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Close encounters with future tech

T3 India | Updated on August 17, 2011

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Science fiction writers and Hollywood have long promised a brave new world where all the huge possibilities of tech are manifest. But unfortunately, issues like bureaucracy and cash flow always seem to get in the way of new inventions. However, this does not stop us from whipping up a trajectory of what technology is going to bring into our homes in a couple of decades. Here's a glimpse.

Robots in the home

What's the big idea?

By the middle of this century our inexorably ageing population will mean that one in four people will be over the age of 65, compared with one in six today. Some researchers believe that we'll have no choice but to turn to synthetic hands when it comes to looking after the frail and infirm. It's not just the elderly who could benefit, though: schoolchildren could be taught by teacher-droids, while the lonely could get their kicks from a burgeoning market for partner-bots.

What's happening right now?

The uprising has begun. The Roomba vacuum cleaner has entered more than six million homes worldwide, a robot pharmacist that sorts drug prescriptions in UK hospitals has cut the time it takes to dispense drugs to waiting patients in half and bots have been designed to help autistic children understand emotions and to keep the elderly company. A crucial body of research is also looking at how robots can interact safely with us. Alexander Lenz works at the Bristol Robotics Lab on a project CHRIS (Cooperative Human Robot Interaction Systems). He has this to say: “Making the transition from robots that are kept separate from us because they are big and powerful to those that operate alongside us is not easy. There are many issues in terms of behaviour. For example, one of our problems at the moment is eye gaze. If

I talk to a robot and say, ‘I like that,' is the robot able to follow my gaze and realise what I'm referring to?”

What's the hold up?

Autonomy is fiddly. Lenz and other roboticists have a thousand little things to perfect before we see anything approaching C-3PO. “Visual recognition is still a problem,” says Lenz, by way of example. “How do we make robots recognise that an object sat on a table is separate from the table, and that it's something you can touch and move?” There's also a question of economic practicality. “Let's say I have a household robot that serves me my food and tidies up my kitchen. That robot would probably only be used for two hours a day, but it's going to cost me about as much as a car.” In other words, you may have to continue to load the dishwasher yourself.

When could we see it?

Robots designed for specific functions, such as surgery, are rolling out now. “I think we will see robots in more structured environments, assisting on a building site or serving food to patients in a hospital,” Lenz says.

Your all-singing, all-dancing mechanised house servant won't be ready for decades yet, though. Sorry…

Holodeck simulations

What's the big idea?

Imagine combining the technology in Xbox Kinect, Second Life and 3D TVs. That's virtual reality. It's so close you could almost reach out and touch it.

What's happening right now?

Researchers are already hacking Xbox Kinect and using it in lab-based VR. “Recently we did a virtual reality demonstration for a theatre rehearsal,” says Mel Slater, professor of virtual environments at University College London. “One actor was in London, the other was in Barcelona.” Elsewhere, the Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton recently opened a training simulator in which crewmen wearing VR goggles practise jumps from the safety of a suspended harness. In the near future, you could be feeding a ball through to Lionel Messi on a virtual pitch or ducking bullets in a first-person shooter. Beyond gaming, there are opportunities for virtual tourism and advanced video conferencing.

What's the hold up?

There isn't one, really, although the first virtual reality “caves” are not likely to be much like the holodeck from Star Trek. “The biggest hurdle left is haptics (being able to ‘feel' what's going on),” says Professor Slater. “Right now in VR you can get some kind of haptic feedback on your fingertips or you can wear a special suit or accessory, but it's not very compelling. If you're in a virtual space and your elbow accidentally brushes against something, you will feel nothing.” That lack of feeling can destroy the overall illusion of virtual reality.

When could we see it?

With investment, the first immersive VR destinations will be accepting visitors in three to five years. Doing it with feeling will take decades more.

Invisibility cloaks

What's the big idea?

In a world where everyone has something to hide, the ability to make something disappear from sight is too good to pass up. Scientists are playing with ways of bending rays of light around an object using materials that change the speed and direction light travels at when it hits them. Watching closely are, of course, the military, who could use the materials as high-tech camouflage.

What's happening right now?

Cloaking devices already exist. It's just that up until recently they have only worked on objects about a tenth of the width of a human hair – you wouldn't see that anyway. But this year, research led by scientists at the University of Birmingham made a paperclip vanish using a prism made from a naturally occurring crystal called calcite.

“The cloak is designed in such a way that it ends light around a bump on the surface without being scattered by it,” lead researcher Dr Shuang Zhang attempts to explain. “So anything hidden underneath it cannot be seen.”

What's the hold up?

The crystal cloak currently has to be about 20 times larger than the object it's concealing, although calcite crystals do exist that are big enough to hide a human body. “Metamaterials [artificial materials designed to have properties notfound in nature] could be used to design a much more compact invisibility cloak, relative to the size of the object being concealed,” Zhang says. Currently, however, most of the technology has used wavelengths of light outside the spectrum visible to humans.

When could we see it (or not see it , in this case)?

Metamaterials that are able to work with visible light should be created within the next five years. Scaling it up to the size of a Harry Potter-esque cloak will take somewhat longer, though.

This material is translated or reproduced from T3 magazine and is the copyright of or licensed to Future Publishing Limited, a Future plc group company, UK 2011. Used under license. All rights reserved

Published on July 20, 2011

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