating the art into life. It replicates the line art and the colors used, even senses patterns the animator has begun to draw (like the scales on a fish). This is a niche product, even among animators these days, because who hand-draws each frame of a cartoon anymore? But everything in Hollywood (and beyond) gets planned with not only storyboards, but full "animatics" to preview the action. The program could also create a resurgence in the classic hand-drawn animation world, and that wouldn't be a bad thing. Assuming it comes to market.
13. Gimball Drone Protector
There are thousands of hours of video online that depict one fascinating action that happens over and over every single day: drones flying into stuff and falling to their doom. Usually the footage is from the drone's perspective. Flyability in Switzerland has a solution to protect drones: a collision-tolerant flying cage. Inspired after they saw drone after drone go down while trying to help with search-and-rescue at the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the graduate students who eventually formed the company created the insect-inspired, carbon-fiber roll-cage to absorb all impact. It's already won awards; Flyability took home US$1 million in the "UAE Drones for Good Award" competition this year. The current Gimball can fly for 10 minutes (then requires a battery swap), carrying a 1,280-by-1,080p 5-megapixal camera. Prototypes are shipping now.
14. TZOA Enviro-Tracker
TZOA (pronounced "zoa") is one of those things that makes your smartphone that much closer to a Star Trek-esque Tricorder. It's a wearable sensor that doesn't monitor your body - it monitors the environment around you, specifically the particulate matter in the air. It talks to your smartphone and TZOA app via Bluetooth, providing info on course particulates such as mold or dust or pollen, and tiny respirable particles like smoke, exhaust, and other fumes. It'll help you figure out the best places to go and breathe, or how the air is in your home or office. The GPS and maps on your smartphone will generate a map of the safest place to avoid pollutants. The data gets shared to TZOA (the company) so it can build crowd-sourced maps of where the air is good or bad, but you get unlimited access to your own data free.
[Source: PC Magazine. Edited.]