Wi-Fi in the Sky
Innovation: Wireless broadband from blimps and gliders
Location: York, England
David Grace has spent six years trying to convince the world that the future of wireless technology relies on blimps. Don't laugh. The world is starting to listen.
Grace is lead scientist at Capanina, a research consortium that has set out to prove that high-altitude platforms (HAPs)—blimps and gliders cruising in the stratosphere—can deliver wireless broadband access anywhere in the world. "The first type of missions will be disaster relief," he says. "Short-term work over areas hit by tsunamis, earthquakes, or other natural disasters." Ultimately, though, HAPs could provide wireless access to places with no existing infrastructure, such as rural communities and underdeveloped nations.
Capanina claims that HAPs cost one-tenth as much as satellites and could support 1,000 times as many users. Flying above the weather, HAPs could be powered by solar cells and left in the air almost indefinitely, occasionally returning to earth for updates and maintenance. Are Grace and his colleagues dreaming? In August, Capanina successfully tested the concept in Sweden, sending data 37 miles.
No Dryer Needed
Innovation: Waterless, detergentless washing machine
Available: 2008, if they're lucky
Wendy Chua and Gabriel Tan, industrial-design students at the National University of Singapore, share a dark vision of laundry yet to come. "We hypothesized a future where we lead extremely fast-paced and potentially stressful lives," says Chua. "[Where we] have an obsession with hygiene and personal well-being [and] face a water-scarce earth."
Their solution: Airwash, a waterless, detergentless washing machine that uses negative ions to clean clothes. The device scours dirty duds with high-pressure blasts of charged particles. (Used in air purifiers, negative ions are known for their ability to clump dirt and bacteria.) Add some suction, a HEPA filter, and a hint of antibacterial deodorant, and you've got clothes that are deep-down clean—and no ring around the collar.
Or at least you've got a sleek prototype. Designed to look like a waterfall (nature's negative ion generator), the Airwash is currently no more than a breezy fantasy—and the winner of Electrolux's Design Lab Award from among 3,000 student entries last fall. Its commercial prospects? "Almost all the technology is available today, with [some] needing more research and development," says Chua. "We believe the challenge lies in putting all this technology together." In other words, physics isn't an issue, but money might be.
Genetics on the Fly
Innovation: Rapid DNA testing
Location: Rochester, New York
Available: Over the next five years
CSI and Jerry Springer would have us believe that DNA is good for answering only two questions: "Is that the bad guy?" and "Who's the real father?" But scientists may soon use DNA tests to rapidly identify airborne infectious agents, diagnose viruses, and even peer into our future.
Thermal Gradient, a startup in upstate New York, has designed a device that cuts the time required to perform a test by 80%—to less than 15 minutes—by repeatedly heating and cooling a sample to replicate the DNA. What's so important that it can't wait another hour and 15 minutes? Ask the Department of Homeland Security, which is working with Thermal Gradient to develop a system that would allow police officers to quickly distinguish a dangerous substance like anthrax from any other suspicious white powder.
Physicians might also use the technology to test for HIV or hepatitis by scanning patients' blood on a molecular level rather than checking blood samples for antibodies. Thermal Gradient's device—no bigger than the fingernail on your pinkie—costs only about a dollar to produce. That's cheap enough to make possible incredibly sensitive, yet affordable, blood analyzers—all-in-one machines that could perform dozens of simultaneous molecular blood tests. Such technology could identify minor mutations in our DNA, giving early warning if our genetic code holds a propensity for cancer or Alzheimer's.
The Soul of a Sensitive Machine
Innovation: Robotic "skin"
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Takao Someya is the man who would make machines feel. A pioneer in the field of artificial skin, he has spent years working with others at the University of Tokyo to create stretchable pressure- and temperature-sensitive networks. Also called "e-skin," they're flexible enough to be wrapped around a pencil, making them an ideal material for robot fingers.
"Robots working at home definitely require touch sensitivity," says Someya. "For example, to move a disabled person, they must gently lift him or her up with a sophisticated touch." In 2004, the Tokyo team unveiled "skin" capable of feeling pressure. Last August, it added temperature sensitivity. Built from organic transistors using chains of carbon atoms, Someya's networks can sense temperatures between 80 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure as little as one ounce per square centimeter. One possible application: robotic carpeting. "A pressure-sensitive carpet could distinguish between the footprints of a stranger and those of your family," Someya notes.
A Light Touch
Innovation: Slower light
Location: Lausanne, Switzerland
While today's fiber-optic cables can transmit data at 186,000 miles per second, the actual flow is limited to a fraction of that speed by electrical routers that convert light into a much slower electrical signal. It's like waiting for stoplights on the autobahn.
Luc Thévenaz, a researcher at the école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, wondered: Why not slow the flow of light particles in a fiber-optic cable by blasting light from the opposite direction? His discovery, "stimulated Brillouin scattering," could allow us to process information many times faster by slowing light to a quarter of its natural speed. Slower light could be precisely timed, avoiding the need for electrical timing switches that drain energy by converting light. The result: an efficient network of all-optical routers.
Stop and Smell the Coupons
Innovation: Scented plastic
Location: Linden, New Jersey
"Shopping cart handles? Bottle caps? Promotional key chains? The opportunities are endless!" That's Adam Bell, CEO of Rotuba Extruders, considering the future of Auracell, his company's dynamic plastic that can take on any shape and smell. "Fragrances are making a major impact right now by adding a sensory dimension to purchasing."
In November, News America Marketing, a division of News Corp., began installing fruit-punch-scented coupon dispensers in grocery stores to promote Children's Motrin. And in January, Home Depot started selling Auracell-based scent clips for air purifiers. Bell says Rotuba has more than 100 such projects currently in the works, from cologne-infused golf tees to toys and mobile phones.
Innovation: Nanotube sheets
Location: Dallas, Texas
Available: First applications in 2008
The promise of nanomaterials has long exceeded our ability to actually make the stuff—which is why technology developed by scientists at the University of Texas, Dallas, could represent a major commercial breakthrough. Ray Baughman and his colleagues have figured out how to make sheets of carbon nanotubes—a material tougher than steel that can conduct electricity, emit light, radiate heat, and catch radio waves.
To make the sheets, the Texas team grew miniature fields of nanotubes—"like bamboo trees." By pulling on one side of the field, the scientists were able to remove the entire field in one uniform sheet. Because the sheets collapse and stretch as they're pulled, just one centimeter length of the original field yields up to three meters of sheet. "This material is a gift from nature," Baughman exclaims. His enthusiasm is proving contagious: In the months since the team published its findings, executives from automotive, electronics, chemicals, and other industries have come calling. "Commercializing this technology," Baughman says, "is getting a lot of people excited."
Drugs From the Coop
Innovation: Monoclonal antibodies produced in chicken eggs
Location: Burlingame, California
Available: As soon as 18 months
Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), a class of disease-fighting proteins that target specific antigens on the molecular level, allow doctors to diagnose and treat everything from cancers and viruses to cardiovascular disease and arthritis. That's why the market for mAbs is expected to double—to $30 billion—by 2010.
But mAbs, which derive from rather esoteric materials (Chinese hamster ovaries, for instance), are also expensive. "MAbs are complex proteins that need to be made in a living system," explains Robert Etches, vice president of research at California-based Origen Therapeutics. "Mass manufacturing is a time-consuming proposition."
Now Origen has discovered a low-tech method using chicken eggs. It adds genetic material to stem cells in new chicken embryos, which are then stabilized in surrogate eggs. Once the birds hatch and reach maturity, they become feathered factories, laying eggs with mAbs 10 to 100 times the potency of those produced in cell-culture labs.
Will big pharma buy in? Scientists have used eggs for decades to produce flu vaccines. Plus, egg-incubated mAbs cost 50% less than those from labs.
The Remote-Control You
Innovation: Galvanic vestibular stimulation
Location: Atsugi, Japan
Available: Whenever they tell us
Care for a little depolarization of your eighth cranial nerve? In August, Japan's NTT revealed it has been investigating the effects of applying a modest electrical current to the inner ear. Known as galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS), the "novel sensation interface," NTT says, could save lives—or at least make video games more realistic.
Weak doses of electricity cause small hairs in the inner ear to act in strange ways, basically recalibrating your equilibrium without your permission. Zap the left ear and you'll feel drawn to your left. Ditto for the other side. Mix the two just so, and you'll get the impression you're executing a loop in a jet. At last August's SIGGRAPH 2005 conference, NTT researchers fitted volunteers with a GVS-equipped headset, then guided them around via remote control. That drew criticism from those who envisioned GVS being used in all sorts of Orwellian ways. But Taro Maeda, the program's lead researcher, is optimistic about commercial applications: GVS, he says, could be used to unconsciously guide commuters out of the way of accidents or traffic jams. GVS-synced music, he says, is another area of interest.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.