Six Innovators to Watch in 2013

All are inventive minds pushing technology in fresh directions, some to solve stubborn problems, others to make our lives a little fuller

electronic tattoo

Nanshu Lu’s electronic tattoo that reads your vital signs. Photo courtesy of Nanshu Lu

In the spirit of the post-holiday season, allow me to present my final list of 2012: six innovators who are pushing technology in fresh directions, some to solve stubborn problems, others to make our lives a little fuller.

Watch for more from all of them in the new year.

1. Keep your hands off my robot: We’ve all seem videos of adorably cute robots,, but when you actually have to work with one, they apparently can be less than lovable. That’s where Leila Takayama comes in. She’s a social scientist with Willow Garage, a San Francisco area company that develops robots, and her job is to figure out how to get humans to connect with mechanical co-workers.

She’s seen cases where robots have gotten on people’s nerves so much that they park them in a closet. One of the keys, she’s found, is to make robots seem more fallible. Like having them shake their heads when they fail at something. Oddly enough, Takayama says, a reaction like that can make a robot “seem more competent.”

She’s worked on robots designed to help elderly people, recommending that the number of cameras on the robots’ heads be reduced because too many could make people uneasy. More recently, she’s been analyzing a robot called Project Texai, which is operated directly by humans, rather than running on its own. And she’s discovered some interesting things, such as how people who operate the robot don’t like it when other people stand too close to it or touch its buttons. “There comes a point for a lot of people when they feel as if the robot is their body.”

Another key question she’s wrestling with: Is it better to have a robot at eye level with a person when he or she is sitting or standing?

2. One day even lamp posts won’t be dumb: As Chris Harrison sees it, the world is full of surfaces, so why are we spending so much time touching little screens or tapping on cramped keyboards. Harrison, a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon University, has been a leader in finding ways to turn everyday objects–a couch, a doorknob, a glass of water–into interactive devices.

His approach is to use the natural conductivity of objects–or attach electrodes to those that aren’t–and connect them to a controller that responds to different types of signals. A couch, for instance, could be wired to turn on the TV if someone sits on it in a certain spot. Or you could turn off all the lights in your place by twisting the doorknob or tapping on a table. Almost anything with a surface could be connected to a computer and allow you to make things happen with simple gestures or touches.

3. Finally, a tatt for Grandma: There’s no questions that health tech is booming–although that’s not always a good thing considering that health apps don’t always live up to their hype. But Nanshu Lu, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, has created a product that could have a huge impact on how we monitor what’s going on inside our bodies.

She has refined what are known as “epidermal electronics,” but basically they’re electronic tattoos that can track your vital signs, including your temperature, heart beat and brain and muscle activity. Lu has managed to develop ultra-thin, water-soluble silicon patches that contain tiny sensors and can actually bond with skin. No adhesives necessary. They last through showers and exercise, never losing their ability to gather your most personal data. The hope is that one day her tattoos will be able to treat diseases.

4. In phones we trust: When you’re out on the road or on vacation in a new place, it can get frustrating to have to search for info on your smart phone. Really, if your phone is so smart, shouldn’t it be able to anticipate your needs and feed you info as you need it, based on where you are and what time of day it is?

That’s the premise behind the mobile apps software developed by Flybits, brainchild of Hossein Rahnama, director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Flybits is already being used at several Canadian airports and Toronto’s transit system to coordinate with a traveler’s itinerary and provide information that’s both personalized and contextually relevant, such as directions to the car rental counters or the gate to your connecting flight after you get off a plane.

The company has also developed software it calls Flybits Lite, which lets you know friends and other contacts who are taking in the same concert or watching the same movie you are.

5. Do you really want to know how many times you’ve ordered donuts?: It would be easy to dismiss the Memoto Camera as the epitome of 21st century self-indulgence. It’s a postage-stamp sized wearable camera that documents your life by taking two photos every minute, or roughly 2,000 pictures a day.

For most of us that’s one big load of digital tedium. Martin Kallstrom, the man behind the concept and CEO of the Swedish startup Memoto, would acknowledge as much. But he also knows how many memorable moments are missed–”the day your daughter took her first step, or that night you laughed the night away with friends.”

Clearly, he’s not alone in believing that a “lifelogging” camera is an idea whose time has come. He and his partners had hoped to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter. By the time the fundraising campaign ended earlier this month, online backers had pledged more than $550,000.

6. And no, it won’t fetch you a beer: For several years now, Steve Castellotti has been all about brain-powered machines. But his latest innovation, Puzzlebox Orbit, is taking the concept to the public. It’s a little helicopter you control with your mind.

Given that this is not something we do every day, it comes enclosed in a protective sphere so the rotor blades don’t chop up the furniture. It also comes with a device called the Puzzlebox Pyramid, which serves as a combination base/remote control unit for the chopper. But since your mind is doing the controlling, the Pyramid’s role is to wirelessly transmit your brain activity from a headset you wear. It also lets you know how you’re doing–a circle of LED lights on the Pyramid’s face is designed to reflect your level of concentration or relaxation.

Thanks to a funding boost from Kickstarter, Castellotti and his chief engineer and partner Hao Zhang plan to start selling the Puzzlebox Orbit for about $90 next year. But Castellotti believes it won’t become just another pricey tool that ends up in the basement. He sees it as teaching tool that can be used in schools to introduce kids to neuroscience and also as a way for people for people to start to become familiar with the potential of biofeedback.

To spur that process, the company will make its source code and hardware schematics available and encourage developers to hack away. For example, says Castellotti, a “motivated experimenter” might hack the Puzzlebox system so his TV would automatically change channels when his concentration level stays too low for too long. Say so long to vegging out.

Video bonus: Take at look at Chris Harrison’s most recent project, called Skinput, It involves the use of an armband with bio-acoustic sensors that can turn a body into a touch screen.

Video bonus bonus: And here’s a Puzzlebox Orbit tutorial that was part of the Kickstarter pitch for its nifty brain-controlled toy.

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