Spider Man – Fun with Bio-mimetics

Gecko Feet

Enter the humble gecko. If you’ve ever lived or stayed in parts of the mediterranean then you’re probably used to seeing these cute little reptiles running up and down walls. In fact in many cultures having a gecko in your house is considered to be good luck and whether or not it has any supernatural benefits a gecko will keep your house free of insect pests. So why have I suddenly taken an interest in reptiles? This is a technology blog isn’t it? Yes it is and over the last few years an interesting new field of research has increasingly gained ground.

Bio-mimetics is the study of natural systems, models and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Although a relatively new recognised field of science, people have been looking at nature for millennia and wondering how animals achieve some of the amazing feats they do. Leonardo da Vinci made hundreds of sketches of the anatomy and flight of birds in his quest to build a working flying machine. More recently the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe was designed after architects had first looked at the internal workings of a Termite mound asking themselves the question “How does a termite mound maintain such a perfect and consistent internal temperature.” They discovered that it was due to the termites constantly opening and closing vents in the sides of the structure ensuring a consistent airflow. The Eastgate centre mimics this action and as a result uses about 10% of the energy of a normal building of its size. Bio-mimetics can be very profitable!

So why the gecko? Well the gecko has the amazing ability to stick vertically or even upside down on surfaces. How does it manage this amazing feet (pun absolutely intended)? Autumn, et al, in a article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (2002) finally elucidated the mechanism that has been puzzling the casual observer for centuries. Gecko’s feet are covered in literally millions of tiny little “hairs” called setae.  These effectively give Gecko feet a very high surface area and these setae do something very cool indeed, they interact with surfaces at an atomic level! To put this into plain english, there is a weak inter-molecular force called a van der waal force after Johannes Diderik van der Waals, the Dutch man that discovered it. Simply put the van der waals force is a weak atomic force representing the difference in attractive or repulsive forces between molecules. Gecko setae use van der waals force to create an attractive force overall between themselves and the surface that they want to stick to. Clever little suckers huh?

Now one of Leonardo’s fellow countrymen, Nicola Pugno, working in the university of Trento has proposed that we could create a “Spider Man” like suit that could enable construction workers, or building cleaners by using the same trick as the gecko. Maybe better called “Gecko Man” our construction workers suit wouldn’t be covered in setae but by millions of tiny carbon nano tubules that would have the same ability to interact with surfaces using van der waals forces. Although weight and surface area for a climbing human would be different, such a suit is theoretically possible and could have many useful applications.

I for one will be pledging my money if Nicola Pugno ever places his “Gecko Suit” on Kickstarter.

Google Wing: To Drone or Not To Drone

So in recent months I’ve been following all the hype around delivering parcels via autonomous drones. Firstly Amazon announced their interest in delivering parcels by drone in what it blithely dubs its Amazon Air service and now Google is keen to get in on the act with Google Wing. Whilst as a futurist I look on these developments with the same starry eyed longing that I normally reserve for hover cars and jet packs I do have one over-riding thought that keeps impinging on my general euphoria…”ARE THEY MAD!!!”.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a star wars fan the idea of hundreds of hovering autonomous droids rushing around doing our bidding does get me a little over-excited but I have a few minor concerns regarding the various services.

1 – Security – The Amazon vehicle lands to deliver it’s package to your doorstep. Now I don’t know whether or not they’re going to pioneer this service in the Bronx but if they are I’m assuming that they’re going to arm it with the same time of weaponry that the latest versions of the US Army Predator drones boast because that’s the only way it will get in and out of one of those neighborhoods with its little silicon brain intact and all its propellers still attached. Theft or damage to these drones has to be a real concern. Google Wing avoids this to some degree by not actually landing and they seem to be promoting its use in remote rural areas if the tests are anything to go by. However, given that it looks as if it flies at a height that’s well within rifle range theft should be a very real concern.

2 – Safety – Having an autonomous vehicle landing on my doorstep or dropping a package from height does concern me a little. Is Mittens the cat going to find herself with an interesting new hair style courtesy of Amazon drone propellers or is my next door neighbors four year old going to be found bludgeoned unconscious by falling tins of cat food…actually strike that example…that might be an excellent reason to have the service.

3 – Air Traffic – Anyone who has ever done much flying around any of our big cities knows how crowded our airspace already is. Should we be worried about thousands of extra delivery drone flights suddenly being introduced into this airspace? Given Amazon’s open letter to the FAA it would seem that they’re not particularly concerned but I’m not sure that I share their optimism.

4 – Malfunction – I lived in the Netherlands for a number of years. The Dutch like their windows and our house was no exception having large windows at both the front and rear of the house. One afternoon whilst trying to persuade my then 4 year old daughter that vases dropped from a great height really *don’t* make a great sound I was distracted by a loud noise of something hitting our window. As it turned out a pigeon had decided to end it all by flying at great speed into our front room window. Whilst saddened by the hapless animal’s untimely demise I couldn’t help but be entertained by the fact that it had left an almost perfect cartoon impression of a bird splatted on the glass. I doubt I would have had the same reaction if a drone had hit my window. Worse still, imagine a drone having a fault at height and several pounds of jagged metal and plastic dropping out of the sky at terminal velocity into a busy shopping plaza.

5 – Cost – OK, and here’s my biggie, there is no way that delivering packages by drone can possibly be cost effective. Even if you ignore the cost of the fuel, delivering a single package to an address by drone would require an entire department of support staff to keep the service running.

So…what should we make of this all? Well if I was being cynical (I know, I know) I would suggest that it’s a crazy idea on the part of Amazon in the first incidence to grab some publicity, and not to disappoint the analysts or its shareholders, Google has jumped on this rather unlikely bandwagon. To be fair to Google they do say that this isn’t a service that will be ready in the near future. I suspect when they start to try and address some of the above issues they may find that the idea is close to untenable with current technology. Still I for one still hope to hear the cheery beep, beep of my hover delivery droid one day so I shall keep a close eye on these projects. Maybe in 30 years or so an Amazon drone will deliver my rejuvenation pills to me.

Project Spark – Create the Game!

Born out of a heritage of sandbox games that allow you to define the world around you, Microsoft showcased Project Spark at E3 this year. It rapidly became one of the most talked about “games” at the show.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Project Spark is just another iteration of Minecraft or Second Life. Microsoft are doing something very special with Project Spark.

So what is Project Spark? Simply it’s a game creation interface, but unlike games development environments like the Unreal Engine or Unity, anyone could pick up project Spark and create a game. However this explanation doesn’t do it justice.

Take a look at Minecraft and the first thing you’ll notice is that the graphics look like a game out of the early 90s. I know people will argue with me here that Minecraft has a sort of retro aesthetic beauty but personally I don’t see it. If I spend time building a world I want it to look beautiful. Second Life does this a little better and environments can look visually stunning but the time and effort required to create such a beautiful sim is significant. Both environments use scripting to give objects behaviours and in both cases this requires real scripting ability and in depth knowledge. In both cases, although you can create fun games, the emphasis is on environment creation rather than a game-play experience. Project Spark is still pre-beta so we don’t know yet if it will live up to the promise of its E3 demos but if it does it will have succeeded in achieving a defining change in the way we look at Sandbox environments. What’s the “secret sauce” Microsoft have come up with?

  • Don’t make building hard – learning from Minecraft they have created a world builder that allows you to create compelling gaming environments in minutes.
  • Make it beautiful – The landscapes and characters you can create are truly beautiful with a great deal of thought applied to how you create graphical components that flow together but don’t stifle creativity.
  • Make it easy to give things behaviors – Games programming is all about objects and their behaviours, by inventing a graphical development environment Microsoft have made it easy for anyone to apply behaviors to objects without having to resort to scripting.
  • Concentrate on the game – Make all these things come together to allow the user to create really fun games.

Recently I wrote an article on Disney’s Infinity which allows kids to build worlds in Toybox mode. Although it doesn’t look nearly as sophisticated as Project Spark it’s an interesting trend that several of the large gaming studios seem to be looking at ways of allowing us to be more creative in our gaming. I suspect that they’ve realised that by allowing people to be creative you engage them for far longer than if you provide a linear gaming experience and that translates into big bucks for game publishers, not to mention a whole genre of new exciting games for us!

The Science Fiction of Yesterday Becomes the Reality of Today

The Science Fiction of Yesterday Becomes the Reality of Today

Over the last couple of days there have been a several articles that I’ve read that have made me think “you know, the 21st century, we’re really here aren’t we”.

One of the first that caught my eye was of a new innovation by a gentleman called Jake Evil….I know! Really…he needs to be working from some secret tropical island volcano base doesn’t he. Joking aside Mr Evil (I so wish he had a doctorate) has come up with a great new way of providing a cast for broken bones that doesn’t involve lots of plaster and people writing rude messages in indelible ink.

As in traditional treatments the limb is first x-rayed to determine where the break has occurred. It’s then scanned to create a precise 3D model which can then be used to create a 3D printed lattice from durable plastic that clips in place and exactly fits the patients limb.

The plastic lattice looks very sci-fi. It’s almost honeycomb structure allows plenty of air to the limb preventing any itching and is far easier to clean allowing the patient to shower and wash without having to worry about getting a cast wet. Let’s hope the Cortex Exoskeleton hits our hospitals before any of us break anything!

Another article that caught my eye was the unveiling of a new truck design by Hanover based MAN trucks. MAN have radically veered from the path of traditional truck design by attempting to create a truck with the aerodynamics and overall wind resistance of a car. They report that this will reduce both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions  by a staggering 25%. In today’s environment with fuel costs so high that’s a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. As we move more and more to other forms of propulsion such as electric this translates into more miles on a single charge.

What caught me about this more than the aerodynamics though was the similarity to the design of this truck and the sci-fi comics I was reading when I was in my teens. I’m constantly challenged now by what a very exciting present we live in and how we are making the future ours. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years of the 21st century will bring!

Social Media: The Signal and The Noise

Social Media: The Signal and The Noise

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, the list goes on and on. In fact there are hundreds of social networking sites and that’s if you ignore the proliferation of new community sites that companies, clubs and societies have integrated with their websites.

The difficulty for any new brand wanting to be noticed, wanting to be part of consumers’ conversations is how to break above the level of the noise.

It used to be the case that a new company could get noticed simply by being on Twitter. Now that medium is too congested with literally hundreds of thousands of companies trying to seem exciting and different. Unless you are lucky and just happen to hit upon a viral advertising idea or better still a meme (and you might have more chance of being struck by lightning), you’ll end up spending big bucks just like in any advertising medium to get noticed. Then there is the problem of which social media site do you talk to your customers on? There are a bewildering array of possibilities and a fragmented conversation amongst all of them.

So should new companies with small budgets abandon social media altogether? Absolutely not but you should understand what you’re trying to achieve. For any company playing in the social arena there are some general guidelines that may help you become more than just an addition to the noise:

1. Understand the benefits of your product and make it appear appealing in the most impactful way you can. This can mean spending at least a little money. A professionally produced video showcasing you and your product can be created for as little as a few hundred pounds. The internet loves videos and a well produced video posted to the right social media sites still has the ability to get you noticed especially if your product is particularly exciting or presented in a quirky enough way. In addition, keep on talking about your product and find something new and interesting to say each time. Keeping foremost in people’s consciousness is incredibly important in getting noticed and staying noticed.

2. Use social media to start a conversation with your customers. Choose a couple of the most popular social media sites and let your customers know that this is where they can talk to you and to each other. Creating a vibrant community who are discussing your product can be very useful for spreading the word about new launches and features. It can also help you understand how your customers are using your product and how to improve it.

3. Be responsive, run your own community and respond to your customers through that community when they have concerns. In other words, embrace social support. Increasingly customers will use social media as a channel to ask you questions and you need to be ready to answer them. Consider having your own community on your web site linked to other social media sites. Certainly you’ll need to think about how you integrate social media support into your support process so that it doesn’t become a way for your customers to get rapid ad hoc support.

4. Listen to the mood. Great new services like Datasift are appearing that look at a range of social media sites and can tell you a lot about how your customers perceive you. This can really help you to sift the signal from the noise and understand how your customers feel about you and your products. Interestingly this type of analysis works equally well in helping you understand how they feel about your competitors.

The social media world is complex and getting more so, but for company executives that take the time to understand why the social conversation is important there are potentially large rewards.

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.