There are some technological ideas that captivate the public consciousness, our want for them to exist outstripping any ideas of practicality or usability. Chief among such ideas is the flying car, the seemingly amazing idea which, should it ever become mainstream, poses far more issues than it could ever solve. Still there have been numerous companies who have worked towards making that idea a reality with nearly all of them meeting the same fate. A close second (or third, if you’re more a jetpack fan) is the hoverboard, a device that replicates the functionality of a skateboard without the wheels. Our collective desire for something like that is what results in videos like the following and, honestly, they give me the shits:
Anyone who’s followed technology like this knows that a hoverboard, one that can glide over any surface, simply isn’t possible with our current understanding of physics and level of technological advancement. However if you grab a couple powerful electromagnets and put them over a metallic surface you can make yourself a decent simulacrum of what a hoverboard might be, it just can’t leave that surface. Indeed there’s been a few of these kinds of prototypes in the past and, whilst they’re cool and everything, they’re not much more than a demonstration of what a magnet can do.
This is where Lexus comes in with their utterly deceptive bullshit.
Just over a month ago Lexus put out this site showing a sleek looking board that was billowing smoke out its sides, serenely hovering a few inches above the ground. The media went ballistic, seemingly forgetting about what would be required to make something of this nature and the several implementations that came before it. Worst still the demonstration videos appeared to show the hoverboard working on regular surfaces, just like the ones in the movies that captured everyone’s imaginations. Like all good publicity stunts however the reality is far from what the pictures might tell and I lay the blame squarely at Lexus for being coy about the details.
You see the Lexus hoverboard is no different to the others that came before it, it still uses magnets and requires a special surface in order to work. Lexus built that entire set just to demonstrate the hoverboard and was mum about the details because they knew no one would care if they knew the truth. Instead they kept everything secret, making many people believe that they had created something new when in reality they hadn’t, all they did was put a larger marketing budget behind it.
Maybe I’ve just become an old cynic who hates fun but, honestly, I really got the shits with Lexus and the wider public’s reaction to this malarkey. Sure it looks cool, what with the slick design and mist cascading over the sides, but that’s about where it ends. Everything past that is Lexus engaging in deceptive marketing tactics to make us think it’s more than it is rather than being straight up about what they did. Of course they likely don’t care about what a ranty blogger on a dark corner of the Internet thinks, especially since he’s mentioned their brand name 10 times in one post, but I felt the need to say my peace, even if it wouldn’t change anything.
Nokia was once the king of the phones that everyone wanted. For many it was because they made a solid handset that did what it needed to do: make calls and send text messages. Their demise came at their inability to adapt to the rapid pace of innovation that was spurred on by Apple and Google, their offerings in the smartphone space coming too late, their customers leaving for greener pastures. The result was that their handset manufacturing capability was offloaded to Microsoft but a small part of Nokia remained independent, one that held all the patents and their research and development arm. It seems that that part of Nokia is looking to take it in crazy new directions with their first product being the Ozo, a 360 degree virtual reality video camera.
Whilst Nokia isn’t flooding the newswaves with details just yet we do know that the Ozo is a small spherical device that incorporates 8 cameras and microphones that are able to capture video and sound from any angle. It’s most certainly not the first camera of its kind with numerous competitors already having products available in this space but it is most certainly one of the better looking offerings out there. As for how it’d fare against its competition that’s something we’ll have to wait to see as the first peek at the Ozo video is slated to come out just over a week from now.
At the same time Nokia has taken to the Tongal platform, a website that allows brands like Nokia to coax filmmakers into doing stuff for them, to garner proposals for videos that will demonstrate the “awesomeness” of the Ozo platform. To entice people to participate there’s a total of $42,000 and free Ozo cameras up for grabs for two lucky filmmakers, something which is sure to attract a few to the platform. Whether that’s enough to make them the platform of choice for VR filmmakers though is another question, one I’m not entirely sure that Nokia will like the answer to.
You see whilst VR video has taken off of late due to YouTube’s support of the technology it’s really just a curiosity at this point. The current technology strictly prohibits it from making its way into cinemas, due to the fact that you’d need to strap an Oculus Rift or equivalent to your head to experience it. Thus it’s currently limited in appeal to tech demos, 3D renderings and a smattering of indie things. Thus the market for such a device seems pretty small, especially when you consider there’s already a few players selling their products in this space. So whilst Nokia’s latest device may be a refreshing change for the once king of phones I’m not sure it’ll become much more than a hobby for the company.
Maybe that’s all Nokia is looking for here, throwing a wild idea out to the public to see what they’d make of it. Nokia wasn’t exactly known for its innovation once the smartphone revolution began but perhaps they’re looking to change that perception with the Ozo. I’m not entirely convinced it will work out for them, anyone can throw together a slick website with great press shots, but the reaction from the wider press seems to indicate that they’re excited about the potential this might bring.
Everyone is familiar with the traditional bar magnet, usually painted in red and blue denoting the north and south poles respectively.You’re also likely familiar with their behaviour, put opposite poles next to each other and they’ll attract but put the same poles next to each other and they repel. If you’ve taken this one step further and played around with iron filings (or if you’re really lucky a ferrofluid) you’ll be familiar with the magnetic field lines that magnets generate, giving you some insight into why magnets function the way they do. What you’re not likely familiar with is magnets that have had their polarity printed onto them which results in some incredible behaviour.
The demonstrations they have with various programmed magnets are incredibly impressive as they exhibit behaviour that you wouldn’t expect from a traditional magnet. Whilst some of the applications they talk about seem a little pie in the sky at their current scaling (like the frictionless gears, since the amount of torque they could handle is directionally proportional to field strength) a lot of the others would appear to have immediate commercial applications. The locking magnets for instance seem like they’d be great solution for electronic locks although maybe not for your front door just yet.
What I’d be interested to see is how scalable their process is and whether or not that same programmability could be applied to electromagnets as well. The small demonstrator magnets that they have show what the technology is capable of doing however there are numerous applications that would require much bigger and bulkier versions of them. Similarly electromagnets, which are widely used for all manner of things, could benefit greatly from programmed magnetic fields. With the fundamentals worked out though I’m sure this is just an engineering challenge and that’s the easy part, right?
I’ve always appreciated the simple beauty of Zen gardens, mostly from afar as my natural instinct is to run directly to the perfectly groomed sand and mess it all up. That being whilst I may have kindled an interest in gardening recently (thanks to my wife giving me some chilli plants for Christmas) I have very little interest in creating one of these myself, even of the desktop variety. The video below however demonstrates a kind of Zen garden that I could very well see myself spending numerous hours, mostly because it’s driven by some simple, but incredibly cool, science.
On the surface it seems like a relatively simple mechanism of action, two steel balls roll their away across the sand and produce all sorts of patterns along the way. The reality of it is quite a bit more interesting however as, if you watch closely, you can see that the two steel balls’ motion is linked together around a single point of motion. This is because, as Core77’s post shows, there’s only a single arm underneath the table which most likely houses 2 independent magnets that are able to slide up and down its length. In all honesty this is far more impressive to me than how I would’ve approached the problem as it makes producing the complex patterns that much more challenging. If it was left to me I would’ve had a huge array of magnets underneath the surface, but that seems like cheating after seeing this.
I am always amazed when something that I think I understand completely turns out to be far more complicated than I first thought. The anodizing process was one of these things as, back in the day, I had investigated anodizing some of my PC components as a way of avoiding having to go through the laborious process of painting them. Of course I stopped short after finding out the investments I’d need to make in order to do it properly (something my student budget could not afford) but the amount of time I poured into researching it left me with a good working knowledge of how it worked. What I didn’t know was what it could achieve when titanium was used for anodizing as it’s able to produce an entire rainbow’s worth of colours.
The wave of colours you see the metal rapidly transition through aren’t some kind of trick it’s one of the interesting properties of how the thickness of a deposited titanium layer interferes with light passing through it. As the thickness of the layer increases the interference increases, starting off with a kind of blue colour and then shifting through many different wavelengths before finally settling on the regular metallic colour that we’re all familiar with. This process can be accurately controlled by varying the voltages applied during the anodizing process as that determines the resulting thickness of the layer that’s deposited onto the host material. In the above example they’re going for a full coating, hence why the bar rapidly flashes through different colours before settling down.
These kinds of reactions always fascinate me as it shows how things can behave in extraordinarily different ways if we just vary a small few parameters in one way or the other. It’s one of those principles that drove us to discover things like graphene which, at its heart, is just another arrangement of carbon but the properties it has are wildly different to the carbon that most of us are familiar with. It just goes to show that when you think you know science is always ready to throw you another curveball and that’s why I find things like this so exciting.
There’s an interesting area of research that’s dubbed biomimicry which is dedicated to looking at nature and figuring out how we can use the solutions it has developed in other areas. Evolution, which has been chugging away in the background for millions of years, has come up with some pretty solid solutions and so investigating them for potential uses seems like a great catalyst for innovation. However there are times when we see things in nature that you can’t help but feel like nature was looking at us and replicated something that we had developed. That’s what I felt when I saw this video of an erodium seed drilling itself into the ground:
As you can probably guess the secret to this seed’s ability to work its way into the ground comes from the long tendril at the top (referred to as an awn). This awn coils itself up when conditions are dry, waiting for a change. Then when the humidity begins to increase the awn begins to unfurl, slowly spinning the seed in a drilling motion. The video you see above is a sped up process with water being added at regular intervals to demonstrate how the process works.
The evolutionary advantage that this seed has developed allows it to germinate in soils that would otherwise be inhospitable to them. The drilling motion allows the seed head to penetrate the ground with much more ease, allowing it to break through coarse soils that would have otherwise proved impenetrable. How this adaptation would have developed is beyond me but suffice to say this is what led to the erodium species of plants dominating otherwise hostile areas like rockeries or alpines.
Up until I saw that video I thought things like drilling were a distinctly human invention, something we had discovered through our experimentation with inclined planes. However like many things it turns out there are fundamental principles which aren’t beyond nature’s ability to replicate, it just needs the right situation and a lot of time for it to occur. I’m sure the more I dig (pun intended) the more examples I could find of this but I’m sure that each example I found would amaze me just as much as this did.
Abstract mathematical principles are often obtuse ideas that don’t have any direct correlation to the real world. Indeed for the majority of the time I spent in university I had no idea how the concepts I was being taught could be applied in the real world, that was until the final unit where they showed us just how all these esoteric formulas and algorithms could be applied. However there are times when the real world and the land of pure mathematics cross paths and when they do the results can be quite amazing. Thus I present to you the Fibonacci Zoetrope:
The Fibonacci Sequence is one of the more commonly known mathematical concepts, one that can be seen often in nature. It can be used to approximate the Golden Spiral which everyone will readily recognise as the shape of a common sea shell. It also appears in sunflowers arising out of the fact that the interior of the flower is most efficiently filled in a Fibonacci like sequence, giving it an evolutionary advantage. The sculptures you see in the video above uses these same sequences to produce some rather interesting patterns which, when combined with a video camera, produce the illusion of motion that isn’t there.
The trick works due to the way modern cameras work, capturing individual frames at precise intervals. If you were looking at this in real life it would look like a blur of motion instead of the strange movement that you see in this video. However you would be able to see this with your own eyes if you used a strobe that pulsed at regular intervals, much like the modern Zoetropes do. Depending on the speed of the rotation and the image capture interval you’ll see very different kinds of motion and, if you time it precisely, it could appear to not move at all.
I really love these crossovers between art and science as they demonstrate some incredibly complicated ideas without having to dive into reams of proofs and scientific papers. The creation of the sculptures themselves is also a feat of modern engineering as some of those structures are simply not possible to create without 3D printing. I might lament not being as talented as the people who created this video but I think it’s for the best as otherwise my hose would be covered in all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures inspired by random mathematical principles.
Flash, after starting out its life as one of the bevy of animation plugins for browsers back in the day. has become synonymous with online video. It’s also got a rather terrible reputation for using an inordinate amount of system resources to accomplish this feat, something which hasn’t gone away even in the latest versions. Indeed even my media PC, which has a graphics card with accelerated video decoding, struggles with Flash, it’s unoptimized format monopolizing every skerrick of resources for itself. HTML5 sought to solve this problem by making video a part of the base HTML specification which, everyone had hoped, would see an end to proprietary plug-ins and the woes they brought with them. However the road to getting that standard widely adopted hasn’t been an easy one as YouTube’s 4 year road to making HTML5 the default shows.
Google had always been on the “let’s use an open standard” bandwagon when it came to HTML5 video which was at odds with other members of the HTML5 board who wanted to use something that, whilst being more ubiquitous, was a proprietary codec. This, unfortunately, led to a deadlock within the committee with none of them being able to agree on a default standard. Despite what YouTube’s move to HTML5 would indicate there is still no defined standard for which codec to use for HTML5 video, meaning that there’s no way to guarantee that a video you’ve encoded in one way will be viewable by HTML5 compliant browsers. Essentially it looks like a format war is about to begin where the wider world will decide the champion and the HTML5 committee will just have to play catch up.
YouTube has unsurprisingly decided to go for Google’s VP9 codec for their HTML5 videos, a standard which they fully control. Whilst they’ve had HTML5 video available for some time now as an option it never enjoyed the widespread support required in order for them to make it the default. It seems now they’ve got buy in from most of the major browser vendors in order to be able to make the switch so people running Safari 8, IE 11, Chrome and (beta) Firefox will be given the Flash free experience. This has the potential to set up VP9 as the de facto codec for HTML5 although I highly doubt it’ll be officially crowned anytime soon.
Google has also been hard at work ensuring that VP9 enjoys wide support across platforms as there are already several major chip producers whose System on a Chip (SoC) already supports the codec. Without that the mobile experience of VP9 encoded videos would likely be extremely poor, hindering adoption substantially.
Whilst a codec that’s almost entirely under the control of Google might not have been the ideal solution that the Open Source evangelists were hoping for (although it seems pretty open to me) it’s probably the best solution we were going to get. I have not heard of the other competing standards, apart from H.264, having such widespread support as Google’s VP9 does now. It’s likely that the next few years will see many people adopting a couple standards whilst the consumers duke it out in the next format war with the victor not clear until it’s been over for a couple years. For me though I’m glad it’s happened and hopefully soon we can do away with the system hog that Flash is.
There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:
It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.
Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.
Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:
The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.
However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.
I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!