Archive for July, 2012

Neat Cell Phone Tricks

July 16, 2012 3 comments

“Right now, a Masai warrior on a mobile phone in the middle of Kenya has better mobile communications than the president of the United States did 25 years ago. If he’s on a smartphone using Google, he has access to more information than the president did just 15 years ago.” – Peter Diamandis

I am going to date myself a little when I say that when I was in middle school, pagers came out and they were amazing. All of a sudden, I could know when someone wanted to call me even though I was out of the house. After high school, I worked at a kiosk selling cell phones, and had one of the first phones that included a camera. The pictures were terrible, but to take them at all was awe-inspiring. Today, we have iPhones and Droids, think nothing of checking our email or streaming a movie, and regularly ‘check-in’ at our favorite haunts just to say we were there. In less than a decade we went from being able to take pictures with our phones to being able to take HD pictures, upload them, tag our friends, and post them on Facebook. We can apply a few dozen special effects to our pictures, making them seem antiqued or fishbowling the lens at will. I am quite sure my cell phone now is faster than my first computer. Phones, however, can do so much more, and I want to highlight just a few of those things.

First, take a look at how quickly ‘smartphones’ have been adopted by the public. This report out of MIT shows that smartphones are, if not achieving, at least taking a solid crack at becoming the fastest adopted technology in history. Also of note, though a little outside the scope of this article, mobile computing in the form of smartphones and tablets is utterly destroying PCs. I have to think that it will not be very long before plugging your cell phone into your big screen to run video games is normal.

With such complete market saturation, and incredible advances in computing power, scientists have been able to make your average cell phone do some pretty amazing things. On the slightly trivial side, this app GeneGroove will take your genetic information and remix it into a tune for you. It’s a cutely packaged add-on for getting your DNA sequenced (at less than $100, no less) but does add that ‘personal’ touch to your playlist. By the way, while you are out with your iPhone, you might print it a new case with your 3D printer as these folks have (including my favorite, the iFrisbee).

Smartphones are not all trivial, however. For a mere $65, you can attach this SkyLight device to your smartphone, tack your phone onto a microscope (not included), and send pictures of whatever you are looking at anywhere in the world. Not a bad advance for cell phone cameras in the intervening decade. Indeed, this adapter allows doctors in rural areas to snap photos of what they are seeing in the microscope to specialists who can provide quick diagnostics, potentially saving lives. SkyLight is on board with that idea, donating one SkyLight adapter to schools or local health programs for every five purchased. Also, just yesterday SingularityHub reported that a start-up company, CellScope, is creating a device that lets you use your smartphone as an otoscope to check your kids (or anyone else, I presume) for ear infections. This device, however, includes a 10x microscope. Like the SkyLight, once photos of the inner ear are snapped parents can upload the photos to pediatricians for a quick diagnosis, sans an office visit. Don’t forget Google’s translate app either, which translates speech in real time, foregoing all that pesky ‘learning a language’ stuff (though the operation is still a bit bulky.)

Smartphones are also being used for surveillance in several different ways. The Kenya Ministry of Health recently used smartphones to collect answers to questionnaires posed by health officials to patients suffering from influenza (or similar symptoms.) Those answers collected on a smartphone were more accurate and were collected 72 times faster than traditional paper questionnaires. It does not hurt that the smartphone program was cheaper as well. In more traditional surveillance parlance, however, UT-Dallas researchers have created an imager chip that lets cell phones see through walls, wood, plastics, paper, and other objects. The researchers are excited about other advances possible using similar technology as well: “Terahertz can also be used for imaging to detect cancer tumors, diagnosing disease through breath analysis, and monitoring air toxicity.” Also, new for the Olympics, the London police are receiving 350 mobile fingerprint scanners that work with smartphones to identify the scanee in 30 seconds or less. Whether or not the fingerprint scanners will actually make the Olympics safer is one question, but that the police have the ability to scan fingerprints so quickly is pretty cool in itself.

Even smartphones, however, must go obsolete one day. All these add-ons to phones will keep them around a little longer (at least until we can package their functionality into implants.) For cell phone manufacturers, this is a good thing since U.S. Army scientists have been trying to figure out a way to beam voices right into people’s heads since 1998.  There is a lot of lead-up in the link, but the article quotes from a U.S. Army report what I quote here in relevant part: “Because the frequency of the sound heard is dependent on the pulse characteristics of the RF energy, it seems possible that this technology could be developed to the point where words could be transmitted to be heard like the spoken word, except that it could only be heard within a person’s head.

In one experiment, communication of the words from one to ten using “speech modulated” microwave energy was successfully demonstrated. Microphones next to the person experiencing the voice could not pick up the sound. Additional development of this would open up a wide range of possibilities.”

Whether or not the technology is more efficient than Bluetooth remains to be seen.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Future Is Bright: Some Musings On Solar Power

July 7, 2012 5 comments

Because energy is such a huge concern, I am going to devote this article to the advances that have been recently made in solar energy. In the next few days, I will highlight some cool breakthroughs in electronics generally and some neat tricks that cell phones can now perform. Look for these during the next week. Without further ado, let us look at how we are going to power the future.

It is difficult to discuss energy generation generally (and solar generation in particular) without hearing the same tired objections. Therefore, a little myth busting is in order.

Myth 1: Solar power is not abundant enough to power the world.

False. As the article notes, everything on earth consumes something like 15,000 gigawatts (GW) of power. However, the Earth absorbs something like 89 petawatts (PW) of solar energy on the surface (and about twice that in the atmosphere.) Since a single PW equals 1,000,000 GW, that means if we can collect a mere .00017% of the solar energy that hits the Earth we will have enough energy to power all of Earth’s needs for an entire year. The idea that there is not enough solar power to power the world is not just wrong, it is ludicrous. We are swimming in energy; energy that is clean, renewable, and abundant.

Myth 2: Solar panels are not efficient enough to power our needs.

Half-true. Despite how much solar power is bombarding the Earth at any given moment, solar is currently just less than twice as expensive as fossil fuels. However, two trends need to be kept in mind: fossil fuels are getting more expensive (and their polluting costs are not factored into their costs to buy at the home) and solar panels are getting both cheaper and more efficient. Thus, solar energy could power 10% of the Earth’s needs as early as 2018 and, as it follows the exponential growth model, would reach 100% of the Earth’s needs less than four doublings later (or about 72 months, given the usual 18-month doubling time.) That means that by 2024 everything on Earth could be solar-powered, and for much cheaper than fossil fuels.

We are already seeing progress in making solar panels that are more efficient. Scientists at Cambridge have developed a cell that can capture up to 44% of the solar energy that hits the cell, meaning that a one square meter cell could create an average 3 KW per day, or 1095 KW/year. A typical American home uses about 11,500 KW/year, so the typical American home would need roughly eleven square meters of the new solar panels to power their home for a year. Desert climates would need less (especially during summer – about half) while northern climates like Seattle during winter would need more.

However, the news is better than that. The above assumed a single, flat solar cell one square meter in size. A more efficiently stacked solar panel array, like this one proposed by MIT, produces from two to twenty times more power. That means that the typical American home would need five square meters of space or less to power their home for a year (and probably create excess power.) Installation costs are the largest barrier to solar installation, but this could be quickly recouped with no power bill (or a source of income for those states that allow consumers to sell their power back to the grid.) Further, with such small spaces needed for power, there ought not to be much need for a grid at all; saving everyone money in the form of taxes paid for infrastructure.

However, not all power would need to be generated by solar panel structures like those linked above. Northwestern University has created printable window tint that converts power to electricity and it could be cheaply applied to existing flat panel windows (including those on electronic cars.) While the conversion rate is not as good as the new cells by MIT, if used in conjunction with a standing cell array the power generated by window tint cells is  just icing on the cake. In line with the expected innovative explosion following an exponential curve, other companies are already working on similar technologies. This German company, for instance, has a similar product on the way to launch.

While on-site electricity generation is very exciting, Spain has recently debuted a solar station that gathers 1,000 times more solar energy than usually hits the Earth’s surface and even works at night. Similar stations could provide any additional power needed while the efficiency of home models catches up, and the technology could scale down to further improve home electricity production. All of these innovations together make California’s stated goal of net-zero energy usage for housing by 2020 seem plausible. For one more example of solar innovation, this ship has been sailing at sea for over two years without a drop of oil – and using solar technology several generations behind these cutting edge innovations!

Coming up in the next few days; some of the things that we can use this abundant energy for!

Categories: Uncategorized