From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound

My piece on using sound and lasers to create 3-dimensional interfaces. It’s still some ways off, but it’s funky.

Screenshot 2015 10 01 10 49 33

Screenshot from Ultrahaptics video demo

From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

SINGAPORE | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(The video version: The next touchscreen is sound you can feel | Reuters.com)

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

Couple that with a different kind of wave – light, in the form of lasers – and we’re edging towards a world of 3D, holographic displays hovering in the air that we can touch, feel and control.

UK start-up Ultrahaptics, for example, is working with premium car maker Jaguar Land Rover [TAMOJL.UL] to create invisible air-based controls that drivers can feel and tweak. Instead of fumbling for the dashboard radio volume or temperature slider, and taking your eyes off the road, ultrasound waves would form the controls around your hand.

‘You don’t have to actually make it all the way to a surface, the controls find you in the middle of the air and let you operate them,’ says Tom Carter, co-founder and chief technology offjauiclinkeer of Ultrahaptics.

Such technologies, proponents argue, are an advance on devices we can control via gesture – like Nintendo’s Wii or Leap Motion’s sensor device that allows users to control computers with hand gestures. That’s because they mimic the tactile feel of real objects by firing pulses of inaudible sound to a spot in mid air.

They also move beyond the latest generation of tactile mobile interfaces, where companies such as Apple and Huawei [HWT.UL] are building more response into the cold glass of a mobile device screen.

Ultrasound promises to move interaction from the flat and physical to the three dimensional and air-bound. And that’s just for starters.

By applying similar theories about waves to light, some companies hope to not only reproduce the feel of a mid-air interface, but to make it visible, too.

Japanese start-up Pixie Dust Technologies, for example, wants to match mid-air haptics with tiny lasers that create visible holograms of those controls. This would allow users to interact, say, with large sets of data in a 3D aerial interface.

‘It would be like the movie ‘Iron Man’,’ says Takayuki Hoshi, a co-founder, referencing a sequence in the film where the lead character played by Robert Downey Jr. projects holographic images and data in mid-air from his computer, which he is then able to manipulate by hand.

BROKEN PROMISES

Japan has long been at the forefront of this technology. Hiroyuki Shinoda, considered the father of mid-air haptics, said he first had the idea of an ultrasound tactile display in the 1990s and filed his first patent in 2001.

His team at the University of Tokyo is using ultrasound technology to allow people to remotely see, touch and interact with things or each other. For now, the distance between the two is limited by the use of mirrors, but one of its inventors, Keisuke Hasegawa, says this could eventually be converted to a signal, making it possible to interact whatever the distance.

For sure, promises of sci-fi interfaces have been broken before. And even the more modest parts of this technology are some way off. Lee Skrypchuk, Jaguar Land Rovers’ Human Machine Interface Technical Specialist, said technology like Ultrahaptics’ was still 5-7 years away from being in their cars.

And Hoshi, whose Pixie Dust has made promotional videos of people touching tiny mid-air sylphs, says the cost of components needs to fall further to make this technology commercially viable. ‘Our task for now is to tell the world about this technology,’ he says.

Pixie Dust is in the meantime also using ultrasound to form particles into mid-air shapes, so-called acoustic levitation, and speakers that direct sound to some people in a space and not others – useful in museums or at road crossings, says Hoshi.

FROM KITCHEN TO CAR

But the holy grail remains a mid-air interface that combines touch and visuals.

Hoshi says touching his laser plasma sylphs feels like a tiny explosion on the fingertips, and would best be replaced by a more natural ultrasound technology.

And even laser technology itself is a work in progress.

Another Japanese company, Burton Inc, offers live outdoor demonstrations of mid-air laser displays fluttering like fireflies. But founder Hidei Kimura says he’s still trying to interest local governments in using it to project signs that float in the sky alongside the country’s usual loudspeaker alerts during a natural disaster.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercializing mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says ‘people didn’t use it’.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices. Next stop, she says, is including touchless gestures into the kitchen, or cars.

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Cook: 3D Touch a Game Changer

I think 3D Touch is the most important thing that Apple has done for a while, and I think as with all such things we don’t really see it until later. Cook seems to agree: 20 Minutes With Tim Cook – BuzzFeed News:

“But he’s most excited by 3D Touch. ‘I personally think 3D Touch is a game changer,’ he says. ‘I find that my efficiency is way up with 3D touch, because I can go through so many emails so quickly. It really does cut out a number of navigational steps to get where you’re going.’ Even with just a quick demo, it’s easy to see his point. It’s a major new interface feature, one that threatens to upend the way we navigate through our phones, especially once third-party developers begin implementing it in their applications. Apple has engineered the hell out of this 3D Touch to ensure they’ll do just that.

For Cook, 3D Touch is a tentpole feature of not just the iPhone 6s series, but of the iPhone itself and one that shows the company isn’t saving marquee innovations for those ‘tick’ years. ‘As soon as products are ready we’re going to release them,’ Cook explains. ‘There’s no holding back. We’re not going to look at something and say ‘let’s let’s keep that one for next time.’ We’d rather ship everything we’ve got, and put pressure on ourselves to do something even greater next time.’”

Force field: Apple’s pressure-based screens promise a world beyond cold glass

A piece looking at the technology behind the pressure sensing. My prediction: once people play with it they’ll find it hard to go back to the old way of doing things. Maybe typing on an touchscreen may one day feel natural, and maybe even enjoyable. 

Force field: Apple’s pressure-based screens promise a world beyond cold glass | Reuters:

SINGAPORE/TAIPEI | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND MICHAEL GOLD

By adding a more realistic sense of touch to its iPhone, Apple Inc may have conquered a technology that has long promised to take us beyond merely feeling the cold glass of our mobile device screens.

In its latest iPhones, Apple included what it calls 3D Touch, allowing users to interact more intuitively with their devices via a pressure-sensitive screen which mimics the feel and response of real buttons.

In the long run, the force-sensitive technology also promises new or better applications, from more lifelike games and virtual reality to adding temperature, texture and sound to our screens.

‘Force Touch is going to push the envelope of how we interact with our screens,’ says Joel Evans, vice president of mobile enablement at Mobiquity, a mobile consultancy.

The fresh iPhones, unveiled on Wednesday, incorporate a version of the Force Touch technology already in some Apple laptop touchpads and its watches. Apple also announced a stylus that includes pressure sensing technology.

As with previous forays, from touch screens to fingerprint sensors, Apple isn’t the first with this technology, but by combining some existing innovations with its own, it could leverage its advantage of control over hardware, interface and the developers who could wrap Force Touch into its apps.

‘Here we go again. Apple’s done it with gyroscopes, accelerometers, they did it with pressure sensors, they’ve done it with compass, they’ve been great at expediting the adoption of these sensors,’ said Ali Foughi, CEO of US-based NextInput, which has its own technology, trademarked ForceTouch. ‘Apple is at the forefront.’

TOUCHY FEELY

Haptic technology – a tactile response to touching an interface – isn’t new, even in mobile devices. Phones have long vibrated to alert users of incoming calls in silent mode, or when they touch an onscreen button.

But efforts to go beyond that have been limited.

BlackBerry incorporated pressure sensing into its Storm phone in 2008. And Rob Lacroix, vice president of engineering at Immersion Corp, said his company worked in 2012 with Fujitsu on the Raku-Raku Smartphone, an Android phone that could distinguish between a soft and firm touch to help users unfamiliar with handheld devices.

But most efforts have been hamstrung by either a poor understanding of the user’s needs, or technical limitations. A vibrating buzz, for instance, has negative connotations, causing most people to turn off any vibration feature, says James Lewis, CEO of UK-based Redux, which has been working on similar touch technology for several years.

The technology powering vibrations is also primitive, he said, meaning there’s a slight delay and a drain on the battery. Early versions of pressure-sensing technology also required a slight gap between screen and enclosure, leaving it vulnerable to the elements.

Apple seems to have solved such problems, experts said, judging from their trackpads and the Apple Watch. Indeed, the trackpad carries the same sensation of a physical click of its predecessors, but without the actual pad moving at all.

The result: In the short term, Force Touch may simply make interacting with a screen more like something we’d touch in real life – a light switch, say, or a physical keyboard. With Force Touch, the device should be able to tell not only whether we are pressing the screen, but how firmly. It should in turn respond with a sensation – not just a vibration, but with a click – even if that click is itself a trick of technology.

‘What we’re going to see initially is putting life back into dead display,’ said Redux’s Lewis. ‘We just got used to the cold feel of glass.’

HARD PRESSED

To be sure, mobile is not the first industry to flirt with haptics.

For example, for car drivers, Redux demonstrates a tablet-like display which creates the illusions of bumps and friction when you run your fingers over the glass, mimicking physical buttons and sliders so your eyes don’t need to leave the road.

Mobiquity’s technical adviser Robert McCarthy points to several potential uses of Apple’s technology – measuring the force of touch when entering a password, say, to indicate how confident the user is of their selection, or keying in a numeric passcode using different pressure levels as an extra layer of security.

While Apple’s adoption of the technology has awoken the mobile industry to its possibilities, it was pipped to the post by Chinese handset maker Huawei, which this month unveiled one model with what it also tagged Force Touch technology. Pressing harder in a photo app, for example, allows you to zoom in on a picture without the usual two-finger spread.

Other manufacturers are exploring how to make touching a device more friendly, and more advanced, says Freddie Liu, CFO of Taiwan-based TPK Holding Co Ltd, an Apple supplier.

‘This is just the beginning for Force Touch,’ he said.

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff and Michael Gold, with additional reporting by Reiji Murai in TOKYO; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Raju Gopalakrishnan)”

Factbox: iPhone 3D Touch suppliers and haptics companies | Reuters

Moleskines Redux

Moleskin ® redux

Of course, I claim a lot of the credit for this decade-long trend Why Startups Love Moleskines: 

“The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.”

I have returned to Moleskines recently, partly because I realised I have a cupboard full of them, and partly because of exactly this problem: there’s no digital equivalent experience. 

  • easier to conceptualise on paper
  • you can doodle when the speaker is waffling; those doodles embellish, even turn it into Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes
  • you can whip it out in places where an electronic device would be weird, or rude, or impractical;
  • there’s a natural timeline to your thoughts
  • there’s something sensual about having a pen in your hands and holding a notebook
  • pen and moleskine focus your thoughts and attention
  • the cost of the book acts as a brake on mindless note taking (writing stuff down without really thinking why) 
  • no mindmap software has ever really improved the mindmapping experience. 
There’s probably more to it. But maybe the point is that this isn’t a fad. People have been using these in the geeky community for more than a decade, suggesting that they have established themselves as a viable tool. Being able to easily digitise them — for saving, or processing, as I did this morning with a chart I sketched out which my graphics colleague wanted to poach from — is a bonus, and saves us from the fear of losing our work. 

(Via.Newley Purnell)

The path to a wearable future lies in academia | Reuters

The path to a wearable future lies in academia | Reuters:

My oblique take on wearables

IMG 0563

For a glimpse of what is, what might have been and what may lie ahead in wearable devices, look beyond branded tech and Silicon Valley start-ups to the messy labs, dry papers and solemn conferences of academia.

There you’d find that you might control your smartphone with your tongue, skin or brain; you won’t just ‘touch’ others through a smart Watch but through the air; and you’ll change how food tastes by tinkering with sound, weight and color.

Much of today’s wearable technology has its roots in these academic papers, labs and clunky prototypes, and the boffins responsible rarely get the credit some feel they deserve.

Any academic interested in wearable technology would look at today’s commercial products and say ‘we did that 20 years ago,’ said Aaron Quigley, Chair of Human Interaction at University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Take multi-touch – where you use more than one finger to interact with a screen: Apple (AAPL.O) popularized it with the iPhone in 2007, but Japanese academic Jun Rekimoto used something similar years before.

And the Apple Watch? Its Digital Touch feature allows you to send doodles, ‘touches’ or your heartbeat to other users. Over a decade ago, researcher Eric Paulos developed something very similar, called Connexus, that allowed users to send messages via a wrist device using strokes, taps and touch.

‘I guess when we say none of this is new, it’s not so much trashing the product,’ says Paul Strohmeier, a researcher at Ontario’s Human Media Lab, ‘but more pointing out that this product has its origins in the research of scientists who most people will never hear of, and it’s a way of acknowledging their contributions.’

VAMBRACES, KIDS’ PYJAMAS

Those contributions aren’t all pie-in-the-sky.

Strohmeier and others are toying with how to make devices easier to interact with. His solution: DisplaySkin, a screen that wraps around the wrist like a vambrace, or armguard, adapting its display relative to the user’s eyeballs.

Other academics are more radical: finger gestures in the air, for example, or a ring that knows which device you’ve picked up and automatically activates it. Others use the surrounding skin – projecting buttons onto it or pinching and squeezing it. Another glues a tiny touchpad to a fingernail so you can scroll by running one finger over another.

Then there’s connecting to people, rather than devices.

Mutual understanding might grow, researchers believe, by conveying otherwise hidden information: a collar that glows if the wearer has, say, motion sickness, or a two-person seat that lights up when one occupant has warm feelings for the other.

And if you could convey non-verbal signals, why not transmit them over the ‘multi-sensory Internet’? Away on business? Send a remote hug to your child’s pyjamas; or deliver an aroma from one phone to another via a small attachment; or even, according to researchers from Britain at a conference in South Korea last month, transmit tactile sensations to another person through the air.

And if you can transmit senses, why not alter them?

Academics at a recent Singapore conference focused on altering the flavor of food. Taste, it seems, is not just a matter of the tongue, it’s also influenced by auditory, visual and tactile cues. A Japanese team made food seem heavier, and its flavor change, by secretly adding weights to a fork, while a pair of British academics used music, a virtual reality headset and color to make similar food seem sourer or sweeter to the eater.

MAKING THE GRADE

It’s hard to know just which of these research projects might one day appear in your smartphone, wearable, spoon or item of clothing. Or whether any of them will.

‘I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that 99 percent of research work does not end up as ‘product’,’ says Titus Tang, who recently completed a PhD at Australia’s Monash University, and is now commercializing his research in ubiquitous sensing for creating 3D advertising displays. ‘It’s very hard to predict what would turn out, otherwise it wouldn’t be called research.’

But the gap is narrowing between the academic and the commercial.

Academics at the South Korean conference noted that with tech companies innovating more rapidly, ‘while some (academic) innovations may truly be decades ahead of their time, many (conference) contributions have a much shorter lifespan.’

‘Most ‘breakthroughs’ today are merely implementations of ideas that were unimplementable in that particular time. It took a while for industry to catch up, but now they are almost in par with academic research,’ says Ashwin Ashok of Carnegie Mellon.

Pranav Mistry, 33, has risen from a small town in India’s Gujarat state to be director of research at Samsung America (005930.KS). His Singapore conference keynote highlighted a Samsung project where a camera ‘teleports’ viewers to an event or place, offering a real-time, 3D view.

But despite a glitzy video, Samsung logo and sleek black finish, Mistry stressed it wasn’t the finished product.

He was at the conference, he told Reuters, to seek feedback and ‘work with people to make it better.’

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

BBC: Cluetraining Disruption

Has technology, convinced of its own rectitude, lost its sense of moral direction? 

Disruptive innovation is one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling. It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

Backlash 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist.   But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably. 15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said.   For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond.

Last blast

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you.

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance, that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap.

Rapid cycle

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either.

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place.

This was a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content – JW

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

(Reuters) – The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach.

Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale – the $4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X “Brick” – half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where “the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built,” according to a Facebook white paper last month.

Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the world’s smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to travel hours to make a call or send a message. “Everyone in our community has a phone and a SIM card,” he says. “But they’re not covered.”

Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their lives without easy access to cellular coverage. “It’s not getting better at the dramatic rate you think.”

The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at an attractive cost.
And then there’s the frontier beyond that: the oceans.

Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for environmental monitoring – climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, and protecting harbours.

There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world’s first undersea metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.

And there’s politics: China recently joined other major powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans to sink a 6-person ‘workstation’ to the sea bed, a potential precursor to a deep-sea ‘space station’ which, researchers say, could be inhabited.

“Our ability to communicate in water is limited,” says Jay Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater modems. “It’s a blue ocean space – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of players – from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them to their social networks.

Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world that doesn’t yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality to an area twice the size of New York City.

But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40 million people in the so-called ‘Blue Continent’ – from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands.

A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux – from fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. “No single technology will ever solve everything,” he said.

Indeed, satellite technology – the main method of connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper – is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

And today’s airline passengers increasingly expect to be able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S. jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.

WHITE SPACE

Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called ‘white space’, using those parts of the wireless spectrum previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.

This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga”s Heimerl is working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.

That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a Swedish operator.

Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren’t interested. “The problem is that these communities are small,” says Heimerl, “and even with the price of hardware falling the carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in these communities.”

The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn’t just a pipe dream.

MESH

Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices themselves serve as nodes connecting users – not unlike a trucker’s CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has called them “the most essential form of digital communication and the cheapest to deploy.”

Even without a balloon and Google’s heft, mesh networks offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay messages more than a kilometre.

In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of one community until they are carried by a villager to another node they can connect to, passing those messages on several times a day.

It’s not our present vision of a network where messages are transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal service, which might well be enough for some.

“Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The answer is no,” said Gardner-Stephen.

PISTOL SHRIMPS

As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.

As more devices communicate with other devices – Cisco Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018 – so is interest increasing in connecting those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to.

That’s partly because there are no agreed standards, says Subnero’s Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards and allow users to configure them.

This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic from the National University of Singapore, who said that off-the-shelf modems don’t work in the region’s shallow waters.

The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the Japanese navy dropping some “newfangled gadget” into the water.

The actual culprit has since been identified – the so-called pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the shrimp’s noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends. His technology is now licensed to Subnero.

There are still problems speeding up transmission and filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.

And laying submarine cables would cost too much.

“The only way to do this is if you have communications technology. You can’t be wiring the whole ocean,” he told Reuters. “It’s got to be wireless.”

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Behind the iPad’s sluggish sales

Sameer Singh offers some possible reasons for the fall in iPad sales: 

Pocketable vs. Tablet Computing | Tech-Thoughts by Sameer Singh: “With this background, the sudden decline in iPad sales may have been caused by a combination of the following factors:

  • Most high-end consumers who need iPads already own them (and as some analysts have pointed out, replacement cycles are long) 
  • Large screen smartphones have made media tablets somewhat redundant, i.e. the iPad is no longer a ‘necessary’ purchase for ‘phablet’ owners 
  • The iPad is priced out of the market segment that still finds media tablets ‘necessary’ 
  • Upmarket movement is limited because tablet use cases still haven’t evolved to cannibalize more productivity-related computing tasks (I may have overestimated the pace at which this would occur)”

To which I’d add: 

The iPad is in some ways closer to a PC than a phone in its utility vs luxury ratio. People upgrade their phones because they’re visible accessories, something that says something about the person holding it. Computers have barely hit that bar, and maybe iPads — especially since users usually cloak them in a stand/cover — don’t quite make it either. So unless there’s a really compelling performance/spec reason to upgrade, most don’t bother.

I’ve not seen data on this, but anecdotally most people I know get an iPad and then settle, rather than upgrading when the next one comes out. Of course the lack of telco subsidy for most iPad purchases adds to this. 

It’s not that iPad isn’t a great idea, but it turns out that the smarter move in a way has been to increase the size of the phone (phablet) rather than shrink the size of the computer (the iPad), at least in terms of getting people to upgrade. 

Meshing and Stacking Away from Disaster

I’m often haunted by the folk in Wall-E, the movie where humans have abandoned Earth to trash, a small waste-collecting robot and a cockroach. That’s not the bit that scares me: it’s the space-bound humans who are ferried around on pods, their eyes permanently glued to a screen in front of them.

Is this, I ask my worried self, our future? Or has it already happened?
In some ways it has. But for what it’s worth I think it’s a blip. The future won’t in fact look like that at all.

Right now we definitely have a problem. The problem is that screens have gotten smaller, or rather more portable, more convenient, and the content on them has become so compelling that we risk life and limb to watch them as we walk, stand and sit.

But this is just a phase.

I detect the beginnings of a shift. Not of our behaviour – sadly we’ll always be vulnerable to fixating on any screen with bright colours and movement. But the sheer multiplicity of screens is forcing change on us.

Consider the following: Of the seven hours a day spent gazing at a screen, at least two of those hours are actually watching two or more screens. Millward Brown, a brand consultancy, calls it meshing and stacking.

Whereas before we’d pop off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, now we scroll through our tablet to see what people are saying on Twitter about what we’ve just watched. Then there’s shifting, where we start watching something on one screen, and then finish it on a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet.

This may seem like appalling behaviour, slicing our attention into ever thinner chunks. And in some ways it is, but it means that we’re unlikely to be subsumed by any one screen. And that’s good, because we’re dominating the screens, not them dominating us.

There are other things afoot. Screens don’t need to be big to do big things for us: the latest version of Google’s Android operating system allows the user to stitch together separate photos of a view and then relive the panorama by moving the phone around in the air, the image moving as if the scene was in front of the viewer. It’s a extraordinary feeling, recreating a mural on a screen the size of your hand.

Then there’s something called Spritz, an app that allows you to speed read a book in a viewer no larger than 18 letters. The maker of the app says by shuttling words past your vision at speed 80% of your effort is saved for reading and absorbing. I was pretty amazed; it seemed to work, and makes you think about whether you really need a book-sized screen to recreate the experience of reading a tome.

Then there’s something called Snapchat, where users can send photos to each other which can only be viewed for a few seconds before disappearing forever. It’s hard to see the value in this, until someone pointed out that the value lies in the intimacy of the moment. Users don’t open the picture immediately, preferring to find a quiet, private space to enjoy it. Counterintuitively, by making the photo ephemeral, the app makes the process of viewing it special and the memory of it longer lasting.

Some might say I’m grasping at straws. But I see in these examples the beginnings of a new approach to how we relate to our screens. For sure, some of us will remain their slaves. But for others we may find new ways to derive pleasure from them, whether it’s recreating a vista, reading a tome or viewing a photo.

Making waves: In the hunt for invisibility, other benefits seen | Reuters

Making waves: In the hunt for invisibility, other benefits seen | Reuters:

SINGAPORE | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

A new way of assembling things, called metamaterials, may in the not too distant future help to protect a building from earthquakes by bending seismic waves around it. Similarly, tsunami waves could be bent around towns, and soundwaves bent around a room to make it soundproof.

While the holy grail of metamaterials is still to make objects and people invisible to the eye, they are set to have a more tangible commercial impact playing more mundane roles – from satellite antennas to wirelessly charging cellphones.

Metamaterials are simply materials that exhibit properties not found in nature, such as the way they absorb or reflect light. The key is in how they’re made. By assembling the material – from photonic crystals to wire and foam – at a scale smaller than the length of the wave you’re seeking to manipulate, the wave can, in theory, be bent to will.

This makes metamaterials the tool of choice for scientists racing to build all sorts of wave-cloaking devices, including the so-called invisibility cloak – a cover to render whatever’s inside effectively invisible by bending light waves around it.

‘The invisibility cloak was just one more thing we were discovering – that we have all this flexibility in this material and here’s another thing we can do,’ David Smith of Duke University, widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of metamaterials, said in a telephone interview. ‘But we’re equally interested in seeing this transition in making a difference in people’s lives.’

Indeed, Smith’s own journey from laboratory to factory illustrates that while metamaterials have for some become synonymous with ‘Harry Potter’ cloaks, their promise is more likely to be felt in a range of industries and uses, from smaller communication devices to quake-proof buildings.

BENDING LIGHT

At the heart of both metamaterials and invisibility are waves. If electromagnetic waves – whether visible light, microwave or infrared – can be bent around an object it would not be visible on those wavelengths. It was long thought you couldn’t control light in this way with natural materials as their optical properties depended on the chemistry of the atoms from which they were made.

It was only when Smith and his colleagues experimented with altering the geometry of material in the late 1990s that they found they could change the way it interacted with light, or other kinds of wave – creating metamaterials. With that, says Andrea Alu, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, scientists found ‘it may be possible to challenge rules and limitations that were for centuries considered written in stone.’

The past decade has seen an explosion in research that has built on Smith’s findings to make objects invisible to at least some forms of light.

‘There have now been several demonstrations of cloaking at visible wavelengths, so cloaking is truly possible and has been realized,’ says Jason Valentine of Vanderbilt University, who made one of the first such cloaks. These, however, have limitations – such as only working for certain wavelengths or from certain angles. But the barriers are falling fast, says Valentine.

In the past year, for example, Duke University’s Yaroslav Urzhumov has made a plastic cloak that deflects microwave beams using a normal 3D printer, while Alu has built an ultra-thin cloak powered by electric current.

INVISIBLE ARMY?

Funding much of this U.S. research is the military.

Urzhumov said in an email interview that the U.S. Department of Defense is ‘one of the major sponsors of metamaterials and invisibility research in the U.S.’ The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which commissions advanced research for the Department of Defense, has funded research into metamaterials since 2000, according to the department’s website.

Military interest in metamaterials was primarily in making a cloak, said Miguel Navarro-Cia of Imperial College London, who has researched the topic with funding from the European Defence Agency and U.S. military.

But an invisibility cloak needn’t be a sinister tool of war.

Vanderbilt’s Valentine suggests architectural usage. ‘You could use this technology to hide supporting columns from sight, making a space feel completely open,’ he said.

Other potential uses include rendering parts of an aircraft invisible for pilots to see below the cockpit, or to rid drivers of the blind spot in a car.

Military or not, this is all some way off.

‘Most invisibility cloaks, essentially, are still in the research stage,’ says Ong Chong Kim, director at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Superconducting and Magnetic Materials.

MAKING WAVES

Ong and others say that while metamaterials may not yet be making objects invisible to the eye, they could be used to redirect other kinds of waves, including mechanical waves such as sound and ocean waves. French researchers earlier this year, for example, diverted seismic waves around specially placed holes in the ground, reflecting the waves backward.

Ong points to the possibility of using what has been learned in reconfiguring the geometry of materials to divert tsunamis from strategic buildings.

Elena Semouchkina, a pioneer on cloaking devices at Michigan Technological University, points to screening antennas so they don’t interfere with each other, protecting people from harmful radiation or acoustic pressure, and even preventing buildings from destruction from seismic waves.

Metamaterials could also absorb and emit light with extremely high efficiency – for example in a high-resolution ultrasound – or redirect light over a very small distance. This, says Anthony Vicari of Lux Research, ‘could be used to improve fiber optical communications networks, or even for optical communications within microchips for faster computing.’

COMMERCIAL USES

Indeed, there’s clearly a growing appetite for commercializing the unique properties of metamaterials.

One of the first to do so was the new defunct Rayspan Corp, a California-based company whose antennas found their way into WiFi routers from networking manufacturer Netgear Inc and a superflat smartphone from LG Electronics Inc.

The antennas were smaller, flatter and performed better than other options, but integrating them into the rest of the phone proved difficult, said former Rayspan executives. A spokesman for LG said the project was no longer active and LG had no plans to apply metamaterials in other products.

‘One thing from my experience as an entrepreneur is that technology gets very excited about what it’s doing in the lab,’ said Maha Achour, who co-founded Rayspan, ‘but the reality when you commercialize things is completely different.’ The company’s patents have since been sold to an undisclosed buyer.

The lessons have been learned. Now, the focus has shifted to using metamaterials in products in markets where they can more easily gain a commercial foothold.

Smith, who built the first metamaterials in 1999, has led the charge, teaming up with Intellectual Ventures, a patent portfolio firm, to spin off two companies: Kymeta Corp, making flat-panel antennas for satellite communications, and Evolv Technologies, which hopes to make a lighter, faster and portable airport scanner – with no moving parts. Kymeta, in partnership with satellite operators Inmarsat and O3b Networks, hopes to ship in early 2015.

The two fields were chosen from a shortlist of 20 potential markets, Smith said. ‘They’re the same metamaterials behind the cloak, but we were looking for more near-term applications.’

WIRELESS CHARGING

The next likely consumer use of metamaterials could be in the wireless charging of devices, an area attracting keen industry attention.

Mark Gostock of ISIS Innovation Ltd, an Oxford University research commercialization firm, said he was in talks with several manufacturers to license ISIS’ technology. Samsung Electronics has filed several patents related to metamaterials and wireless charging, but declined to comment for this article.

Other companies that cite metamaterials in their patent filings include Harris Corp, NEC Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co and Panasonic Corp.

Eventually, says Wil McCarthy, chief technology officer of Denver-based smart window maker RavenBrick LLC and holder of a patent he hopes will bring metamaterials to polarizing windows, metamaterials will be incorporated without much fanfare.

‘The people buying these products will have no idea how they work, and won’t know or care that they’re doing things that were previously considered impossible,’ he says.

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

(Via.)