Imagine a future where everything—your bed, your wallpaper, the box your cereal comes in—is capable of connecting to the Internet and the windows and walls of skyscrapers harvest energy from the sun. It’s a scenario many technologists talk about, but it would certainly strain today’s infrastructure for building silicon-based electronics. The future many depend on a more old-fashioned production process—roll-to-roll printing.
That, at least is what scientists and engineers argued at a session on the future of roll-to-roll processing at the Material Research Society’s fall meeting in Boston last month. Existing fabs and foundries produce about 20 billion silicon chips a year, far fewer than would be needed if the Internet of Everything is to become a reality, Donald Lupo, a professor of electronics and communications engineering at Tampere University of Technology in Finland, said at the meeting. Estimates hold that 50 to 200 billion objects will be connected to the Internet within five years, some with multiple devices on them, and many more coming in subsequent years, he added.
Smartphone apps designed to monitor patients with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease may help reduce health care costs in the long run. But one of the most rigorous studies to date has found no big difference in health care costs for patients using mobile health apps and similar patients who did not rely on smartphone monitoring.
If you have even a casual interest in Bitcoin, then by now you probably know that on Friday developer Mike Hearn publicly declared the Bitcoin project a failure. And if you’ve followed Bitcoin over the years, then you also know this isn’t the first time the mourning bells are tolling. According to the scorekeepers, the count is now up to 89.
This one, however, is different from the rest. The person throwing dirt over the coffin last week was not an outsider, as has most often been the case. It was not some mainstream economist who just “doesn’t get it.” It was not a misinformed journalist fishing for clicks. It was Mike Hearn, a former Google developer, the guy who wrote the first java implementation of Bitcoin. He’s a regular presence at conferences and a tireless educator of Bitcoin novices. And his most passionate vituperations were aimed at the people he is now leaving behind. Bitcoin failed, he wrote, “because the community has failed.”
Regardless of what you think about Mike Hearn and his assessment of Bitcoin’s woes, his words must be taken seriously, if only because there are plenty of other people out there who take his words seriously—enough, in fact, to inspire a 15 percent fall in the market price of Bitcoin on the day he published his diatribe.
The bulk of Hearn’s condemnation comes down to this: Bitcoin has a technical problem. It doesn’t scale and it’s finally reaching a level of adoption where this will soon cause major disruptions in the speed and reliability of Bitcoin transactions. Some, including Hearn, say the technology has actually already reached the breaking point.
Solutions have been proposed. But the developers responsible for making the decisions about what gets incorporated into the Bitcoin Core source code, who were at first slow even to proceed with a discussion, are now mired in stalemate over which option is best.
A winged spacecraft that resembles a mini space shuttle will join the fleet of private rockets ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. NASA has announced that its new round of US $14 billion in commercial resupply contracts for the space station includes the Dream Chaser spacecraft made by the Sierra Nevada Corporation.
Changes in production of certain gases in the human gut have been linked to gastrointestinal disorders including painful constipation, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), and colon cancer. Yet how and why this happens is not well understood. Without resorting to stressful invasive means, measuring and tracking gas concentrations in our stomachs and small and large intestines has to date been impractical.
That’s about to change. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have designed and custom-manufactured indigestible capsules that can measure the concentration of different gases during digestion in the gut of animals and humans—a world’s first, they claim. The capsules meet the standards necessary for such testing, and after conducting a series of trials on pigs, the researchers have begun recruiting human volunteers on which to test the next version of the pill.
An electronic capsule is composed of: an indigestible cladding; a gas-permeable membrane covering a sensor for detecting hydrogen, methane or carbon dioxide; a microcontroller; a 433-megahertz wireless transmitter; and four silver oxide batteries. The latest version of the capsule measures just 2.6 by 1.1 centimeters, which is “about the size of a 000 fish-oil capsule,” lead researcher Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a professor at RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors, told IEEE Spectrum.
“Nothing in the capsules is really expensive,” he added. “The batteries cost around $5 or $6 in total, as does the thermal-conductivity sensor, while the microcontroller is only 50 cents. We estimate the materials cost at $15, depending on component prices. This would come down with large scale production.”
The sensor data is transmitted straight from the gut to a custom-made coder-decoder unit that can be clipped onto a cellphone. The processed data is then sent to the phone for viewing via Bluetooth.
In one of the first animal trials, pigs—which have similar digestive systems to humans—were divided into two groups and fed the capsules along with high-fiber and low-fiber diets. The capsules sent data every five minutes and went into sleep mode between transmissions to conserve battery power. Minimum life of a battery was four days, more than long enough for a capsule to complete its job and be excreted by the pig.
“The data showed that a low-fiber diet produced four times more hydrogen in the small intestine than a high-fiber diet,” said Kalantar-zadeh. “This surprised us greatly, given that hydrogen is made through fermentation; we expected more fiber would produce more of the fermented gas.”
In addition, high-fiber diets produced more methane gas in the large intestine than the low-fiber diet, suggesting that painful gas retention could be avoided by reducing the intake of high-fiber foods. They found that the ratio of carbon dioxide and methane gases in the large intestine wasn’t affected by the amount of fiber the pigs consumed, suggesting that neither diet would help people suffering IBS problems associated with methane concentrations.
The implications of these findings, Kalantar-zadeh believes, could lead to “trashing misconceptions everyone has about certain kinds of food being good for certain conditions.”
The group’s research started in 2009, when the first capsule was produced. The newest capsule, Version 5, which will be used on human volunteers, will employ a temperature sensor and two gas sensors. One gas sensor will detect oxygen and hydrogen; the other is a hydrogen sensor that is not sensitive to oxygen but can also detect methane and carbon dioxide.
In conveying the importance of the research, Kalantar-zadeh explains that microorganisms form a significant part of our gut and work with us in symbiotic fashion. When they digest food and when they interact with each other, they produce gases. If they are healthy, they produce gases with normal profiles. If they are under stress or if there is any disorder, then the gas profiles change.
“This provides us with very good health biomarkers that no one has looked at before because they were hidden from sight inside our bodies. But now we have an easy means to measure gas concentrations in the gut.” Consequently, he says, this method can be used to build libraries of healthy gas profiles, against which the gas profiles of individuals can be compared.
The researchers are working on modifications aimed at further increasing the value of the data measured by the capsules. For instance, more sensors need to be included in a capsule to provide multi-gas measurements. They’re also seeking a way to precisely track the location of a capsule as it travels through the gut.
It’s only a matter of time, Kalantar-zadeh believes, before the technology will help medical researchers “design personalized diets and drugs that can target problem areas in the gut and help millions of people around the world affected by digestive disorders and diseases.”
In theory, wearable electronics are great. In practice, they’re great—until you have to charge them, at which point they become annoying. We're counting on wireless power to come along and save us all, but in the meantime, there are other creative ways to keep lower power devices running. At CES last week, we saw a prototype of a wireless sensor patch that can monitor your hydration levels and send data to your phone, while getting all the power it needs from your own body heat.
Last year at CES, we experienced a very cool demo from Ultrahaptics of an ultrasound-based gesture interface that provides invisible tactile feedback in mid-air. This year, Bristol, England-based start-up is showing how their technology can be embedded into devices like cars, stereos, and stoves. And it's exactly as magical as we were hoping it would be.
“Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” So says Galadrial to the fellowship sent to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. But that advice might as well be directed to the burgeoning virtual reality industry. Early optimism that the second coming of VR, after a false start in the 1990s, will blossom into a new mainstream medium could collapse into despair, with the technology joining 3D television as another misfire.
The reason that people like me keep coming back to CES isn't to see slightly bigger televisions, incrementally upgraded laptops, or ridiculous niche gadgets that only a handful of bleeding-edge techies in the known universe might ever actually use. Fundamentally, CES is about the tantalizing promise of the next big thing.
The major electronics companies want you to believe that it's 4K (now that they've essentially given up on 3D) but that's just because they want to sell you a new TV. Lots of smaller companies are sure that it's wearables, but I find it hard to get super-excited about those. Car companies are pushing autonomy, but that's more like the next big thing after the next big thing.
What I'm looking for at CES are technologies that will change how I experience or interact with the world in a unique way. Flawless consumer virtual reality, for example. Or interactive eye tracking. Or anything else that generates that magical "wow, I live in the future" feeling. This year, it's wireless power, and let me tell you why.
Recently, every new year occasions a certain amount of grumblingabout CES in some techie circles. Pundits fear CES has become over-managed, with carefully choreographed exercises in PR replacing real tech news. It’s certainly true that the show has undergone some gentrification, as mainstream interest in what was once a deeply geeky event has dramatically increased. Celebrities are to be seen—and not all of them show up at the event to pick up an easy paycheck yucking it up at a corporate event.
There’s also the fact that it’s been a while since a new product category made a really big splash. Tablets are probably the most recent “Next Big Thing.”
But rather than marking some kind of terminal decline, this is actually a normal part of the innovation cycle. Take a look at CES’s official list of breakout stars, which includes the VCR, the CD player, the Xbox, and the IP TV. There are substantial gaps in time between many of the entries. But that’s not to say that the wheels of innovation grind to a halt in the so-called down years.
Instead, two important things happen. One is that for the big product categories, a period of refinement and—critically—cost reduction is what turns gee-whiz first-generation products into things that actually influence daily life. (Recall that the first CD player cost about US $1000.) Only a sharp drop in price allowed the digital revolution to really take off.
And the absence of a big headliner category that draws all of the industry’s focus—like when e-readers first made a splash and it seemed for a while that every company with a designer capable of combining a mobile processor and screen was obsessed with nothing else—leaves room for diversity of innovation.
This was certainly in evidence last night at CES Unveiled, one of the big demo events surrounding the show (another is Pepcom’s Digital Experience, which we’ll be live tweeting tonight). Companies turned up with lots of ideas for radically different products: an alarm clock that wakes you up with blasts of scent; a wearable pendant that can translate languages back-and-forth on the fly; a phased-array acoustic loudspeaker; a re-invented piano; and many other weird and wonderful ideas. Now, sure, not all of these are going to be winners. But the level of imagination and invention, even if not on the scale of some juggernaut breakout, means that CES is far from going the way of Comdex.
IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.