Better Than Life

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I’m a Sci Fi nut. I’ve been one for many years, certainly long before it was cool be be a nerd. I’ve always leaned toward hard science with space ships and aliens rather than sword and sorcery. It’s clear that with the wild success of everything from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the hundreds of vampire zombie spinoffs there is a massive demand for all aspects of fantasy. As a species we have always valued an alternate to the humdrum business of life which explains the success of everything from alcohol and sports to LSD. Add the that the fact that gaming is now worth more than Hollywood it’s not surprising that there are some fantastical bets being made on improving reality. The most recent of these is the 500+ million put down by Google and friends for a piece of the Miami based virtual reality shop Magic Leap.  It’s not entirely clear what these folk do…mostly because they won’t tell you.  Much like Oculus (Who Facebook recently acquired) the have no product and no revenue but clearly have some very big ideas around virtual and augmented reality and have caught the attention of big G. Let’s unpack this a little.

There are significant barriers to meaningful virtual or augmented reality. Our brain is a fierce computer which spends upwards of 60% of runtime doing visual processing. We are amazingly good at perceiving and understanding the world around us…so to try to trick the brain into seeing things which aren’t there in a seamlessly is very hard. That’s what Magic Leap et al are working on. The win could be enormous. We could trade our 60″ LED TVs for headsets or implants which could convince us we are fighting at Minas Tirith or making time with insert -porn-star-name-here. We could work in true virtual offices or vacation from our couches. The gatekeepers of this new world would indeed be in a position of power. Although the focus to date has been on the hardware to get past the brain’s defenses the likely long term winner would be the people who could supply both the convincing reality gear and the programming to go with it. In effect a next generation cable company….which no doubt Google would love to be. They have the fiber optic cable, they are buying the hardware/user equipment  folks and no doubt are already working on augmented / virtual content to go with it.

I give it less than a decade before we are paying a reality provider to give us recreational experiences beyond anything we can currently imagine. Once we have access to a better than life experience on our recliners at home work may just become the way we afford credits in our enhanced experience world. It sounds like fun…and will be…unless it further divided our society into the haves who can relax in comfort in their virtual paradises and the rest who keep the lights on.

3D Printing Finding Its Way Into Orthopedics

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Current casts, which are made of plaster, are not only heavy and uncomfortable, but they also get smelly as they are unable to get wet. 3D-printed casts are the total opposite. The cast revealed last year, called the Cortex cast, was made out of nylon plastic. It was waterproof, lightweight, ventilated, and, once its purpose was served, it could be recycled — not to mention it was also stylish sporting a spider, web-like design. Patients who need it would theoretically get their fracture X-rayed, and then the 3D printer would custom print the cast to the shape of their limb, with extra reinforcement in the injured area.

Deniz Karasahin, the industrial designer behind a similar cast, called the Osteoid medical cast, won this year’s A’Design Award for 3D-printed forms and products. Though his design is similar to the one from last year, it goes a step further, incorporating a bone stimulation system known as low-intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS). The system works by applying “transcutaneous acoustic energy” to the fractured bones, according to a report on LIPUS in the Indian Journal of Orthopedics.

It’s believed that this low-intensity energy causes mechanical stress at the cellular level on both ends of the broken bone, stimulating “molecular and cellular pathways involved in healing.” Meanwhile, other research purports that the energy causes microscopic gas bubbles to develop within the fractured bone. In turn, these bubbles trap the acoustic energy with tissue fluid, causing a chain reaction in which the fluids circulate within, blood pressure rises around the injury, and healing accelerates “by enhancing gas exchange and nutrient delivery.”

Regardless, Karasahin and his team claim that someone who’s using the cast can undergo 20-minute daily sessions with LIPUS to reduce the healing process by 38 percent while increasing the healing rate by as much as 80 percent. Those rates includes fractures that are nonunion, meaning that they fail to heal correctly. That’s good news for the estimated 6.2 million fractures occurring in the U.S. every year, of which five to 10 percent take longer than expected to heal or are nonunion.

The researchers’ next steps are to develop a more effective locking mechanism that’s “strong enough to protect the limb, practical enough to put it on the fragile injured area and simple enough so that it doesn’t disturb the general form of the medical cast.”

Apple and Facebook are Paying for Female Employees to Freeze Their Eggs

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Career women, have you placed your family-making plans on the back burner? Maybe that’s not far enough. It may be time for cold storage.

Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Apple will now pay for employees who want to freeze their eggs. This is strange new ground even for technology companies who are famous for luring talent with big money and glorious perks.

Facebook recently introduced this coverage under its surrogacy benefits. Beginning in January, Apple will pick up the tab on bills up to $20,000 for egg-freezing procedures taken by its female employees. This is in addition to Facebook’s $4,000 cash bonus to new parents and Apple’s 18-week paid maternity leave. In a field that is dominated by men, these moves may be another push to make Silicon Valley friendlier to top female talent – or at least, top female talent that wants to lean in before it comes time to burping up.

The move by Apple and Facebook may explain a trend that is already in motion among young female executives. Women don’t want to let their careers or not meeting the right partner affect plans for their ideal families.

The idea behind offering this option to female employees seems innocent enough. It gives women an option to delay childbirth to focus on their careers. But while some are embracing the idea as a step toward closing the gender gap, not everyone is warm to it. Critics say this is just one more way to put the workplace before having a family.

Facebook and Apple have not come out and said this was an attempt to narrow the divide between opportunities for male and female employees. However, there is a major gender gap in tech. It’s easy to see the connection between the perk and the two tech giants who offer it.

New Earthquake Warning Technology Facing Funding Shortfall

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Over the summer, San Francisco was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, leveling buildings and injuring 172 Bay Area residents. However, much of the Bay Area breathed a sigh of relief: They had been spared the big one, once again.

Unbeknownst to many Bay Area residents, however, researchers at places like the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with technology that would provide an early warning system for the next major earthquake. In this case, the technology worked, sounding an alarm just seconds before the North Bay quake.

ShakeAlert, as it’s called, is a partnership between Cal, the University of Washington, CalTech, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and the United States Geological Survey. And it is fascinating how it works:

The objective of warning of an early earthquake is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.

Similar systems are already in use in Mexico and Japan, where they’ve provided early warning for quakes. Yet, it’s facing an $80 million funding shortfall — despite a state mandate to create an early-warning system and private funding supporting the research.

Currently, only private firms offer early warning systems, and these are primarily geared towards industry, not public works and individual consumers. If you want an early warning system to turn off valves in an oil refinery, for example, you can find the equipment to do it — if you can afford the materials, installation costs, and ongoing maintenance.

Testing of such systems uses real-time tracking of seismic events, paired with predictions, to determine accuracy, increase lead time on warnings, and estimate error rates. But experimental data still aren’t made public, even if such information could provide a public safety benefit.

Will California, or another U.S. state, have to wait for a major quake before the necessary funding is pushed through? This may be exactly what happens, as California is struggling to fund ShakeAlert and the necessary equipment, seismic observation stations, and personnel to make the system work with a high degree of accuracy.

Proponents of the ShakeAlert could release the rudimentary system, stressing that it is incomplete, not quite ready for launch, and potentially unreliable, but it is better than nothing. The launch would have to be accompanied with warnings that citizens shouldn’t get too complacent, because the advance notice provided likely wouldn’t be very extensive, and false alarms could occur. Citizens would need to back up ShakeAlert or a similar system with earthquakepreparations as already recommended by the state and other agencies.

Or, they could keep the technology under wraps as it remains under development, focusing on making it as good as possible before it’s released. In the meantime, earthquakes could cause millions or billions worth of damage accompanied by severe injuries and loss of life that could have been prevented had such a system been implemented, leaving officials in an unenviable position.

The images that have circulated the internet following the earthquake of broken wine stocks and bottles in Napa Valley and minor damage in other areas are just a tiny sliver of California’s possible future, the consequence of living on fractured and restless ground. In the face of that knowledge, how can the state defend a refusal to fund life-saving technology?

Apple has gone big. Will they ever go back?

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For the first few years, Apple’s iPhone product strategy was as simple as it gets: release one new model per year. To be clear, it is still simple, even as the company has released two separate models in each of the past two years. As Apple broadens its portfolio to target different market segments, the strategic considerations going forward become a little bit more complex.

Apple’s move upmarket to larger phones has been anticipated for quite some time, and investors are clearly optimistic about the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as shares continue to flirt with all-time highs. The company was able to partially resist the trend toward larger phones by releasing the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012. It was becoming painfully obvious that 3.5-inch displays wouldn’t be sufficient for much longer, especially in flagship high-end smartphones competing with Samsung Galaxies.

However, the shift from 4-inch displays to 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays is a bit different. The market for 4-inch smartphones will likely sustain itself. Apple now faces an interesting strategic conundrum. Each year, Apple shifts older models to successively lower price points. This strategy is beneficial because it effectively extends the useful life of each model to 3 years or more, which is utterly unheard of in the smartphone industry. That also means Apple milks plenty of value out of all the manufacturing gear it installs to produce the devices, getting a lot of bang for its capital expenditure bucks.

Under the current trajectory, the iPhone 6 would fall to the mid-range $100 on contract price in 2015, and subsequently be free on contract in 2016. That would also theoretically include discontinuing all smaller devices at that point, and 4.7-inch displays would be the norm.

Alternatively, what if Apple were to update each model for each market segment each year? Consumers in the market for 4-inch phones don’t want to always be relegated to last year’s specs and features. Taking this notion a step farther, Apple could even introduce 3 models per year to target each segment (4-inch, 4.7-inch, and 5.5-inch), and use the waterfall strategy within each. Seeing as how Apple is moving to two models per year, three doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Of course, product depth has always been a key strength for Apple. The risk would be that Apple’s iPhone lineup becomes bloated to the point of distraction, which is a common weakness of rival smartphone OEMs. The aforementioned strategy would eventually expand the portfolio to 9 distinct devices, up from the current 4. The last thing that Apple wants to do is spread itself too thin, but the company could strike a balance.

It could also increase Apple’s capital requirements if the company needs to acquire even more manufacturing equipment. That’s not to say that Apple can’t afford it with its $141 billion in cash, and capital expenditures are currently less than 5% of revenue over the past four quarters.

But the benefit would be a stronger lineup within each discrete market segment, and Apple could exert its typical pricing power and extract a premium for its efforts. That might be worth the trouble.

Government Agencies Look to Tweaking Technology Instead of Innovation

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The future of government innovation in services and service delivery won’t necessarily be found in new technologies, but will instead come from remixing current technologies in new and interesting ways.

Anyone who drives has seen the sight – the car pulled off to the side of the road with a police car, lights flashing madly, parked in behind it. Drivers get pulled over for a number of reasons but the most common reason is exceeding the posted speed limit.

According to Statisticsbrain.com, an average 112,000 people per day receive a speeding ticket and at an average cost of $152 per ticket issued results in over $6 billion generated for government just from speeding tickets. That means that government agencies in the U.S. receive on average $300,000 in revenue per year per police officer just from speeding tickets.

Beyond radar and laser detectors, jammers, license plate covers and all of the other technologies drivers employ to try to avoid the dreaded speeding ticket, the newest technology in the driver-versus-police battle seems to be crowd sourced information.

For example, Waze is a social navigation, GPS, maps/traffic app that is available on both the Android and iOS platform. Besides crowdsourcing information on traffic flow, accidents, debris in the road, other Waze users also enter when they see a police officer on the road. Using location services like cellular and Wi-Fi triangulation, GPS networks, and other beacons, Waze can track your location and let you know when a police officer has been identified near you. So it is a legal way to know when there is a police officer right around the corner.

The technologies that enable Waze may also be the basis for the replacement of the traffic officer and the traffic stop. Since Waze and other navigation apps know where you are located, they can accurately calculate your speed at any given moment. This technology could feasibly also track when you don’t stop at a red light, or go the wrong way down a one way street, or a multitude of other traffic violations. The thing missing is positively identifying the driver as compared to someone just riding in the car. That is where the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System (NGI) comes in.

The NGI has recently been launched, and is a large facial imag4 capture system that includes a database to store millions of face pictures and the analytics software to effectively compare and identify facial images. Assuming that it were legally possible to combine the tracking technologies behind Waze or the onboard navigation system with cameras and the NGI system, it become technically feasible to issue accurate speeding tickets without the involvement of a human police officer. No need for traffic officers anymore and the revenue generated per police officer goes up.

This is all really cool for law enforcement and public safety agencies, but what does this mean for other government agencies? The key components that government agencies look for are that:

  • Innovation will be found through present technologies. Most innovations in government services will come from new ways of mixing current technologies and not necessarily new technologies. This example employs a mix of all of the four pillars – Social (found in Waze), mobile, cloud (found in the storage architecture for the NGI and in the navigation apps), and Analytics (found in the analytics necessary to determine the speed and in the facial recognition) which are hardly new technologies but combined in new and unique ways to improve mission efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The examination of service and delivery mix will be forced by innovation. New technology mixes will force government agencies to rethink services and how they are delivered. In this case, the manpower necessary for traffic enforcement could be reduced and redirected. In other cases such as disaster response, it may not reduce the workforce necessary but may increase the speed of response and the effectiveness of that response.
  • Privacy needs to be addressed. Any mixing of the four pillar technologies in government will have a necessary privacy component that needs to be included.

Worldwide Access to Internet is Slated to Launch Next Year

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Internet access is a vital resource for many these days. However, vast, rural areas of the world have no broadband internet access. One of Google’s latest “moonshot” projects seeks to fill that gap with balloons. This undertaking is called Project Loon, and the plan is massively ambitious: it calls for a large network of “towers” in the sky that receive internet access from antennas on the ground in one location and beam internet down to rural homes and locations below. Google has many challenges to overcome before Loon becomes a reality, but the team says it hopes to have a functioning service online by next summer.

Google had first revealed the existence of Project Loon in June 2013 and has tested Loon Balloons, as they are known, in the U.S., New Zealand, and Brazil. The balloons fly at 60,000 feet and can stay in the air for as long as 100 days, keeping their electronics powered by solar panels. Google’s balloons have now traveled more than one million miles total.

These balloons provide wireless Internet using the same LTE protocol used by cellular devices. Google has said that the balloons can serve data at rates of 22 megabits per second to fixed antennas, and five megabits per second to mobile handsets.

Android Going Wider

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Last week Apple gave us the larger, thinner, faster and considerably more expensive iPhone 6. Only they make the hardware. A while ago Apple pretty much invented then ruled the smartphone segment, now it’s a firm second to Android which already has over a billion users so far. Today Google announced the first Android One powered smart phones targeted at the emerging (ie third world) market and it’s coming out at just over $100. That’s an impressive move. It’s not that there haven’t been cheap smartphones out there, there have. This move is interesting because it represents a reliable high quality OS controlled by Google being offered on robust hardware built by major players.

Part of what has driven Google nuts in recent years is that Android as customized and deployed by phone manufacturers has tended to be both twitchy and bloated with custom modules added by the manufactures often to the detriment of the Android user. Not so in the case of Android One. In this version the handset makers will not be able to modify Android. They will be able to add their own apps but Google will control the OS and will be able to update it remotely. That means Google will be much less vulnerable to hardware driven weirdness and will be able to fix problems without relying on the handset guys cooperation.

Seen in the wider context of emerging markets it makes a lot of sense. Much of the developing world has gone straight to wireless without ever touching large scale copper wire. The addition of lower price high quality handsets and very affordable data plans means the the next billion Android users may be a lot closer than we may have thought.

Although this isn’t necessarily an immediate and massive cash win for Google, taking what amounts to global control of the user experience for what will amount to perhaps 30% of humanity is compelling. It will be Google Apps, search and thus ads which will become the global default. You have to admire the long term thinking.

Do We Really Need to Regulate Drone Airspace? NASA Thinks So

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With all the drones flying around in the sky, there is surprisingly little regulation in place for managing them. NASA has realized that someone has got to stop it all from descending into chaos.

Researchers at NASA’s Moffet Federal Airfield are working on a complex air traffic control system that would be designed solely for drone aircraft, or any flying aircraft below 400 feet. The system would include provisions to stop drones from flying into buildings and other aircraft while also including no-fly zones preventing any unwanted snooping on federal buildings.

However, for commercial drone operations to take off in the US, the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration is still needed. The agency has so far taken a hard line on any paid work using drones, but says it’s looking to propose new rules before the end of the year.

It’s important to note that for now the system wouldn’t have direct communication with an off-the-shelf drone. It is principally designed for commercial drones like Amazon Prime Air and Google’s ‘Wing’ project. Small, cheap drones are proving increasingly popular for both hobbyists and technology companies alike, but while the technology itself is ready to fly, controlling the airspace is a trickier proposition.

Last week, Google unveiled Project Wing, an experimental drone delivery program that sent half-helicopter, half-airplane drones buzzing around remote farmland in Australia. But how would this system work in populated areas or cities? Who would keep the airspace crash-free?

Oh Apple….Really?

 

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I tried really hard to listen live to the Apple announcement today.  The live feed started 6 minutes late and was apparently being simultaneously translated into Japanese….which I could hear much better than the English language version. The feed stopped, broke and stuttered …so I gave up. I like many other people live in  world of Apple hardware running mostly Google applications. I don’t think today changed much of that. The lame live streaming was a harbinger of lameness to follow.

Apple hit the most of marks that were strategically leaked. the phones and phone tablets Phablets (Lord I hate that word) are bigger, brighter more powerful as expected….none of the features would make me pay the extra to upgrade but would probably keep me on the brand going forwards. The downside (as always) is going to be cost. There are many very good much cheaper Android phones out there with bigger specs and lower prices.

The payment component is probably more interesting. Near Field technology to allow secure payment by device as opposed to a card or cash is ancient. they were doing it in South Korea when I was there a decade ago. It’s been very slow off the mark in the US but the fact that Apple has done the legwork to launch it with most the major banks and many thousands of retail outlets may finally get this off the ground in the US. It’s been a long time coming…but welcome none the less.

The other much leaked launch is the Apple Watch….interestingly not called the iWatch.  The world of wearable tech has been taking off nicely and this is Apples contribution to the effort. Put simply…it’s horrible. It looks like something dropped by my 2 year old grandson. The tech inside and the UI may be terrific but I would cut my hand off before I’d put this on my wrist. I’m actually kinda shocked that they would go with a watch most people wouldn’t be seen dead wearing. Leave aside the fact that there was no info on battery life and no wireless charging…this just looks awful….and fragile. At nearly $350 it’s not fitbit cheap….but looks worse.

They ended the presentation with a surprise performance by U2. Not sure that was a great message either. They are for sure mega stars…but also blow-hardy showing their age and haven’t innovated much at all in the last few years. Oh….no wait…that was perfect.