iOS 7: I Know Everything About You

iOS 7 I Know Everything About You

As we get closer to the release of iOS 7 rumors abound around the exact feature list. The latest is that iOS 7 will have greatly improved facial recognition features including the ability to detect people blinking or smiling in a picture.

Whilst this is great feature candy, I’m skeptical as to how useful this feature is as a camera enhancement. I have a feeling that the majority of camera users will probably be of the opinion that they could…I don’t know…like actually look to see if people are smiling? The blink feature that pauses shooting a picture until after a blink might be more useful but then that might cause you to miss certain “action shots”. Levity aside though it’s not these aspects of facial recognition in iOS 7 that interest me.

We’re all spending more and more time online and it’s not hard to find out a great deal about someone from running a simple Google search. Now imagine an application that takes a simple scan of you from an iPhone and then correlates that scan against a google image search to start with. Hit enough similar images on the internet and you have a selection of sites that relate to the person you’ve just scanned. Now take a look at those pages and see how many times the same name appears. You now have a name. From this information you can determine phone number, address, occupation, friends, interests, all sorts of information.

For the moment it’s all probabilities. The pictures you correlate will give you a probability that you have the right person and a probability that their name will be correct. After you have a name the probability that the other information will be accurate is far higher. How long before you go to a business meeting and from a simple scan the person opposite you will know more about you than they’d glean from 20 business meetings? Interesting and entirely possible future tech even if it does sound like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie. How Google Glass will use similar tech becomes even more interesting.

For the security conscious there are some upsides to this technology. It would be nice if my iPhone could recognise me and unlock when I pick it up. Combined with finger print recognition, another supposed feature of iOS 7, this could make my phone very secure.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Apple implements this feature and what sort of Apps spring up around it.

Virgin Galactic – Where Next?

I’ve been watching Rob Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with great interest over the years. I remember sending them an email wishing them luck for their historic flight on the 4th October 2004 when they became the first private team to put a man into space.

In doing so they claimed the Ansari X-Prize and Brian Binnie, the pilot, took his place amongst the great and the good in the annals of space flight history. Incidentally, the morning of the flight I received a personal note from Rob Rutan’s team thanking me for my wishes. I was gob smacked that they had the time to reply to well wishers!

Not only was this a monumental breakthrough in the race to open up space to commercial private ventures, it also captured the imagination of the world and Richard Branson in particular. Nine years later on and Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship 2, the first commercial space liner, has had its first successful test flight putting us a step closer to you and I being able to afford a quick sub-orbital flight.

So where next? Well other than Virgin Galactic there are two other organisations that currently bare scrutiny. In March this year SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first private commercial space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station proving the possibility of private ventures supplying the station whilst a new generation of rockets are built by NASA. At the same time Bigelow Aerospace is working on the next generation of expandable space station modules with it’s BEAM module scheduled for addition to the ISS in 2015.

Virgin Galactic has also announced Launcher One, a rocket solution designed to place small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). So what does this all add up to? The answer is a slowly increasing capability to commercialise space and our first steps as a race, rather than one or two gifted individuals, into the cosmos. Melodramatic? Perhaps but then how long before we see the first privately owned space station/hotel and you and I having the possibility of looking down on the earth from orbit? With progress as it stands we’re probably only a few years away from the first private space station. Time will tell if Richard Branson will be inviting guests.


“B” The Flying Car: I Don’t Know What This is for But I Want One!

Another great Kickstarter project, and this time it’s the brainchild of Witold Mielniczek a Ph.D. Student at Southampton University. “B” is a remote controlled car that turns into a VTOL aircraft for short flights enabling it to traverse difficult terrain with ease. The vehicle transitions pretty seamlessly from driving to flying as the video shows.

The body is made out of polycarbonate and is extremely tough. The wheels have been designed to compress and detach on heavy impacts so that they vehicle is very robust, ideal for the beginner radio control enthusiast. “B” also has a video camera build in so you can get a birds eye view of the vehicles journey. Mielniczek has further development plans including:

  • Support for water landings and a reverse periscope to look beneath the surface
  • The ability to suck to walls allowing vertical ascents
  • Controling “B” from your smart phone using an App

The drive system is currently in the patent process and according to Mielniczek:

“The patentable aspect of the design is called PDU (Propelling Driving Unit). The patentable mechanism can be briefly described as any part of the propeller going through the vertical plane of the driving ring (such as a wheel or a caterpillar track).”

The “B” is shaping up to be a particularly cool toy purchasable through the kickstarter project for a paltry £320. A bargain at twice the price. However, Mielniczek has bigger plans and is suggesting that his design could be scaled to provide an extreme sports vehicle for the adrenalin junkies amongst us or a rescue vehicle for crossing terrain inaccessible to more traditional forms of transport. Currently the only limitation is the relatively small duration of play with one charge only lasting around 15 minutes.

Given the speed at which “B” has achieved its funding target on Kickstarter we can expect to see more of Mielniczek and his flying cars in the future!

Scrooser – A Harley Davidson for the Sidewalk

The Scrooser has been designed by a team in based in Dresden, Germany and there’s some pretty nifty technology built in. The first thing to notice from the video is that the thick tires on the Scrooser make riding it a very different experience from other two wheeled vehicles. It tilts and glides in a way that certainly looks more akin to snowboarding than riding a scooter. The fact that it is still a scooter meaning that you need to propel it with your feet but allowing the electric engine to enhance your action means that it’s probably a lot better for you than riding a motorbike or driving your car. The electric “impulse drive” engine  is a pretty clever piece of tech, learning the way you scoot and providing just the right amount of back up power when necessary.

The Scrooser has a range of around 35 kms but nearer to 55 kms when the “impulse drive” is running. The folks at Scrooser claim that this is equivalent to 25 days of urban Scroosing (<- see what I just did?) on a single charge. Charging should take between 1 and 5 hours depending on the power source. The Scrooser’s elegant minimalist design and eco-credentials certainly make it stand out and have already got it nominated for  the category “mobility” in the GreenTec Awards 2013, which honors pioneers who are committed to a more environmentally conscious future.

The team at Scooser are currently running a Kickstarter campaign and have hit about 50% of their total funding target with 19 days to go. You can be one of the first to own a Scrooser for the princely sum of $3,950 at Kickstarter.

Disney Infinity – Toy Box Mode Great For Imaginative Play

When I was a kid a good few years ago I remember being given a Space Invaders game. It was one of those clunky black plastic monstrosities that any child would happily have sold his sibling to obtain and provided many hours of entertainment late at night under the bed sheets when my parents thought I was asleep. One dimensional game-play and the simplest of objectives didn’t make the game any less compelling. Move over the early 1980s and take a look at what our kids have to look forward to now! I’m going to leave aside the discussion over whether or not kids should be playing video games as that’s a particular can of worms that it will take more than this blog post to cover.

Disney Infinity launches this August and you can see that it’s an idea that has the hallmarks of success stamped all over it. I’m pretty positive that my kids will want a copy, in fact I think I may pre-purchase a copy just so that I don’t have to look at those little imploring faces. So why will Disney Infinity be a hit?

  • Collectibles – There’s something absolutely inherent in a child’s psychological make up that drives them to collect things, whether it’s sea shells, interesting flowers or any manner of other objects. In fact humans just in general are natural collectors. I imagine there’s probably something in our evolutionary background that selected for this particular behaviour. Maybe cavemen who always had that useful object tucked away somewhere tended to have a better chance of survival. Disney Infinity follows in the footsteps of Skylanders in having real world objects that activate game play when placed on a peripheral figurine docking station.
  • It’s Disney – Kids love the films, heck, I love the films. I could spend hours listening to Edna talk in The Incredibles. The idea that kids can play in the worlds inhabited by these characters and share their adventures is always going to be a compelling one.
  • Social Play with Friends – You can’t build a major gaming title today, whether it’s a big AAA title or a little iPhone game, without having some form of social play. I know from watching my kids play Littlest Petshop that the social aspect of play is very important to them and is certainly a factor in determing both the longevity of the game and the amount of time children spend playing. Disney Infinity looks to have very strong social play building on the learning Disney has had from other social titles it’s released.
  • Toy Box Mode – Here is where I think that Disney will “hit the ball out of the park” to use and American maxim. Toy box mode allows kids to actually build there own worlds then play in them with their friends. Disney have obviously seen the popularity of sand box environments like Minecraft and equated that to children’s love for being able to create. This is a great feature and this alone would persuade me to purchase the game for my kids just to see what they’re going to create and the games they end up playing.

From the point of view of a parent another thing I like about Disney is that they spend a lot of time thinking about “safe guarding”. I’ve worked in the past with people that work at Disney and I know they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to protect kids online. Disney Infinite should be a safe and creative environment for our kids imaginations to run riot.

Why Seals Can Hold Their Breath Underwater For Longer Than Me

Why Seals Can Hold Their Breath Underwater For Longer Than Me

Seals, dolphins, whales and other mammalian marine animals have evolved the ability to hold their breaths underwater for extended periods. Scientists have long been interested in how they achieve these underwater feats of endurance. In an article in Science this week a group from Liverpool University has proposed a molecular mechanism that accounts for this ability.

Oxygen is stored in muscles using a protein called myoglobin. Like most proteins you can only have myoglobin at certain concentrations because proteins in high concentration tend to form dysfunctional aggregates. This means that for you or I there is a theoretical maximum amount of oxygen our muscles can store.

So how do marine mammals manage to get around this? Simple, they have a mechanism that allows them to pack more myoglobin together without it forming aggregates. Proteins are made up of amino acids, there are 22 standard amino acids some of which have either a positive or negative charge. If the protein evolves enough of these charged amino acids on its surface it will have a high net electro-static charge and it will repel other copies of itself just like trying to bring together the negative poles of two magnets.

This is exactly what has happened to myoglobin as it has evolved in marine mammals. It’s gained a high electrostatic charge which means molecules of myoglobin repel each other and this in turn prevents aggregation.

This means that marine mammals can pack together far more myoglobin molecules and their muscles can hold far more oxygen allowing them to dive for much longer between breaths.

A Mote of Dust Suspended In Sunbeam


Earlier today I was having coffee with our village curate and as is normal our discussion ranged across a wide range of subjects from the history of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 to a picture I remembered having seen and the associated quote. As Voyager left our solar system for deep space it turned and took a sequence of pictures; in one of these, the one above, you can see the planet earth as it appears from about 6 billion kilometers away caught in a reflection of light rays from the sun through the camera’s optics.

Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” said this about the picture:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

I suggested to our curate that there were probably several sermons in this particular quote but I suspect that if there is one lesson to learn from it then it is not to take yourself too seriously.