Hope and Change: 5 Innovation Updates

Here’s the latest on robots that work with humans, a revolutionary camera, home 3-D printers, mobile wallets and Google’s driverless car

Baxter, a robot that can work with humans.
Baxter, a robot that can work with humans. Photo courtesy of Rethink Robotics

About a year ago I wrote about the first meeting of the 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS), a conference designed to keep scientists focused on what it will take for humans to be able to travel outside our solar system.

Luckily, they still have about a century to figure it out. NASA and DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, are behind the project, and the latter has kicked in $500,000 to start wrestling with the ridiculously difficult challenge of traveling trillions of miles in space by 2100.

Last week, at the second 100YSS meeting, there actually was a bit of progress to note. Along with a discussion of how many pair of underpants would be required to make such a trip and a rendition of the “Star Trek” theme song by Lt. Uhura herself, came a report that warp drive might actually be possible, that it would require far less energy than previously thought for a spaceship to travel several times faster than the speed of light.

Good news, but still a long, long way from making real something we used to see happen on TV every week. It reminded me, though, of the iterative, and often methodical process of science and how too often the focus on innovation is more about the potential of new ideas and technology and less about how they actually evolve in the real world.

So here are updates on five innovations I’ve written about in the past year. Some are already making their mark; others remain on a low boil.

1) When robots play nice: Robots work great by themselves, but mix them in with humans and it can get a little dicey. Most robots, while amazingly efficient and powerful, can also be dangerous to people nearby because, to put it simply, they don’t know we’re there.

That’s not the case, however, with a new model designed by Boston-based Rethink Robotics. It’s called Baxter and it’s been given the artificial intelligence to slow its motions when it detects a person approaching. And, to alert humans that it’s aware of their presence, its face turns red.

Next month Rethink will start selling Baxter, which can be trained by humans to do different tasks. The goal is to expand the robot market beyond big factories by providing a model that’s safe and relatively inexpensive–Baxter will cost $22,000, a steal by robot standards.

2) Replicator 2! Coming soon to an office near you!: Much has been written about 3-D printing as the future driver of manufacturing. But Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries, has always believed in the more personal side of 3-D printers. He thinks they belong in people’s homes right next to their PCs.

Since 2009, the company has sold 13,000 of its MakerBot models. But buyers have largely been hobbyists who ordered their printers online. Now the company is taking things up a notch. Last week Pettis unveiled The Replicator 2, a sleek, stylized and more expensive model, one designed to fit right into the suitably applianced home. Also last week, MakerBot opened its first real store, in Manhattan no less.

Ah, but there’s also a bit of a dark side to giving people the power to print objects at home. Last month, a Wisconsin engineer showed readers of his blog the working gun he made.

3) Every picture tells a story. Or three: When it came on the market early this year, the Lytro camera had some people saying it would do for cameras what the iPhone did for cell phones. It made photos interactive, allowing you to change what’s in focus in an image after the fact. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was impressed enough to include a Lytro in its 2012 Smart Home exhibit.

The Lytro still may transform photography, but not this year. Probably not next year, either. For now at least, most people seem perfectly content with the photos they can take on their smart phones, and they aren’t ready to pay $400 for a camera shaped like a stick of butter that allows them to do something with photos they’re not in the habit of doing.

This summer, Lytro founder Ren Ng stepped down as CEO, a move he said would allow him to focus on the company’s vision and not get bogged down in day-to-day operations. This likely has a lot to do with how quickly Lytro, which raised $50 million in private funding, has grown. It still isn’t able to fill online orders immediately–it won’t share sales figures–but Ng says it has reduced the wait time to about a month.

In case you haven’t seen how Lytro photography works, here’s a sampling.

4) Apple has spoken: A lot of attention has already been paid to the new features of the iPhone 5–its bigger screen, 4G speed, longer battery life. But it’s also worth noting something it doesn’t have–a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip.

That’s what turns a smart phone into a mobile wallet, enabling it to make payments by waving it at checkout devices in stores. There was much speculation that if Apple gave NFC its blessing, it would push the technology mainstream in the U.S.

But Apple balked, in part because not many stores in the the U.S. have been willing to upgrade their checkout systems with NFC devices. Customers haven’t exactly been clamoring for them and besides, if Apple’s not buying in, why bother, say store owners. (Ah, the vicious circle.)

This is not good news for Isis, a partnership of mobile carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, and credit card companies, such as American Express and Capital One. The day after Apple introduced its new smart phone–minus a NFC chip–Isis announced that it was delaying the launch of its NFC mobile payments service.

5) But who’s going to blow the horn?: Since I first wrote about it in July, 2011, Google’s driverless car has received big boosts in Nevada, which last spring became the first state to issue license plates to autonomous vehicles, and California, where last month, in an extremely rare case of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to overwhelmingly pass a self-driving car law. It directs the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol to develop safety and performance standards for robotic vehicles.

But Google’s just getting warmed up. It’s following up its success in lobbying officials there by pushing similar legislation in Florida, Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma. And this is a concept that’s trending: BMW and Audi are known to be working on their own versions and no less prestigious an organization as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recently predicted that by 2040, 75 percent of the vehicles on the road won’t have human drivers.

Still, it’s not all open road ahead. Automakers have raised questions about their liability if they start selling driverless cars–although Google is quick to point out that its fleet of autonomous Priuses have so far logged 300,000 miles without one accident. And a consumer watchdog group in California fought the driverless car legislation, raising privacy concerns about how all the data gathered by the vehicles is used. Could you start receiving ads based on where your car drives?

Video bonus: This was probably inevitable. A candidate in Florida has come under fire for his support of driverless cars and now one of his opponent’s campaign ads features an old lady with a walker nearly run down at a stop sign by, you guessed it, a car without a driver. In case you miss the point, the large type next to her asks: “Will Driverless Cars REALLY Slow for Pedestrians?”

More from Smithsonian.com

When Robots Get Morals

Welcome to the Feel Good Future

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.