Stuff Innovators 2014: Life


Life, circa 2016: you’ll be woken by the gentle singing of your domestic robot, who’ll bring you breakfast (Urgh! Space rations again!) then beam the news headlines directly into your brain. Your house will transform itself around you, becoming first a hovercar to drive you to work, then your office itself. Your virtual PA will greet you, then… alright, so maybe 2016 is a bit optimistic. But 2017? You bet.

Whatever. We may not be driving hovercars quite as soon as 2015, but we will be doing plenty of other ridiculously cool things which would’ve seemed fanciful even a few years ago. From smartwatches to 3D printers, daily life is changing at a dizzying pace. And we have these people to thank for that.

stuff-innovators-2014-life-mainCREATING SOCIABLE ROBOTS

Cynthia Breazeal, MIT’s Personal Robots group

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“The day I started my doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Breazeal tells us, “was the same day NASA landed the Sojourner robot on Mars. I knew we were sending robots into oceans and volcanoes and space, but where were they in the human environment?”

In looking for the answer, she created a field called social robotics, and it’s one she says will bring about the next big tech revolution.

“Computers used to be very expensive, and only a few specially trained people knew how to use them, until someone asked: ‘What would it mean to have one of these on every desk, in every home?’” The robotic answer, says Breazeal, is Jibo.

“Robots are so different to all the slabs and boxes we use today. They experience the world around us, and they push all kinds of psychological buttons in us. At MIT, we’ve found again and again that people are more successful at achieving their goals when they’re using a robot rather than a screen.”

Jibo, she believes, “will connect you and co-ordinate you in your family life. It’s like having someone helping you, rather than having a tool that you use. Your smartphone is a camera – Jibo is a cameraman. It’s not an individual device, it’s a family hub.

“It’s a new kind of assistant. It doesn’t need to be able to pick things up, or walk up and down stairs – it’s a humanised interface for all your other personal technologies. It’s logical – it’s what happens beyond screens.”

It seems the internet agrees: at the time of printing, Jibo’s Indiegogo campaign had met its goal 20 times over. Look out for this little guy (and his inventor) in December 2015. So… this month, then.


Cortana, Windows Phone

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Sometimes it feels like the world could do with a real-life version of Halo’s Master Chief, but for now the closest we’re going to get is Cortana. Named after and voiced by John-117’s ever-present AI helper from the multi-million- selling Xbox games, Cortana is Windows Phone’s answer to Siri or Google Now – with a little extra added on top.

As well as simple web searches and most standard phone functions, Cortana can attach reminders to other actions, so next time you go to phone your mum Cortana will nudge you to politely ask about the cat. Over time she’ll learn more about you, adding details to a ‘notebook’ full of your vitals that she’ll use to offer more targeted help. With the Xbox One and Windows 8 (or 10) the obvious next steps for Cortana, expect to hear her voice a lot more in the future.


Ren Ng, Lytro Illum

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It’s one thing to build a new camera, but Ren and his team at Lytro are after a more ambitious prize: a new kind of photography.

Since the early 19th century, every photograph has been a flat, passive print. Lytro pictures are not meant to be printed – they’re active digital images that you can refocus or change the perspective of while you’re viewing them.

The engineering that has gone into the Illum is fiendishly complex – that large, versatile 30-250mm f/2 lens contains thousands of microlenses that capture not just light, but which direction the light’s coming from, allowing the processor to build an image in a process called ‘computational photography’ (a phrase that makes you 8% more of a geek just by saying it).

It’s early days for Lytro, but this could be the most important camera since the Box Brownie.


Emily Brooke, Blaze Laserlight

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As role models go, Batman isn’t a bad one. As far as we know, Emily Brooke of Blaze doesn’t dress up in a cape in the evenings and take to the streets to fight crime, but she has mimicked the Dark Knight’s bat signal for the Laserlight. It looks pretty much like any other bike light – albeit one encased in aluminium – but turn it on and it also projects a laser on to the road five metres in front of your bike, forming a green bicycle shape instead of Batman’s logo.

As 79% of collisions with cars occur when a driver turns across an unseen cyclist, the Laserlight increases their visibility. The battery’s smart too. It won’t turn on unless it’s in the special bracket, and when it’s nearly dead it’ll switch to a low-energy mode that lasts four hours, so you’ll never be stranded miles from home without lights.


Tony Fadell, Nest

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Fadell took one of the most under-exploited domestic products – the thermostat – and made it exciting (and himself rich in the process). He now promises to do the same with other household gadgets, leaving designers kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

Entrepreneur Fadell made his name at Apple, where he was a key member of the team that developed the iPod. He later founded Nest Labs with the somewhat unlikely aim of doing for thermostats and smoke detectors what the MP3 player did for music.

Nest’s products are easy to use and remember your preferences, turning the heating down when you’re not at home and learning how long it takes to reach your preferred temperature, so it can then turn it up again when you’re on your way back, thereby saving money on fuel bills.


Jim Wicks, Motorola

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On the, er, face of it, making a watch round doesn’t seem that revolutionary. But when Motorola unveiled its circular Moto 360 it was distinct in a world of square-faced smartwatches, all informed by the phones they were designed to work with, rather than the timekeepers they were replacing.

But Moto’s first Android Wear device took the opposite approach. Lead designer Jim Wicks said: “Time has always been represented by a circle, from the sundial to the pocket watch, and 85% of watches sold in the world are round; we didn’t want to make consumers change for this tech.”

The Moto 360 has proved that smartwatches can be beautiful, sharing equal amounts of DNA with high-end timepieces as well as the phone in your pocket. And it’s still only generation one…


Kathryn Parsons, Decoded

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If you want to be mega-rich these days there’s no point in trying to become a rock star – you’re better off learning how to code and writing something to sell to Facebook for $400bn.

Kathryn Parsons’ Decoded can help you with the first bit, running courses to teach you all you need to know in a single day. It’s too bad there’s no equivalent course to deal with the second bit, really.


Hatem Zeine, Cota by Ossia

CotaIn a few years’ time, your gadgets won’t need to plug into the wall. They’ll get their energy like they get their information – from a wireless router. In cafes and libraries and train stations, Hatem Zeine’s crafty Cota boxes will feed power through the air to any gadget within range, and your battery will never run out. Well, until you go camping, but hotels are much nicer anyway.


Agamemnon Otero, Repowering London

Solar LondonAside from blowing ourselves up or being trampled on by a planet-sized space puppy, the biggest threat to Earth is climate change. Repowering London wants to get local communities using renewable energy sources so they can limit their impact on the environment. Either that or they want to develop a new kind of solar-powered weapon to ward off that intergalactic canine menace. One or the other.


Steve Schell, New matter

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In an attempt to actually make 3D printing mainstream, Steve Schell and New Matter have created the Mod-T, a $280 Wi-Fi 3D printer. The Wi-Fi’s there so you can access and operate it easily from a browser or phone, but the real strength is the cost. At that price, it’s within reach of almost anyone who fancies messing about with micro-manufacturing while they catch up on their favourite series.


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