Thursday 27 November 2008

Photographic WiFi

The most recent class of consumer electronics gadgets to begin introducing WiFi connectivity inside them is the consumer camera.  While the number of pixels (most unnecessarily) goes up with every new range of camera launched, the addition of wireless connectivity is a slow burn supplementary feature.  Two aspects of the cameras which have this feature surprise me a little.

The first is that WiFi is being added to cameras routinely with a standard which is two generations old.  Many WiFi cameras are equipped only with the 801.11B standard, not even the G standard which followed, let alone the more recent N standard.  This may not be a problem in the speeds required for the camera, but it is a little annoying for users that the performance of their wireless home network for their broadband connected computers is reduced by the introduction of a brand new camera into the home.

The second surprise is the variety of uses that WiFi on cameras is being put to.  The most common facility provided seems to be wireless printing directly to wireless-equipped printers. Some models allow pictures to be uploaded to online services, or emailed to specific people.  Others simply allow connection to the PC in the home to save plugging in via a cable.  Some more innovatively allow the camera to be controlled from the PC.  But why are some manufacturers making such strange choices and limiting the uses that such connectivity can be put to?  It makes little sense.  Let's hope that all of these features become standard amongst the cameras that have WiFi at all.

Friday 21 November 2008

Getting under your skin ...

Various developments are often popping up in the area of sensing and new sensor technology.  Scientists in Belgium have now announced a way of using optical components such as waveguides, light sources and detectors in a flexible substrate, potentially offering a new type of pressure sensor.  Because the form of the substrate may be a flexible foil type of structure, it is possible to imagine its use as an artificial skin material.  This might have applications in robots or indeed other machinery where such a sense is of use. 

A thin layer of silicone is arranged between two polymer waveguide layers and the amount of crosstalk detected indicates the pressure applied.  in the absence of any pressure, there is no leakage between the layers.  This makes for a potentially very cheap pressure sensor.  The ultimate aim of the researchers is to make a stretchable skin which is sensitive to pressure, touch and deformation.  

Thursday 20 November 2008

IET Annual Healthcare Lecture

It was a pleasure to deliver the keynote presentation at this year's IET Healthcare lecture at the organisation's headquarters in Savoy Place, London this evening.  It was also my pleasure to give out some prizes to the leading students recognised by the organisation before starting to speak.  

So what if your ageing relatives are cared for by robots?  And what if the only way to control a pandemic outbreak was to chip and track humans?  And what if your surgeon told you he wasn't going to be in the room with you when he carries out your operation?   These are all topics which I mentioned as part of glimpsing the future on this particular occasion.  

The questions afterwards were very good, understandably given the calibre of the audience present!   But the most interesting part for me as always, was the discussion over dinner where I could hear from some of the audience about their views and their work.  

Monday 17 November 2008

Future reading ...

This evening I had the pleasure of dining with a whole lot of people responsible for the provision of libraries in both England and Scotland.  The question of how people will want to "read" or consume such media in future was obviously raised.  Note about 'want' rather than 'be able' to!  Yes sure we all know about e-paper technologies and also that books can be delivered just as a bitstream like all other media ... eventually directly to the brain.   But this fails to capture the experience for people.  And that is important.  

Libraries are already changing from silent buildings with only racks of books stacked up.  But not every library user is yet ready for the audible experience that might result from some of the other activities that a library could offer, especially to attract younger 'readers'.  And new ways of checking items in and out are already providing self-service and utilising such technology as RFID tags.  The challenge in future is probably to find the right combinations of technology which enable people to have the optimum experience in the library and want to return there for the social experience as much as the media content.

Friday 14 November 2008

Small world ... big co-incidences!

Today I had the pleasure to be the keynote speaker to 150 people gathered for an event in Suffolk, England.  I mentioned during my presentation my recent trip to the MIT media lab in the USA.  Then at the end, one of the audience came to say hello and asked if I knew one of the professors there called Tod Machover.  Tod does some really excellent projects in the area of music and is currently working on a fantastically innovative opera.  It was co-incidental that a member of my audience today also called Jonathan also knows Tod so well!   Similarly it is co-incidental that one of my similar  presentations of future technologies last year was also given at the Sage, Gateshead - the venue for the premiere of Tod's opera!  It's a small world!

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Nano loudspeakers

There is so much potential in nanotechnology.  Some researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing have found that there are acoustic properties to exploit in sheets of carbon nanotubes such that they could form the basis of a new type of loudspeaker.  Rather than relying on mechanical vibrations through any physical movement of the nanotube sheets, it exploits small temperature changes which occur when alternating electric currents are passed through them.  Thus the pressure changes in the air (producing sound) are caused by thermal oscillations instead.  Because the nanotube sheets can be flexed and formed into different shapes, it may be possible to weave a loudspeaker into clothing for example!  Wearing your loudspeakers will be one way of taking your music with you!  

Friday 7 November 2008

Healthcare in 7 minutes?

General practitioners (GPs) and family doctors have on average about seven minutes for the consultation with each patient who visits them, within the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom.  These GPs are increasingly being offered more technology support in their work, more complex drugs to prescribe, and more options for followup treatments.  The future vision for healthcare often points towards more individual care, more targeted prescriptions and drugs for each patient.  Biotechnology marches on towards such a vision.  It is difficult to align these two things.  It is difficult to see how even the best doctors will cope with an even more complex world with so little time available to them.  I wonder if more intelligent pre-briefing of patient records will even scratch the surface in respect of making their task any easier.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Future buildings

Businesses are often accused of thinking too short term for commercial reasons.  In my role however I find that in most organisations there is at least one or two people who take the long term view.  Some organisations are forward looking too ... in the way they invest in their property and real estate.  The way that people will work and the places that they will work in will be very different in future.  The built environment of work places of the future will be instrumented by different technology and offer new capabilities for the businesses and employees that occupy them.  Sustainability is the buzzword for buildings now.  Much of the technology will be concerned with supporting this as much if not more than the work that people do there.  

I had the pleasure of an evening with the 2016 Medite group; it was great to hear how wood could play a large part in the sustainable built environment of the future, from representatives of many companies who take the long term view.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Technology driving cars

There is lots of potential for adding yet more technology to the motor car.  In the past, this has often focused more on the environment within the vehicle.  More recently the focus has been on assistance with navigation.  Technology assisting the driver with control of the car has mainly been associated with error or exception conditions, such as emergency braking, anti-skidding, etc.  But there is more scope for technology that assists the driver more actively in normal driving or rather taking activities away from the driver altogether.  

Cars are already out there which use millimetre radar to actively manage the distance between it and the car in front.  One of my own cars is able to take control of the steering to automatically park itself either parallel or perpendicular to other vehicles.  It is not such a step from this for cars to identify and propose safe overtaking or lane changing opportunities.  Hopefully we will eventually combine many such systems to allow the total capacity of our road network to be increased by more dense packing of vehicles at speeds and distances totally regulated by the cars themselves rather than the human occupants.  

I enjoy driving a good deal, but I would rather give up some of the activity if automation allows less congestion and therefore reduces the propensity of Governments to regulate for less use of personal cars and more more of a move to public transport.   Using my own personal transport with all of its advantages, is more important to me than needing to drive it myself.