There are certain fundamental limitations when it comes to current wireless communications. Mostly it comes down to the bandwidth of the frequencies used as more devices come online the more congested they become. Simply changing frequencies isn’t enough to solve the problem however, especially when it comes to technology that’s as ubiquitous as wifi. This is what has driven many to look for alternative technologies, some looking to make the interference work for us whilst others are looking at doing away with radio frequencies entirely. Li-Fi is a proposed technology that uses light instead of RF to transmit data and, whilst it posits speeds up to 100 times faster than conventional wifi, I doubt it will ever become the wireless communication technology of choice.
Li-Fi utilizes standard light bulbs that are switched on and off in nanoseconds, too fast for the human eye to perceive any change in the output of the light. Whilst the lights need to remain in an on state in order to transmit data they are apparently able to still transmit when the light level is below that which the human eye can perceive. A direct line of sight isn’t required for the technology to work either as light reflected off walls was still able to produce a usable, albeit significantly reduced, data signal. The first commercial products were demonstrated sometime last year so the technology isn’t just a nice theory.
However such technology is severely limited by numerous factors. The biggest limitation is the fact that it can’t work without near or direct line of sight between the sender and receiver which means that a transmitter is required in every discrete room that you want to use your receiver in. This also means that whatever is feeding data into those transmitters, like say a cabled connection, also need to be present. Compared to a wifi endpoint, which usually just needs to be placed in a central location to work, this is a rather heavy requirement to satisfy.
Worse still this technology cannot work outside due to sunlight overpowering the signal. This likely also means that any indoor implementation would suffer greatly if there was sunlight entering the room. Thus the idea that Li-Fi would be 100 times faster than conventional wifi is likely just laboratory numbers and not representative of the real world performance.
The primary driver for technologies like these is convenience, something which Li-Fi simply can’t provide given its current limitations. Setting up a Li-Fi system won’t be as easy as screwing in a few new light bulbs, it will likely require some heavy investment in either cabling infrastructure or ethernet-over-power systems to support them. Compare this to any wifi endpoint which just needs one data connection to cover a large area (which can be set up in minutes) and I’m not sure customers will care how fast Li-Fi can be, especially if they also have to buy a new smartphone to use it.
I’m sure there will be some niche applications of this technology but past that I can’t really see it catching on. Faster speeds are always great but they’re all for naught if the limitations on their use are as severe as they are with Li-Fi. Realistically you can get pretty much the same effect with a wired connection and even then the most limiting factor is likely your Internet connection, not your interconnect. Of course I’m always open to being proved wrong on this but honestly I can’t see it happening.
It’s well known that the camera industry has been struggling for some time and the reason for that is simple: smartphones. There used to be a wide gap in quality between smartphones and dedicated cameras however that gap has closed significantly over the past couple years. Now the market segment that used to be dominated by a myriad of pocket cameras has all but evaporated. This has left something of a gap that some smaller companies have tried to fill like Lytro did with their quirky lightfield cameras. Light is the next company to attempt to revitalize the pocket camera market, albeit in a way (and at a price point) that’s likely to fall as flat as Lytro’s Illum did.
The Light-L16 is going to be their debut device, a pocket camera that contains no less than 16 independent camera modules scattered about its face. For any one picture up to 10 of these cameras can fire at once and, using their “computational photography” algorithms the L-16 can produce images of up to 52MP. On the back there’s a large touchscreen that’s powered by a custom version of Android M, allowing you to view and manipulate your photos with the full power of a Snapdragon 820 chip. All of this can be had for $1299 if you preorder soon or $1699 when it finally goes into full production. It sounds impressive, and indeed some of the images look great, however it’s not going to be DSLR quality, no matter how many camera modules they cram into it.
You see those modules they’re using are pulled from smartphones which means they share the same limitations. The sensors themselves are going to be tiny, around 1/10th the size of most DSLR cameras and half again smaller than full frames. The pixels on these sensors then are much smaller, meaning they capture less detail and perform worse in low light than DSLRs do. You can overcome some of these limitations through multiple image captures, like the L-16 is capable of, however that’s not going to give you the full 52MP that they claim due to computational losses. There are some neat tricks they can pull like adjusting the focus point (ala Lytro) after the photo is taken but as we’ve seen that’s not a killer feature for cameras to have.
Those modules are also arranged in a rather peculiar way, and I’m not talking about the way they’re laid out on the device. There’s 5 x 35mm, 5 x 70mm and 6 x 150mm. This is fine in and of itself however they can’t claim true optical zoom over that range as there’s no graduations between all those modules. Sure you can interpolate using the different lenses but that’s just a fancy way of saying digital zoom without the negative connotations that come with it. The hard fact of the matter is that you can’t have prime lenses and act like you have zooms at the same time, they’re just physically not the same thing.
Worst of all is the price which is already way above entry level DSLRs even if you purchase them new with a couple lenses. Sure I can understand form factor is a deal breaker here however this camera is over double the thickness of current smartphones. Add that to the fact that it’s a separate device and I don’t think people who are currently satisfied with their smartphones are going to pick one up just because. Just like the Lytro before it the L-16 is going to struggle to find a market outside of a tiny niche of camera tech enthusiasts, especially at the full retail price.
This may just sound like the rantings of a DSLR purist who likes nothing else, and in part it is, however I’m fine with experimental technology like this as long as it doesn’t make claims that don’t line up with reality. DSLRs are a step above other cameras in numerous regards mostly for the control they give you over how the image is crafted. Smartphones do what they do well and are by far the best platform for those who use them exclusively. The L-16 however is a halfway point between them, it will provide much better pictures than any smartphone but it will fall short of DSLRs. Thinking any differently means ignoring the fundamental differences that separates DSLRs and smartphone cameras, something which I simply can’t do.
Computing as we know it today is all thanks to one plucky little component: the transistor. This simple piece of technology, which is essentially an on/off switch that can be electronically controlled, is what has enabled the computing revolution of the last half century. However it has many well known limitations most of which stem from the fact that it’s an electrical device and is thus constrained by the speed of electricity. That speed is about 1/100th of that of light so there’s been a lot of research into building a computer that uses light instead of electricity. One of the main challenges that an optical computer has faced is storage as light is a rather tricky thing to pin down and the conversion process into electricity (so it can be stored in traditional memory structures) would negate many of the benefits. This might be set to change as researchers have developed a non-volatile storage platform based on phase-change materials.
The research comes out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology with collaborations from the universities of Münster, Oxford, and Exeter. The memory cell which they’ve developed can be written at speeds of up to 1GHz, impressive considering most current memory devices are limited to somewhere around a 1/5th of that. The actual memory cell itself is made up of phase-change material (a material that can shift between crystalline and amorphous states) Ge2Sb2Te5, or GST for short. When this material is exposed to a high-intensity light beam its state will shift. This state can then be read later on by using less intense light, allowing a data cell to be changed and erased.
One novel property that the researchers have discovered is that their cell is capable of storing data in more than just a binary format. You see the switch between amorphous and crystalline states isn’t distinct like it is with a transistor which essentially means that a single optical cell could store more data than a single electrical cell. Of course to use such cells with current binary architecture would mean that these cells would need a proper controller to do the translation but that’s not exactly a new idea in computing. For a completely optical computer however that might not be required but such an idea is still a way off from seeing a real world implementation.
The only thing that concerns me about this is the fact that it’s based on phase change materials. There’s been numerous devices based on them, most often in the realms of storage, which have purported to revolutionize the world of computing. However to date not one of them has managed to escape the lab and the technology has always been a couple years away. It’s not that they don’t work, they almost always do, more that they either can’t scale or producing them at volume proves to be prohibitively expensive. This light cell faces the unique challenge that a computing platform built for it currently doesn’t exist yet and I don’t think it can compete with traditional memory devices without it.
It is a great step forward however for the realm of light based computing. With quantum computing likely being decades or centuries away from becoming a reality and traditional computing facing more challenges than it ever has we must begin investigating alternatives. Light based computing is one of the most promising fields in my mind and it’s great to see progress when it’s been so hard to come by in the past.
There’s a saying that goes “The speed of light is greater than the speed of sound, which is why some people appear bright before they open their mouths”. Whilst I’m sure that we can all remember someone who fits that description exactly not many people appreciate just how vast the difference is between the speed of light really is. Indeed in everyday life you can pretty much consider light to travel instantaneously since it could reach any point on earth in under a millisecond. That also means that visually observed phenomena can help us determine other things, like how far away the boat in the below video was from the volcano that erupted:
From the first point where you can see the eruption beginning to the time when the shockwave hits the camera approximately 13 seconds elapses. Taking into account that the speed of sound in air (roughly 341 m/s, although it could be slightly faster depending on the temperature) that gives us an approximate distance of 4.4 km from the eruption site. To put that in perspective the light that brought the picture traveled the same distance in about 0.01 milliseconds, an imperceptibly short amount of time. If you were so inclined you could also figure out all sorts of other kinds of information from this video (like the height of the plume, it’s velocity, etc.) but they’re an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.
This video also showcases one of the coolest (in my opinion) visual phenomena related to massive explosions like this. You can see the shock wave propagating out from the epicenter very clearly, something which always happens but isn’t usually visible to the naked eye. Here you can see it travelling outwards thanks to it compressing the air in front of it which changes the refractive index of light. With explosions of this magnitude the amount of compression, and the resulting shock wave, are enough to produce a significant bend in the light passing through it.
I probably wouldn’t want to be that close to the explosion though!
Much like my current aversion to smartwatches I’m equally disinterested in the idea of a fitness tracker. As a man of science I do like the idea in principle as anyone looking to better themselves should track as much data as they can to ensure what they’re doing is actually having an effect. However all the devices on market don’t appear to be much more than smart pedometers with nice interfaces something which doesn’t really track the kinds of things I’m looking for (since most of my exercise isn’t aerobic in nature). I don’t discount their value for others but if I was going to invest in one it’d have to do a lot more than just be an accelerometer attached to my wrist.
I may have found one in AIRO, a rather Jony Ive-esque device coming from a new 3 person startup. For the most part it sports the same features as other health trackers, presumably through the same method of an incorporated accelerometer, but its real claim to fame comes from its apparent ability to detect metabolites in your blood, without having to cut yourself to do so. AIRO also claims to be able to detect the quality of the food you’re eating as well which, from what I can tell by looking at their website, seems to be related to the macro-nutrient breakdown. As someone who regularly struggles to get enough calories to support their goals (yeah I’m one of those people, believe me it’s not as great as you might think it is) and really can’t be bothered to use a calorie tracker this is of particular interest to me, something I’d consider plonking down a chunk of change for.
Of course the sceptic in me was instantly roused by the idea that a device could non-invasively determine such things because such technology would be a boon to diabetics, not to mention any research program looking at monitoring caloric intake. Indeed something like this is so far out of left field that most of the mainstream coverage of the device doesn’t go into just how it works, except for referring to the fact that it measures calories and macro-nutrient breakdown based on light. It sounds like a great theory but since there’s no source material provided to show how their method works, nor any validation using standard means like doubly labelled water or even short term experiments with strictly controlled caloric intake.
I was going to leave it at that, and indeed not even write about it since I wanted to see some validation of the idea before I said anything, but then I stumbled across this article from ScienceDaily which links to a German study that has been able to measure blood glucose with infrared light. The function of their device sounds different to the one AIRO purports, instead using the infrared light to penetrate the skin and cause a resonance in the glucose within the bloodstream which their device can then pick up. Their device sounds like it would be anything but wearable however with a “shoebox sized” device planned to be released within the next few years. This doesn’t validate the idea behind AIRO but it does lend some credence to the idea that you’d be able to extract some kind of information about blood metabolites using light pulses.
So I’m definitely intrigued now, possibly to the point of shelling out the requisite $159 to get one delivered when they come out, but I would love to see some validation of the device by the inventors to prove their device can do what they say it can do. It’s not like this would be particularly difficult, hell if they send me a prototype device I’ll happily engage in a tightly controlled caloric diet in order to prove it can measure everything, and it would go a long way to convince the sceptics that what they’ve made really is as good as they say it is. Heck I bet there’s even a couple other startups that’d love to do some testing to prove that their products also work as intended (I’m looking at you, Soylent) and having that kind validation would be extremely valuable for both involved.
My first overseas trip is probably the best example I can give of my over-packer mentality. It was the middle of 2001, I’d only just become comfortable with the college lifestyle (for the Americans I’m referring to the 2 years prior to university) and my parents agreed to send me on a school trip to Japan something I was incredibly eager to do. Of course this being the first time they’d sent one of their children overseas my parents ensured I’d have everything I’d need whilst over there, and I really do mean everything. I managed to lug 2 giant sports bags around with me for the entire trip which contained nearly every article of clothing I owned. Whilst it was nice to not have to do laundry I think the ridicule I recieved for my rather ludicrous amount of baggage was well deserved.
The habit didn’t die there unfortunately, managing to cement itself as something that I’d do instinctively throughout all my travels over the years. Indeed this became something of a running joke of whenever I’d go to visit friends as they’d often wonder why I was waiting for checked baggage only to break into hysterics when they sighted my brimming luggage trundle past on the carousel. When travelling overseas it was a little more defensible, although my recent visit to the USA did have me questioning why I needed to bring along as much as I did. This, combined with my casual interest in minimization (I love things like those tiny, fully featured houses people build), has led me to shed much of the cruft that I used to lug with me and I’m quite happy with the results.
I’ll admit that the catalyst for it was my Sydney trip last week where I was only going to be staying a single night. It really didn’t make sense to check in baggage for that, even if my back pack felt a little swollen with clothes plus laptop, and the experience of getting off the plane and being able to head straight for a cab was something I felt I wanted to repeat. Thus I set about seeking out the biggest sized carry on I could find and was surprised at just how much I could get away with.
I settled on an Antler Cyberlite International Cabin Suitcase and to my surprise it’s plenty big enough for me to fit up to a week’s worth of clothes and other supplies, more than enough for any business trip I’ll find myself on. I was a little worried that it might be a little too big but I had no complaints from the cabin crew this morning and indeed the amount of space in the overhead locker seemed to dwarf my supposedly huge carry on. In theory it’d be enough for pretty much anything then although I don’t think I’ve shaken the over-packer bug for everything just yet but at least I won’t be lugging around a massive bag for short domestic trips anymore.
I’m sure there are those out there that can take it further than I have, indeed many of the people who scoffed at my over-packing previously would routinely show up in Canberra carrying nothing more than a single backpack, however this feels like a happy medium. It still allows me to have a little fat in my packing (I’ve brought along an extra days worth of clothes in this round) whilst also giving me the advantages that I didn’t know I was missing out on before. Going any further would be quickly met with diminishing returns and I’m sure I’d end up sweating what I forgot.
But I’m weird like that 😉
You can see light’s presence everywhere, but have you ever seen it moving? Due to the speed of light being the fastest thing we currently know of it’s a rather elusive beast to see in motion, especially on the scale we exist in, and whilst it might look instantaneous it does have a finite speed. Whilst we’ve done many experiments in slowing light down and even trapping it for short periods of time but being able to watch a light ray propagate was out of our reach for quite some time, that was until the recent development of a couple technologies.
The above video is the work of Ramesh Raskar and his team at MIT which produced a camera that’s capable of capturing 1 trillion frames per second. However it’s not a camera in the traditional sense as the way it captures images is really unique, not at all like your traditional camera. Most cameras these days are CCD based and capture an image of the whole scene then read it off line by line and store it for later viewing. The MIT system makes use of a streak camera which is only capable of capturing a line a single pixel high, essentially producing a one dimensional image. The trick here is that they’re taking a picture of a static scene and doing it multiple times over, repositioning the capture area each time in order to build up an image of the scene. As you can imagine this takes a considerable amount of time and whilst there are some incredible images/movies created as a result the conditions and equipment required to do so aren’t exactly commodity.
There are alternatives however as some intrepid hackers have demonstrated.
Instead of using the extremely expensive streak camera and titanium sapphire laser their system instead utilizes a time of flight camera coupled with a modulated light source. From reading their SIGGRAPH submission it appears that their system captures an image of the whole scene and so to create the light flight movies they change when the light source fires and when the camera takes the picture. This process allows them to capture a movie much quicker than MIT’s solution and with hardware that is a fraction of the cost. The resolution of the system appears to be lower, I.E I can’t make out light wave propagation like you can in the MIT video, but for a solution that’s less than 1% of the cost I can’t say I fault them.
Their paper also states they’re being somewhat cautious with their hardware, running it at only 1% of its duty cycle currently. The reason for this is a lack of active cooling on their key components and they didn’t want to stress them too much. With the addition of some active cooling, which could be done for a very small cost, they believe they could significantly ramp up the duty cycle, dropping the capture time down to a couple seconds. That’s really impressive and I’m sure there’s even more optimizations that could be made to improve the other aspects of their system.
It’s one thing to see a major scientific breakthrough come from a major research lab but it’s incredible to see the same experiments reproduced for a fraction of the cost by others. Whilst this won’t be leading to anything for the general public anytime soon it does open up paths for some really intriguing research, especially when the cost can be brought down to such a low level. It’s things like this that keep me so interested and excited about all the research that’s being done around the world and what the future holds for us all.
Think about about any of the cyberpunk/dystopian futures that you’ve come across and there’s one thing that they all have in common: the seemingly drab, million shades of brown colour palettes. Now that’s probably the most accurate representation of what would happen in those circumstances what with the downfall of society and all but if some of the latest research to come out of Portugal is anything to go by our future robot overlords could be sporting all sorts of pretty colours.
You know, in order to co-ordinate better so they can eliminate us fleshy meat creatures from the planet:
Whilst the technology is a long way from creating a terminator covered in disco lights it is a rather interesting bit of technology, especially with the cross over between a flying control robot and its minions on the ground. Most systems I’ve seen like this before usually rely on a whole bunch of pre-programmed routines with one of the swarm making itself the leader of the pack in order to make the decisions. Whilst this isn’t too different from that due to the use of a flying master the selection process for targeting a specific robot on the ground is pretty ingenious, especially considering how simple it is.
One thing I’m wondering about though is how effective such a system could be in a much noisier environment than their pristine lab environment. Differences in colour are pretty easy to detect when there’s a high amount of contrast like there is in that environment however it starts to get tricky when there’s a whole bunch of other, similar colours in the near vicinity. There’s also the issue if they use it outside that there will be a lot of ambient light that has the potential to make the flying robot’s job a lot harder. These aren’t insurmountable issues though and you could probably solve both by just ramping up the brightness of the rings or some clever engineering tricks with the light sources (like using specific frequencies and filtering out everything else).
Still be on the lookout for any vaguely human shaped things covered in LEDs. No telling what it could get up to 😉
Ever since my red-wine induced inspiration struck some months ago I’ve been on a bit of a period of rediscovering my love for all things photographic including the science behind it. I’m not terribly good with high concepts of these sorts of things and found that I work much better if I understand everything from a fundamental level. Whilst this might lead me into some rather esoteric areas of science (Scheimpflug principle, anyone?) I do find that the understanding that I glean from them helps me understand a whole host of things that seemed like a mystery to me before.
Of course browsing Wikipedia for hours is not everyone’s fancy so today instead I give you a video done by the Vsauce guy from YouTube on how colour works:
If that wasn’t enough then check out the amazing properties of calcite crystals which exhibit some really intriguing behaviour:
I’m pretty fiscally conservative when it comes to my own cash, agonizing over purchases for sometimes weeks at a time before I take the plunge. It’s enough to outright kill some purchases entirely like the Motorola Xoom that I was convinced was worth at least having around just for the “tablet experience” but couldn’t seem to pass my financial filter. There are however times when my inner geek becomes so impressed with something that it overwhelms any sort of fiscal responsibility and I’ll find myself in possession of my object of desire well before I realize that I’ve taken my credit card out of my wallet. The Samsung Galaxy S2 is a brilliant example of this as I had been looking for a new phone for a while (and the Windows Phone 7 handsets available weren’t wowing me) and a quick trip to the specification sheet had me deep in geek lust, and 3 days later I had one in my hands.
The Galaxy S2 is really another world away from any other handset that I’ve had the pleasure of using. It’s quite a wide unit with the main screen measuring an impressive 4.3″ (10.92cm) across the diagonal but it’s also incredibly slim, being only 8.49mm thick. It’s also incredibly light weighing in at a tiny 116g which you’d think would make it feel cheap when compared to other similar handsets (the iPhone 4 is much more meatier) but the construction of the handset is very solid despite it being entirely plastic. The front screen is Gorilla glass which is incredibly resistant to scratches. I haven’t had a single scratch on it despite dropping it a couple times and putting it in my pocket with my keys by accident, something that would’ve ruined a lesser phone. To say that the first impressions of just holding the handset are impressive is putting it lightly, it’s simply an incredible device to hold.
In fact coming directly from an iPhone to the Galaxy S2 I can see why Samsung is in hot water with Apple over this particular device. I’ve covered the TouchWiz interface being strikingly similar to iOS in my Android review but the handset itself is also very Applesque, sporting the same single physical button on the front right in the same location that Apple has. Although its hard to accuse them of outright copying Apple since you can only get so creative with large touchscreen devices, especially when some of the required buttons are dictated by the underlying OS.
Under the hood of this featherweight device lies immense processing power, a multitude of connectivity options and enough sensors to make privacy nuts go wild with lawsuits. To give you an idea of just how jam packed the Galaxy S2 is here’s a breakdown of the specifications:
As you can see it actually stands up quite well when compared to my Sony. The video and picture quality is very comparable, especially in well lit situations. However it does fall down in low light and any time there’s motion due to the smaller CMOS sensor and lack of image stabilization. The LED flash on it is also incredibly harsh and will likely wash out any low light photo you attempt to take with it, but it does make for a decent little flash light. It won’t outright replace my little pocket cam any time soon but it’s definitely a good stand in when I don’t have (or don’t want to carry) it with me.
The everyday usability of the Galaxy S2 is also quite good for someone like me who has large hands (…ladies 😉 and used to struggle somewhat with the smaller screens on other handsets. However one gripe I do have with the handset is the lack of physical buttons for the options and back buttons for Android. The Galaxy S2 opts instead for 2 capacitive buttons either side of a the physical home button which does give the device a much sleeker look but can also mean accidental button touches should you brush against them. Samsung has also opted to put the power button on the side of the handset instead of the traditional placement on top near the headset port, which takes a little getting used to but is quite usable.
Where the stock Galaxy S2 falls down however is in its battery life. With moderate usage the battery wouldn’t make it through a second day requiring me to keep it plugged in most days whilst I was work lest it die on me overnight when I went home. This could have been the deal breaker for this phone as whilst I’m not the forgetful type I do like to be confident that I can make it through the day without having to watch the battery meter like a hawk. Thankfully the guys over at XDA Developers came to the rescue again with their custom ROM for the Galaxy S2 called VillainROM. After going through the process of doing the upgrade my battery now lasts about twice as long as it used to, only needing charging once or twice a week. I’ve yet to run Advanced Task Killer to attempt to squeeze even more battery life out of my handset, but it’s good enough for the time being.
It should come at no surprise then that this has been a wildly popular handset with both the tech and non-tech crowd a like. In the 3 months since its release the Galaxy S2 has sold a whopping 6 million units and just anecdotally it seems nearly every single one of my friends who was looking for a new phone has got one as well as almost half of my workmates. I used to laugh at anyone who touted any smartphone as an iPhone killer but with the Galaxy S2 not even being available in the USA yet and already garnering such a massive reception it might be the very first single phone that will be able to come close to touching Apple’s numbers. Of course I don’t believe for a second that any single Android handset will be able to take down the iPhone, not for a while at least.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 has set the bar as to what smart phones should be capable of and it will be the gold standard with which all are compared to for a long time coming. The combination of elegant design, incredible power and features galore make the Galaxy S2 stand out from the crowd in a big way, so much so that buying any other handset seems illogical. For many it has the potential to replace several other devices with its top notch multimedia components, further improving the overall value that you can derive from this handset. Overall the Samsung Galaxy S2 is a wonderfully impressive device and if you’re in the market for a new smart phone I really can’t recommend it enough.