QEII Prize, boost for VR, Bat-Bot, Trump travel ban: E&T editors comment
E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
The Queen Elizabeth Prize still doesn’t attract the same kind of media attention as the Nobel Prizes, but it really ought to. For one thing, it’s worth a million pounds, which is still a very large sum of money for most of us. Even more significant, though, it rewards genuine achievements that change the way we live. This year’s winners are four engineers whose innovations made modern digital imaging possible: Eric Fossum, George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi and Michael Tompsett. Announcing their names, Lord Browne of Madingley said they had “revolutionised the way we capture and analyse visual information”, which is undoubtedly true. Not only can we view images instantly, but we can also share them around the world instantly. That’s not just a tool for narcissists; it has transformed medicine, defence, journalism and a whole host of other sectors.
When I saw this story it prompted me to take a look at the US supplier’s website. This is what I read: “The Annual Animal Shelter Gala is just hours away! Help Barbie and Nikki prepare for the party as you learn important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills. The full-color storybook manual guides your journey through seven building projects and more than seven experiments. Build a spinning closet rack, washing machine, jewelry holder, hammock, dress designer platform, shoe rack, and greenhouse with fan. Make a chromatography dress, leaf-print dress, and optical-illusion origami dresses.” I’ll accept that the lurid pink packaging is part of the overall Barbie brand, and it has always presented an excessively sexualised idea of what women ‘should’ look like, but surely all girls, not just budding engineers, need to have higher aspirations than this?
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
A universal quantum computer 100,000 times faster than current state-of-the-art technology that could solve some of the most complex problems facing mankind is slowly taking shape as an international team of scientists publish an innovative blueprint. The computer would be more powerful than any computing machine ever built on Earth. It would be able to perform enormously complex calculations in a fraction of the time needed by other computers. Where do we go from there? Will this invention be all the technology we ever need in the future?
A new wearable sensor capable of measuring the level of skin hydration could tell athletes or workers in hot environments when to replenish fluids in order to avoid dehydration. Ah, a new wearable. Another gizmo to tell us what we probably already know. They have “developed technology that allows us to track an individual’s skin hydration in real time”. To me (perhaps I’m cynical), if you’re working up a sweat, you’re probably in need of water replenishment.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
Other than Google Cardboard (aka the poor man’s virtual reality headset) I’ve only tried VR once. It was an HTC Vive demo unit set up by Nvidia to showcase the very best of what VR has to offer. The high cost of acquiring hardware that can display images with enough graphical fidelity and frame rates high enough not to make you feel sick is one of its limiting factors. For example the most complex demo that I tried actually required two graphics cards, worth 10 grand each, running in parallel to get acceptable frame rates (Nvidia told me these cards weren’t even available to consumers). Although the VR experience was undoubtedly impressive, the most glaring issue was definitely the low (ish) resolution of the display panels in the headset. Because the display was so close to my eye I could actually see the individual pixels and the gaps between them, which was about the only part of the experience that was unsatisfactory. But this new super-high-density screen could solve this final technological hurdle currently facing VR. Instead of using three coloured LEDs per pixel, which is how modern LED screens work, this uses just one, which flashes different colours at a fast enough rate to trick your eye into perceiving one, solid colour. This promising technology has been around since 2008, but a team has only just figured out how to make its power consumption low enough to actually be used in consumer products. They say that a working prototype will be ready in a year, so it will still be some time before screens using the tech hit store shelves. In the meantime, the VR experience will be somewhat limited by the resolution of screens currently available, although the technology is still in its early throws and hasn’t quite hit the mainstream so perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
I’ve always liked bats and admired the precision and elegance of their flying abilities. It seems natural, then, that researchers would choose to emulate these exceptional aerial skills in a new type of flying robot. The end of this development road may well see swarms of bat-like robots flapping their way towards us, bearing small deliveries from online retailers, which will be quite a sight. Whether they’ll only fly at dusk, skimming the tops of trees before suddenly veering off at 90 degrees in a seemingly random direction, remains to be seen.
A perfect example of form meets function. You’re an athlete, you’re pushing your body to its limits – what if your body could push back and tell you when it’s in urgent need of something, for example water? “Hey you, with the running shoes on, looking all sweaty and breathing funny. I need hydration and I need it now. Give me water and lots of it.” Instead of relying on a hunch that we need refreshment, this sensor can tell us what our bodies are running short of. Perhaps we’ll also see the inverse of this sensor, where it tells you that you’ve drunk too much water or an excess of certain other equally delicious and refreshing liquids.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a robotic bat, or Bat Bot, capable of emulating the characteristics exhibited by its real-world counterparts. The robot’s wings contain more than 40 individual joints, are constructed from a flexible film-like material, and look just a little too organic for comfort. This story definitely wins the prize for most incredible robotics story of the week – in fact, this is probably the most amazing robot I’ve seen all year (sorry Cubetto) but it really is slightly unsettling. Anyone else reminded of the creepy, super realistic Scarlet Johansen bot, aka hideous she-beast, from last spring? I’m really torn between love and hate on this one. The engineering behind the skeleton is impressive, but the result is just a little too uncanny for my liking. Bat Bot, you’re pretty cool, but please don’t come anywhere near me.
I know it’s absolutely shameful that I am hijacking the Pick of the Week’s News to publicise an in-house competition but everyone loves a freebie. Check out this review to be in with a chance of winning a lovely new copy of ‘The Industrial Revolution’ from Oxford University Press.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Politicians are often controversial for failing to do what they said they would in office, but the new US President is controversial for starting to do exactly what he said he’d do. That will win him further support among the electorate that voted for him but it is causing alarm and even fear in the technology industry of America and beyond. Almost without exception, if technology industry leaders have spoken at all it is against policies like Trump’s travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Some even funded legal efforts against the ban, to the tune of millions of dollars. There are many other developments from Trump’s first fortnight that are causing consternation, and even horror, in Silicon Valley, as Paul Dempsey explained.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Surely proposing a dramatically greener Olympics than in recent years in the same week the US has both banned travel from several countries that would be competing and announced plans to pull back on tackling climate change makes the Paris bid a shoo-in to beat Los Angeles, making this a two-horse race with Budapest? The French capital even has the advantage of sharing its name with the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. LA representatives will complain that they shouldn’t be punished for Donald Trump’s actions, but as we’ve seen with the furore around selection of cities for big sporting events, decisions can be based on much more than which bid is technically best. That said, it’s hard to argue with a Paris plan that it’s claimed will more than halve carbon dioxide emissions compared with Rio 2016 and London 2012. The Olympic movement just needs to decide what its priorities are.