Author Archives: jeremy

A Battery-less Future?

(Corrected: Atmosic has not (yet) won the GSA Award, but is short listed for it. The winner will be announced in December. Apologies)

At what point can we ditch batteries, the last encumbrance to our wireless nirvana?

The biggest single block on a wireless, connected future where everything everywhere is attached to chips and sensors which relay, receive and act on instructions from afar is power. And that means either that the device is connected to the electricity grid (which probably means you don’t need it to be wirelessly connected) or it has a battery in it. Which will need charging or replacing.

Long-range low-power technologies like low-powered wide-area networks (LPWANs think LoRa, NB-IOT and SigFox) have gone some way to solving this problem — instead of a power-hungry 4G modem you have a simple chip that sends only the most necessary data and runs off a battery that can run for years — but that doesn’t solve the problem of more complex or power-hungry devices that need to communicate more frequently and more loquaciously. These endpoints will need someone to service them. Internet of Things, Interrupted.

But what if the devices could find their own energy? What if they could “scavenge the energy they need to operate from whatever naturally occurring electrons were in their environment, regardless of that environment”, in the words of Chris Rust, founder and general partner of VC investor Clear Ventures?

Energy harvesting, as it’s called, is not new. Solar power is in effect harvesting the sun’s rays and turning it into energy via photovoltaic cells; wind or wave turbines do something similar (called electrodynamics). But scavenging ambient energy in the immediate environment into electrical power will yield only a few watts at most — enough to augment batteries or, possibly, to replace them. (Still enough to power your solar calculator indoors, and solar power is highly efficient at conversion.)

Energy harvesting can be done an in a number of ways:

  • kinetic energy — vibrations, stress, tension or movement using piezoelectric materials, for example. Imagine the vibration on aircraft wings being converted to energy, or the reverberation of heartbeats to power a pacemaker. (Some examples of vibration energy harvesting can be found here from ReVibe Energy of Gothenburg.)
  • Other examples of vibration-based energy harvesters are triboelectric charging — when certain materials are separated one becomes electrically charged (think the static electricity from running a comb through one’s hair) or the more traditional electromagnetic vibration, where relative motion between magnet and coil induces current into the coil. (Think turning a door knob or hitting a switch.)
  • Then there’s temperature — where differences across a thermoelectric crystal cause a voltage, or the temperature of a pyroelectric crystal changes, generating a charge. The new PowerWatch, for example, uses both thermoelectric — the heat emitted from your wrist — and solar charging. The device uses chips from Matrix Industries.)
  • Then there’s radio frequency (RF) radiation, emitted from routers and cell towers, or from RF chargers, that transmit electromagnatic waves in a specific area. So while this might be scavenging in the sense that it is capturing wasted or existing radiation, it could be deliberate — say, via pointing an RF source at your remote device and switching it on.

So some of this is happening. A RFID (radio-frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication) sticker (think price tags) or chip (think contactless cards, or has no battery in it, instead harvesting the power from the device connecting to it through a technique called backscatter, which transmits data by reflecting modulated wireless signals off a tag and back to the reader.

In the labs of academia the vision is that the body becomes a patchwork of, well, patches, where the energy is derived from the body itself to power unobtrusive sensors which monitor our health: solar-powered heart sensors no bigger or less flexible than a Band-Aid, or sensors that draw their power from the natural conductive properties of skin, storing their energy in stretchable capacitors made of carbon nanotube forests (so called because the material grows like trees 30 micrometers tall, their canopies tangled on wafers.)

But for now, the movement is in industry, and buildings. Companies like EnOcean sells self-powered switches and sensors for maintenance-free lighting which draw their power either, in the case of switches, from the kinetic movement of being pressed or in the case of sensors, from light (indoor and outdoor) or temperature differences to detect occupancy, say.

The changes will really kick in when devices can generate enough energy to be able to transmit over significant distances wirelessly. That means WiFi, which requires a decent-sized battery, rather than, say, Bluetooth, which has too short a range to be any use beyond your headset, mouse or keyboard. That, however, may not be true for much longer. The latest version of Bluetooth, version 5, expands its range by four times, making it comparable to WiFi. And companies like Atmosic Technologies believe they can extend a Bluetooth device’s battery life by between 5 times, to, well, forever.

Atmosic Technologies, just announced as winner of shortlisted for the Global Semiconductor Association’s startup of the year, says that “with the advent of Bluetooth 5, combined with ultra-low-power functionality, power consumption is low enough to be supported by harvested RF, light, or heat energy, while still able to provide the range and coverage equivalent to Wi-Fi.” In short, it makes “the concepts of “forever-battery” and “battery-free” IoT realistic. IoT devices can work for the lifetime of the devices on the batteries they come with, or without batteries at all.”

Atmosic says its a fully integrated single chip with RF energy harvesting (for size see the image at the top of this post) can provide small form factor battery-free operation up to a distance of several meters from the RF source. This could be a game changer, because it would mean not only that all your Bluetooth devices would not require charging, but that they could communicate over longer distances. It would also mean a lot more devices could communicate with each other without you having to worry about whether they need charging. But Atmosic acknowledges that “this is the first step in the journey,” which sounds as if we’re still some ways off the battery-free IoT revolution.

Volocopters, UAMs and eVTOLS

Another acronym you need to get used to: UAM, for Urban Air Mobility. Think flying cars. Or for now, helicopters and drones that carry people. Like the Volocopter, which completed its first manned flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay last week (see below). It’s also opened the first air taxi voloport (yes, you’re going to have to get used to these names, I’m afraid.)

You don’t think of Singapore as a place where traffic jams and poor infrastructure make you want to take to the skies, but in terms of friendly regulators and investment boards, it’s certainly the place to start. German-based Volocopter opened an office in Singapore in January 2019 and has plans to expand in South East Asia. The company has recently presented their VoloCity – the next generation eVTOL (that’s electric vertical take-off and landing to you and me) air taxi and recently announced Series C funding. Investors include Daimler, Geely, Intel Capital, BtoV, and Manta Ray Ventures.

They’re not alone, of course. There’s EmbraerX, a ‘market accelerator’ which is part of Embraer S.A., a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer which has crowd-sourced the design of an autonomous eVTOL (below, note apparently obligatory Singapore skyline), which is still at the theoretical stage, it seems (you can help them name it but please don’t suggest eVTOLy McTOLface).

There are several hurdles that need to be overcome before you see these things buzzing around the skies. The Singapore Volocopter flight, for example, covered 1.5 km and lasted for two minutes; blink and you’d have missed it. Airbus told a conference here in April that the three design hurdles are the development of a battery pack for flight beyond 15 minutes, the maturity of autonomous systems and noise levels. Airbus is working on an upper limit of 65 dB, which is the same as a passing subway train, and will affect where the aircraft can land in a city.

Some companies are looking to liquid hydrogen which is less efficient than batteries but has a better energy density. Skai of the U.S. is working on an eVTOL air taxi which could go as far as 430 miles.

Most of these companies talk about the ‘democratization’ of air transport which the cynic in me would sniff at. No way are the prices of these trips going to come down to one ordinary folk can afford any time soon. But then again, Uber etc have shown that it is possible to ‘democratize’ chauffeur-driven transport (which is pretty much what ride-hailing is) so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy.

Indeed, it’s partly’s at Uber’s prodding that companies like EmbraerX are exploring eVTOLs. Uber is someway down the track on this, realising that a lot of its rides are to and from airports. So it’s working with partners to get the infrastructure ready for when these eVTOLs overcome their current limitations. Who wouldn’t pay for the efficiency of getting to the airport in 15 minutes against an hour or so? The well-heeled, initially, but maybe it won’t be long before ‘taking an Uber to the airport’ has a different meaning to the one we currently assume.

Subscription Model Redux: Loadsa Money for Uncertain Returns

Last week I wrote about subscription fatigue particularly as it applies to video. Ampere Analysis (I don’t yet have a link to the press release) have just released some data that looks at another angle of this.

Global spend on TV, film and sports content “expanded from $100 billion to $165 bln between 2008 and 2018 – a 65% increase. Nearly $50 billion of this growth was in the last five years alone.” But what’s interesting about this is that while Netflix and others have sunk a significant chunk into this — from $2 bln to $19 bln last year, the vast majority of spending is still done by the traditional networks and broadcasters, accounting for $111 billion in 2018. “It is their reaction to the entrance of the new OTT players,” Ampere concludes, “which has fuelled the global content boom.

This means that these broadcasters are having to dig deep to fend off these new players: in 2013, a typical broadcaster or network spent roughly 41% of its revenue on content rights. Ampere expects that by the end of 2019, this will have increased to 50%. Disney’s spending rose from $10 bln in 2013 to $13 bln in 2018. NBCUniversal’s content expenditure has risen by over $4 bln between 2013 and 2018.

Ampere sees this as a rising tide lifting all boats. As networks shift to what its calls a Direct to Consumer model (and I would call a subscription model) OTT platforms like Netflix will have to spend more on original content, as I mentioned in my blog. But Ampere argues it also represents an opportunity for producers and rights holders (read indie producers) that don’t have any interest in building their own subscription services to replace the content the likes of Disney withhold from Netflix.

I’m not so sure. For one thing the likes of Disney are going to face shrinking margins as they funnel more money into content, and a subscription model isn’t going to bridge the gap, at least for now. And are Netflix users going to be drawn to more indie content on Netflix, and are they going to be willing to pay the same fees as they did for the Hollywood stuff? The good thing, generally speaking, about Netflix-commissioned stuff is that the viewer feels a certain bar has been reached — not always true, but you’re willing to give it a few minutes based on the Netflix logo. Wading through lots of indie content looking for gems might not be quite the experience existing users are looking for.

Which brings me to another problem with video subscription services. It’s not like music, where if you’re a U2 fan you might be up for listening to something the algorithm reckons is similar. But you can only watch so many murder-set-in-rustbelt-town documentaries. The contradiction is simple: Quantity does not equal quality. But quantity is what brings the punter back to the service. Netflix and other streaming services are going to find it hard to maintain their position if their app starts slipping down the list of priorities the user reaches for when they want to watch something. Pretty soon they’re hitting the unsubscribe button.

Is 5G Bad for You?

5G has reignited old discussions about whether mobile signals are bad for us — both from cell towers and from the devices themselves.

I’m not a doctor, first off. But I think it’s at least worth taking a look at the data.

A piece by Fierce Wireless’ Sue Marek points to some poor reporting on the 5G base station issue. This centres around the assertion that because 5G requires denser base stations — more antennae per square mile, in other words — there are going to be more radio frequency emissions which will put us in danger. She points to a report, to put it charitably, by RT (yes, them, let’s call a spade Russia Today) which was explored by the New York Times. This was quite easily dismissed as disinformation, but is the Times’, and Marek’s conclusion — that ” 5G is not a health threat”, actually true?

There’s plenty of solid reporting that suggests it is. The WHO, the American Cancer Society, the NIH and others all report that, as WHO put it, “RF exposures from base stations and wireless technologies in publicly accessible areas (including schools and hospitals) are normally thousands of times below international standards.” All these reports are helpfully collated at Wireless Health Facts, which carries the logo of an outfit called CTIA, which the website doesn’t explain, but is in fact a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry. (I don’t have a problem with the CTIA putting up a website collecting the solid research about 5G and health, but I wish they would make it clear a) who they are, b) link to their website, c) offer some way to connect to them via that website and d) include some contrary research for balance.)

And that last point is the thing. There IS contrary research that does suggest there’s a problem. Medical News Today, a UK-based commercial publication owned by Healthline Media, produced a report in August whose tagline said: “As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.” The piece was written by Yella Hewings-Martin, a PhD in pediatrics and child health from University College London. The piece was fact-checked by a Bristol-based copy editor, Gianna D’Emilio.

Hewings-Martin’s piece, which is worth a read, walks the reader through the issues. At its core the question is: do the radio frequency electromagnetc fields (fields of energy resulting from electronomagnetic radiation, itself the result of the flow of electricity) from base stations and handsets cause negative biological effects on us humans?

Yes, is the answer: at high levels they cause heating, which lead to burns and other tissue damage. But mobile devices emit these RF-EMFs at low levels, so is this going to be a problem?

A panel of 30 scientists the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 concluded that there was limited evidence, and so classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, lumping it in the same group as aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, according to Hewings-Martin.

Although IARC is part of the World Health Organisation, the WHO is conducting its own study. That’s not finished yet. For now, the WHO states that: “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.”

Hewings-Martin acknowledges in her piece that 5G is a different kettle of fish. 5G needs smaller cells because the high-frequecy radio waves it uses have a shorter range. But she quotes a paper in Frontiers in Public Health from August that:

Higher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic.

Here it cites two studies which both say our understanding of, for example, “the implications of human immersion in the electromagnetic noise, caused by devices working at the very same frequencies as those to which the sweat duct (as a helical antenna) is most attuned.”

The bottom line: Researchers always want to do more research. But their point is a good one: long term studies, like this one, are looking at the effect of all these EMF-related health risks over decades. We’re barely into two decades of mobile phone use, and now we’re shifting the technology into new areas. While I definitely agree with those who want to see less fear-mongering, I think it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the medical and academic literature that points to concerns and which highlights our lack of understanding of the long term effects of the technology.

I would like to see the CTIA include these studies (or solid pieces like Hewings-Martin’s) on its website, and I would also like to see a proper investigation of claims by academics like Lennart Hardell that the provisional conclusion of the WHO cited above was written by a team of six people, five of whom were serving or former members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), what Hardell calls “an industry-loyal NGO”. The ICNIRP is explored in an Investigate Europe piece here.

These alleged conflicts of interest are an area of controversy in themselves: Susan Pockett, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, wrote a paper for Magnetochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal published by MDPI, earlier this year, exploring outfits like the ICNIRP, concluding that “politicians in the Western world should stop accepting soothing reports from individuals with blatant conflicts of interest and start taking the health and safety of their communities seriously.” The paper has since been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, after its editorial board “found that it contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of “opinion” publication.”

Pockett accused the publication of “political interference in the normal processes of science. The paper was nobbled, by one of the many large entities (governments, regulatory agencies, Big Wireless) who would have found the facts it states inconvenient.” (It’s not clear who complained about the piece, and Pockett provides no evidence for her claims. Retraction Watch points to Pockett using some questionable instrumentation for gathering data used in her paper.)

The Phantom Prospects of 5G

Source: Light Reading
Source: Light Reading

Telcos are once again touting a new generation of mobile protocols as their saviour. And once again, we should raise an arched eyebrow. 

A great piece by Mike Dano from Light Reading dissects the reasons behind — and the challenges facing — telcos’ push for 5G. And why you shouldn’t be expecting 5G to rock your world any time soon.

The reasons are relatively simple. The above chart from Wall Street analysts MoffettNathanson show how, for US telcos (and the story is similar elsewhere) there’s a lot more data traffic (the black line) , but a lot less money being made per user (the blue line).

So telcos need something new. Hence 5G. But how are they going to make money out of it? The old thinking about 4G was that the improved speeds and bandwidth was going to enable telcos to make more money out of each user. But that hasn’t happened (see chart again.) So why do they think 5G will be any different?

5G is going to be very expensive to deploy. This is not just a question of attaching a new box or upgrading an existing one to an existing basestation or tower. Mike quotes MoffettNathanson in a recent research note on Verizon. “Deploying 5G networks with enough density to meet expectations for blazing fast 5G speeds will cost real money. If not from charging more for using more, then where will the money come from?”

Atop that are the problems of heat, which I’ve written about before.

So the most likely outcome of 5G, at least in the first few years, is that it’s aimed at business. Think the Internet of Things (IoT): connected (and self-driving) cars, smart cities, healthcare, industrial automation. Or outdoor surveillance cameras, according to a Gartner report cited by Mike, which says this is likely to be the largest market for 5G in the short term.

But even then, there are questions about this. This won’t be cheap for enterprises. And 3G and 4G hardly shone when it came to connecting devices. Attaching a modem to a device and then having that ping back is expensive — installing and replacing a battery, if necessary, having and managing a SIM card for each device, etc.

Ericsson, one of the cheerleaders for mobile IoT, acknowledges in a June report that despite its grand claims for a mobile IoT future, most mobile IoT devices are actually using 2G and 3G:

Today, the majority of cellular IoT devices are connected via 2G and 3G technologies (GPRS, EDGE and HSPA). The number of legacy connections is expected to increase slightly until 2022, and then remain stable throughout the rest of the forecast period.

Hard to imagine that’s a huge source of revenue.

And then there’s narrowband IoT, which I’ve written about before. Yes, 5G offers the kind of speed and low latency that would be attractive for a lot of use cases, but when you just need to send a few bytes narrowband is much more appealing. And needn’t involve the telcos at all.

Most likely outcome? Telcos are going to have to demonstrate, somehow, to customers that the new use cases they’re hoping will save them will actually work. And that means working closely with them or investing in them, or vice versa. Build it and they will come might be the mantra, but that is going to require a lot of faith that they will indeed come, and in a timeframe that makes sense. New verticals don’t pop up overnight.

Subscription Fatigue: A New Economy, or a Bubble?

At what point do we tire of the subscription model — or at least pare back that chunk of our income we set aside for subscriptions?

I’m of course not the first person to ask this, and the term ‘subscription fatigue’ is already a common one. But with the launches of HBO Max, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Peacock in the next few days and months, it’s likely to be the video streaming world that gets hit first. At what point do we end up back at the point where we have to effectively subscribe to a lot of stuff we don’t want, paying more than we want, just to get the stuff we do?

I already feel I’m in that place, taking Amazon Prime in Singapore (which is rubbish, useful only for the Amazon-created content), Netflix (also a pale imitation of its US, Australian and UK cousins), Apple TV (UK edition) and things like Curiosity Stream, which posts to its Facebook page programs which often aren’t available in my neighbourhood. I’m already taking more subscriptions than I’d like.

So it seems the most likely winners from the launch of these new services are going to be those that bundle other services with them — Jeff Baumgartner of Light Reading quotes a report by MoffetNathanson and HarrisX that Hulu could get a bump in subscriptions (this is in the US, of course) thanks to Disney’s plan to bundle Hulu’s ad-supported service with ESPN+ and Disney+.

But there’s likely to be some pushback. There are some 300 video streaming services available in the US, according to Deloitte, while GlobalWebIndex found that expense of subscribing to multiple services was the biggest (36%) frustration of users in the UK and US. Their second frustration — content being pulled from their services (as Disney is about to do with Netflix.)

There’s a school of thought that says folk will suck it up. a Harris poll found that that there may be some short-term pushback, but people will get used to it so long as they get high quality content. (That the poll was conducted on behalf of Zuora, which er, lets companies “in any industry to successfully launch, manage, and transform into a subscription business” probably should give you pause. See graphic above; the industry is expanding rapidly; and I’m guessing in part it’s because people haven’t yet figured out how to budget for all the subscriptions, and realised that all these nickels and dimes add up.)

My take? I don’t buy the idea that there’s no limit to what people will subscribe to. The point about these subscription OTT models is that they can be easily subscribed to and, at least in theory, just as easy to unsubscribe to. Gone are the days when you’d sign up to a long-term contract. So expect people to shuffle between subscriptions if they feel something’s not worth it. (It’s called cancel culture, apparently.)

The Deloite survey found that “with three subscriptions services as the average, many say having to piece together a variety of services is a source of frustration. What bothers them? The total number of subscriptions, the time spent searching for shows they want to watch, and when shows on streaming networks expire.”

And expect this fragmentation of the industry to get worse. If there’s even a sniff that Disney and HBO’s bids pays off, it’s not hard to imagine aggregators like Netflix and Amazon quickly hollow out. (And Spotify and Apple might go the same way with music.) People will subscribe to these services only for the original content, and they’ll expect to pay less for it. Quartz reckons that this content will veer towards the ‘product-based’ — think Marvel over Mrs Maisel. In other words, these services will become studios.

The bigger problem: none of this takes into account how we perceive content. We don’t think “I want to watch an HBO movie or a Netflix documentary tonight.” We don’t think in terms of who created the content, we think in terms of the content. We want everything within easy reach, and nowadays, though our forebears who had to get in a car and go to Blockbuster to rent their analog equivalents, we don’t want to have to cycle through lots of apps on our screen to find something. It’s hard enough to find what you’re looking for on Netflix; imagine 300 apps on your screen — it’s like channel surfing again, dumping us back where we started.

My longer view: the subscription model will eventually be replaced by a pay as you go model. We’ll get smarter as consumers, and either by default subscribe and cancel each time we watch a show, or services will pop up that do it for us. Eventually companies will get wise and offer us, effectively, VOD, but at a price that makes sense. That impressive graph Zuora came up with will disappear. You heard it here first: the subscription model is a bubble, that will eventually burst.

Soft Robots: Has Their Time Come?

NewImage

image: University of Toronto

When I first saw a room full of soft robots I was a little freaked out. A bunch of guys standing over what looked like colostomy bags or oversized centipedes as they navigated an obstacle course. It was hard to see the potential in it, but when I took a closer look I realised soft robots were the missing link in the computational evolutionary chain. The biggest problem we have with robots — whether they’re on industrial production lines, in homes, offices, airports — they’re too rigid. They’re parodies, robots that look like robots, instead of assuming the contours, movements, materials of nature, which is where they should be heading. Think adaptable, flexible, dexterous, able to go places rigid robots can’t — and safer. Hence soft robots. (Here’s the piece I wrote more than two years ago for Reuters) 

There’s been huge progress in the limbs, skin, movement and energy sources of soft robots. But there’s still a long way to go. For example, soft robots by definition have soft outer layers, and those layers need to stretch and adapt like the outer layers of the animals they loosely mimic. They also need to be energy-sensitive, since soft robots are (usually) self-contained, untethered things that rely on portable electronics for power — if that. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed such a material that can adapt its shape in response to its environment — shape-morphing, in the words of the researchers. Carmel Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon is quoted as saying:  “Just like a human recoils when touching something hot or sharp, the material senses, processes, and responds to its environment without any external hardware. Because it has neural-like electrical pathways, it is one step closer to artificial nervous tissue.” (You can see some videos of the material in action here.) 

The composite, which is made up of liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs, a type of the LCD you see in flat panel displays but linked together like rubber) and liquid metal gallium indium, is also resilient and, to an extent, self healing:

“We observed both electrical self-healing and damage detection capabilities for this composite, but the damage detection went one step further than previous liquid metal composites,” explained Michael Ford, a postdoctoral research associate in the Soft Machines Lab and the lead author of the study. “Since the damage creates new conductive traces that can activate shape-morphing, the composite uniquely responds to damage.”

The researchers believe the material could be used in healthcare, clothing, wearable computing, assistance devices and robots, and space travel.

Another problem with soft robotics relying on soft actuators is that they tend to be bulky. Soft robots need to move and do stuff, and often this is done by pumping air or fluids through chambers. One — the colostomy bag lookalike — moved around in this way, and it was effective but took up a lot of space — a pump or something like it is usually required, which keeps them tethered and unwieldy. Researchers at UC San Diego reckon they have a solution in creating soft actuators that are controlled not by air or fluid but by electricity. (h/t Nanowerk)

If that sounds like a step backward, the point here is less that they’re using electricity, but are using material that is used for artificial muscles in robots, the LCEs I mentioned above. As with the CMU researchers, the UC San Diego team focused on how LCEs change shape, move and contract in response to stimuli such as heat or electricity. They sandwiched three heating wires between two thin films of LCE. The material was then rolled into a tube, pre-stretched and exposed to UV light. Each heating wire can be controlled independently to make the tube bend in six different directions, as well as contracting. 

The researchers built an untethered, walking robot using four actuators as legs. This robot is powered by a small lithium/polymer battery on board. They also built a soft gripper using three actuators as fingers. The thing was slow — each leg takes about 30 seconds to bend and contract, but they’re working on ways of speeding it up. 

Movement of soft robotics is a challenge. There’s lots of biomimicry involved, where researchers seek inspiration from land and sea creatures. Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a miniature robot that can crawl like an inchworm. This uses electrothermal actuators (ETAs), devices made of specialized polymers that can be programmed to physically respond to electrical or thermal change. A robotic inchworm in itself isn’t that novel— I saw one up the road at NUS here in Singapore a couple of years ago  — but the Toronto folk say theirs is different largely because it’s more efficient. And, I’d have to say, more like a real inchworm. They say their approach can be applied to other movements, including the wings of a butterfly. 

Their goal: to see it in clothing. “We’re working to apply this material to garments. These garments would compress or release based on body temperature, which could be therapeutic to athletes,” says Hani Naguib director of the Toronto Institute of Advanced Manufacturing, and the manufacturing robotics lead of U of T’s Robotics Institute. The team is also studying whether smart garments could be beneficial for spinal cord injuries.

There are other announcements — all of them in the past few weeks — that suggest major progress in this field: 

  • A Florida State University research team has developed methods to manipulate polymers in a way that changes their fundamental structure (think caterpillar turning into butterfly);
  • Soft robots could get smarter at solving everyday tasks after a team from MIT and Tsinghua University have developed a “soft finger” with embedded cameras and deep learning methods to allow the robot to better understand and manipulate their position, environment and items in it; 
  • Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden have come up with a way to fabricate soft microrobots from a single design process, hopefully making it easier to use soft robots in minimally invasive surgery or drug delivery. The researchers, intriguingly, say they “are now working on soft robots that function in air.” 

Look, I don’t think these things are going to find their way out of the lab any time soon. But clearly serious headway is being made. And in the end if it’s seen as commercially viable we’ll see big players get involved. So far there are a few players: Breeze Automation of San Francisco (a piece on them here from TechCrunch), and Fusion Fund, which says it’s interested in funding entrepreneurs using soft robots for “task automation beyond the capacities of current robotics technology.” It see soft robotics beyond industrial manufacturing — and I think they’re probably right. Soft robots will thrive in places either humans (and other devices) can’t get to — think search and rescue, like a Thai cave to reach stranded boys, or in interacting with humans safely and in an engaging way (a robot that can hug or catch a falling person, anyone?) and in miniature — hard to reach places inside an engine, inside a blood vessel, or in water. 

Big, or Bigger: Southeast Asia’s Tech Economy in 2025

Google and Temasek have been taking a crack at estimating and predicting the size of Southeast Asia’s ecommerce economy for the past four years, starting in 2016 (yes, I know that’s three years but they’ve put out four reports, the latest this week, so there.) 

I’ve not had a close look at this report, there’s obviously some good stuff in there, and it’s easy to pick holes in this kind of thing, but it pays to be humble. I’ve done my own chart, below, taken the data from each report about their predictions for 2025, and how they’ve changed over time. The four left columns are more or less the years of the estimate (2016 assessed 2015 for some reason, while the others did the year the report was released in); the right four stacks are the estimates for 2025 in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. You can see how much their view has changed. 

The first year there was no separate estimate for ride hailing; it clearly wasn’t considered to be a significant sector, or likely to be one. I think a smarter analysis would have seen that one coming. It was 2016 already, and Grab was already the region’s biggest unicorn. Then there’s the huge disparity in estimates between 2017 and 2018, the third- and second-to right columns, and then between last year and this. Overall, between 2016 and 2019 the report upped its project by 50%, from $200 billion to $300 billion. 

Of course, it pays for all those involved to cheerlead the region; no one is going to say things are going to get better, and it’s a good headline to say ‘we goofed up by underestimating how well things are going’. But these are big numbers, and big discrepancies. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that such estimates need to be taken with a big grain of salt. 

Google Temasek estimate of ecommerce market size in Southeast Asia 2016 2019

A New Form Factor for the Phone?

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photo @arubin via twitter

The smartphone hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of proportions, since the first iPhone (the iPhone belatedly adopted the 16:9 aspect ratio most other phones had long assumed in 2012 with the iPhone 5). Yes, Samsung made it bigger, an idea considered dumb at the time but one which has largely become the norm. Phones have gotten thinner — anorexic, in the words of one writer — which has produced its own problems (and may hold back 5G). But the essential dimensions of the phone haven’t changed in more than 10 years. 

That is, sort of, changing, with Samsung’s Fold and the Surface Duo hinged Android phone. But that in itself isn’t that radical — both are just two phones stuck together, design-wise, which is something that designers have been playing with for a while. (I wrote about bendable screens back in 2013 and revisited it a year ago).

Step up Andy Rubin, the former Android guy who left Google over allegations of sexual misconduct (retaining a huge severance package). He now works at Essential, which make a nice-looking but essentially conventionally sized phone. 

The phone, pictured above, seems to be about the same length as a conventional phone, but is maybe half the width. At first that doesn’t seem to make any sense, but looking at the way it sits in the hand, it seems to fit more snugly. I’m guessing the idea here is that most of the time we’re operating a phone with one hand while moving — walking, on a bus, hopefully not driving, jogging, abseiling, windsurfing, under-the-desk-in-meetings — so this form factor makes a lot of sense. I assume that’s why the screenshots are of maps. 

And I suppose that lain horizontal it would make for one pretty cool cinematic perspective. Although nowadays everyone seems to be shooting vertically, so who knows? It’s not clear whether this phone is an Essential one according to Sean Hollister at the Verge.

It’s good that we’re seeing experimentation in this space again. This isn’t a massive leap forward, but it does suggest that some minds are showing signs of thinking outside the box. It also shows that we are probably using our phones in ways we didn’t a few years ago. Certainly navigating the average street these days involves having to dodge people glued to videos or games while in motion. 

Smart cities without digging

Smart cities sound like a great idea — who wouldn’t want your city to be smart, or at least smarter? — but it usually involves lots of digging. What if we could have the sensors that make cities smart, without the holes?

Sensors need to be lain in the ground, or on street furniture, and often cables lain to connect them. This means more holes, which is something residents don’t like. A mayor in the Indian state of Goa threatened to seize the equipment of the local smart city corporation, Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Corporation Ltd, in May after they ignored the city’s ban on digging up its streets. (India is in the throes of developing 100 smart cities and is trying to come up with alternatives to the chaos wrought by digging — the city of Dehradun is proposing a ‘multi utility duct’ (see illustration) to house electricity cables and telephone cables. “This will avoid frequent digging roads for connections and repair of telephone cables.” Not a pretty solution, I have to say.) 

Anyway, for those cities that already have broadband fibre lain in the ground, Verizon has an interesting solution: converting these fibre cables into sensors using a technology called optical fibre sensing. Optical fibre sensing is used for monitoring power cables, tunnels, mines, railways and dams for fires, temperature, strain, rupture  — or even for whether someone violates a perimeter. But they require laying purpose-built cable, usually close to the surface. 

Verizon and NEC said this week they had used software and AI to monitor traffic — including density of vehicles, direction, speed, acceleration and deceleration — on Verizon’s existing communications cables. Purpose-built optical fibre has long been used for sensing but this, the two companies say, is the first time it can do both — carrying high speed data, while also performing sensing. 

The technology needn’t just be used for traffic: the companies say it could also “support public functions such as helping first responders detect and respond to gun shots and enhancing municipalities’ ability to more quickly and efficiently identify earlier deterioration of bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.” 

“This test marks an important milestone for technology that could provide a huge leap forward for those building smart cities and those tasked to manage them,” the press release quoted Adam Koeppe, Senior Vice President of Technology Planning and Development with Verizon as saying. “Instead of ripping up tarmac to place road and traffic-sensing technology, cities will be able to simply piggyback Verizon’s existing fiber optic network.”

They’re not the only ones trying to make use of existing fibre without more digging. A British company called OptaSense is developing something called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) that “enables continuous, real-time measurements along the entire length of a new or existing, single mode fibre optic cable. The fibre optic cable is transformed into a sensor by an Interrogator Unit plugged onto the end of a single unused spare core.” The unit injects a pulse of laser light into the cable which then creates a “virtual microphone” every 10 metres along the cable. The sensor would be able to detect different size vehicles, traffic jams etc. (It wasn’t clear from the Verizon press release whether their solution also required the presence of a similiar unit or some other hardware installation.)