MicroRobots, the repetition is a robot affair

What if the long-forecasted robot threat won’t arrive from huge machine like the X-Men Sentinels or from an extremely rational AI like Skynet BUT from microrobots doing always the same task (and maybe evolving in doing it)?

SRI International is developing microrobots, magnetically steered ants aimed to assemble electronic components or build small structures. These dark one-centimeter robots can only move on specific pattern of previously-built electronic circuits and have only a small wire arm on the top but they have already proven themselves building a 30 cm-long structure made of carbon rods and LED (which has been used by the team as a lab’s Christmas tree.

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In order to build this simple structure, four commands were given to the microrobots. The first is to push a level in order to release a carbon rod, the second one is to pick up the toothpick, then another robot applies the glue to the structure and the fourth one presses the carbon rod, sticking it to the structure. What’s more the software moving the robots can also move the platform in which they are operating in order to repeat the action in another surface.

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What’s interesting in this project is that the microrobots can be reprogrammed to operate a new task, making them extremely efficient in the conventional mass production (not like big industrial robots that, once done their task, are done and must be replaced with new machineries.

At the moment, the technology is still at its embryonic stage but the fact that they are reprogrammable, their simplicity and that they can work in really big teams for sure will be the beginning of the real potential of the microrobotics.

…and no, they cannot evolve like a Gibson’s AI. For a while more the human race won’t be threatened by super-intelligent robots.

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Station Energy. Bringing cheap electricity to whom is missing it.

Sometimes is better to start from scratch with a simple idea and low margins. Combine these two points with an interest for Africa, development and you’ll discover a brilliant startup called “Station Energy“.

Conceived by a young French entrepreneur, Station Energy is aimed to bring electricity to African villages which, for many reasons,  are lacking of it. If we consider the numbers, all over the world there are 1.6 billion people living without electricity (almost a quarter of humanity) and 547Millions of them are living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The idea of Alexandre Castel and his two associated is springing from the fact that a medium Sub-saharan family is spending almost 10€/month on expensive and inefficient solutions like candles, petrol lamps and one-use-only batteries. Station Energy proposes them an efficient, rechargeable and more durable solution.

This solution comprehends an “Energy Station” which produces electric energy thanks to solar panels and small wind systems. This energy is distributed to privated and shops in the villages stocked in reusable batteries. The electricity is brought to the villages in security carters to the villagers which only need to exchange their old empty batteries with fully charged ones. The price is extremely cheap (approximately 0.5€ for lightning a three stores house for a week) but the price of the battery and the tension regulator is much higher (up to 1000€, price which rarely an African family can afford).

That’s where another great idea comes in. Station Energy recently made a partnership with MicroCred (a French company created in 2005 which helps developing countries thanks to microcredit solutions). Thanks to this alliance, the kits are proposed in leasing and, in order to avoid dishonored payments, they are provided of a Sim Card. It allows the company to cut-down the kits if the clients are not paying their debts. What’s more, in the future, this partnership should take advantage of the worldwide presence of MicroCred.

At the moment the company is well implanted in Senegal and Ivory Coast and is creating a dossier to present to the European Union, pledging for fundings (and I would be happy that my tax money could be used for this kind of innovative projects), in order to open 50 “Solar Shops” in Hivory Coast.

Finally, in order to understand the real impact of this startup, on January the 6th, the numbers are*:

  • 13 franchises in  Senegal
  • 2 shop selling frozen goods equipped with SA solar systems
  • 10 distributors in Ivory Coast and (soon) the same number in  Burkina Faso
  •  And a 2014 forecast of 1,5M€ revenues (5 times more compared to 2013)

*as reported in the newspaper LeMonde

Peek Vision. Simplifying Eye Care Around the Globe.

Alike wealth distribution, eye care is widespread in the rich countries while its impact is greatly underestimated in the third world ones. Around the World, almost 285 million people are blind or visually impaired and the 80% of them could be avoided or healed.

The real issue is the availability of professional ophthalmologists in poor countries. That’s why the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is developing and testing a mobile application: Peek.

The aim of the application is to replace the expensive medical equipment with an application that scans the ocular bulb, operating a complete checkup. Thanks to Peek, cataract, myopias and many other ocular illnesses could be easily detected. Thanks to the camera, the itinerant doctor (n.b. not a specialist doctor) could check how the eyes are reacting to particular stimuli, archive the data linked to the patient and geo-localise him.

The application has been already tested in Kenya and in Antarctica and the team is making the last tests to ensure that the application is precise enough for medical standards.

 

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Many applications have been created in order to ask professional questions to doctors and specialists but Peek is one the few applications that have the potential to substitute completely the doctor for the daily checkups (another one that comes up to my mind is Propeller, a device helping tracking asthma and COPD level, but you’ll still need a device that needs to be sync with the mobile application). Let’s just hope that application like this one will widespread and start to be available both in poor countries and rich ones. They could allow us to save us hundreds of Euros and hours reducing the number of visiting and the waiting lists at the hospitals (enabling us to go to the doctor only for specialist visits).

Inspirational websites for the perfect holidays

A bit late but still in time for holidays. Especially if you are waiting for the end of the touristic season and waiting for the right time to leave quietly. But how to organize the perfect holidays? We all know that the golden times of the tour operators and touristic agencies is done. Everyone, also the generation X, looks for an accommodation online BUT we, generation YZ, are looking for something new. This novelty is for an online travel agent, something that helps us to focus on one of the dozens of travel opportunities around the world. For us, already bored of the monsters HipMunk, Airbnb, Homeaway, there is a bunch of startups which, thanks to the awesome design and always growing content, make us travel from the moment in which we open the websites. My personal selection among a dozen of awesome startups, is:

Peek:

Between a tour guide and a travel agency, Peek proposes great activities and high-quality tours to discover the cities like a local. The main problem to visit a city are the touristic tours. Once you get at the destination and you see the classic museum and the “insolit activities” proposed in the travel guides, you painfully discover that everyone is assaulting every corner of your destination. That’s exactly at this point that Peek saves you. It shows the user a wide range of activities, from food tours to insolit cultural activities that allow you to live the city like a real local. The good responsive design and the beautiful interface helps you and make you choose exactly what you are looking for.

Living in Paris I checked the Parisian activities and that’s just great.

Peek

Triptease:

I consider reviews the greatest invention of the Internet Age (or, from another point of view, its natural consequence) . And I love storytelling. And great design. Triptease mixes these three components creating a perfect inspirational website to explore the world and its beauties. It allows the users to easily write magnificent reviews with a nice font and design and the others to profit of their stories, get inspired and leave their own reviews when they come back from their vacations. Of course the photos are the central component of the reviews (as they are in the everyday life) but that’s not all. The possibility to quick comment, like, share and create collections make Triptease one of my favourite Travel websites.

Triptease

Zaptravel:

As I said before, physical travel agencies are dead. Technology helped us in replacing them with a smart website which asks us where we want to go and gives us the possibility to specify the details modifying the sentence ” Show me hiking  deals to anywhere for any duration traveling next three months. My budget is unlimited and I’d like to sleep in 3-4 star hotels“.  Thanks to this semantic search engine, it browses among several providers looking for the best prices. The concept works since when we look for an holiday, we spend the most of the times comparing prices. Zaptravel helps us in doing so with a really good usability and epurated design.

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Planet Labs. Opensourcing Earth Images

Everyone loves to watch pictures of the Earth from Space. In particular, many small companies and associations would like to get these pictures for cheap prices but they cannot afford to allocate a budget for obtaining them. Planet Labs will make these dreams true from 2014 launching its own fleet of low-cost but high resolution imaging satellites. As the company points out, everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track frequent changes to any place on the planet — a frequency and coverage greater than ever seen before. Thanks to this technology, it will be easier to monitor wildlife, desertification, glaciers retreat and many other natural phenomenon.

Nowadays, there are a good number of private and governmental satellites that are screening the Earth. The most precise ones are belonging to private companies and are especially used for defence or commercial purposes. The technology they use allows them to focus on special areas but the demand means that they take a lot of time before getting the pictures and the cost will be quite high. The governmental ones are taking pictures in regular bases but still not too often (once per month) and the resolution is really low, showing images dozens or hundreds metres far from the surface. So, at the moment, the situation is stuck. The first ones wouldn’t lend their images for non-commercial (or, worst, environmental) purposes, while the second ones are not provided in regular basis. That’s exactly the situation in which that Planet Labs could find its niche.

This Startup, founded in 2012 by 3 ex NASA scientists, has risen $13M from Venture Capitalists (DFJ, Capricorn, OATV, Founders Fund Angel, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective and First Round Capital) in order to launch the World’s largest fleet of imaging satellites called Dove by Q1 2014.

The first two Doves (Dove 1 and Dove 2) have been launched in April and the demonstration has been effective. The data and images provided were good quality, the key technology has been validated and the resolution was as high as expected. The next images will be provided early next year, after the launch of the complete fleet.

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But Planet Labs is not the only company launching its own fleet of satellites for entering the Earth-screening market. Skybox Imaging will launch a fleet of at least 24 satellites. I believe this situation will be interesting and the competition will allow the creation of more and more precise satellites which, hopefully, will help to monitor our surface and our wildlife.

RIOT. Managing a protest in a pixelised reality

The global riots are spreading everywhere since winter 2010. From Tunisie to Egypt, from Wall Street to Syria, everyone is revolting against a capitalistic and corrupted system0. Thanks to the italians (national proud) Leonard Menchiari, ex Valve editor & cinematographer and Mattia Traverso, a talentuos game designer, we can participate and manage a virtual protest. And in doing so, we are not phisically exposed to the violence of the police and the army (but after this tutorial we could organise one in our city). Splendid!

RIOT has been elaborated as a protest simulator in which the player can pick a side: the rioters finghting aginst a world of injustice or the cops following the orders of the corporations and annichilating the violent crowd. But the story is judging no one. the aim of the game is creating a “playable documentary” (quoting Menchiari in his interview at the Verge)explaining how the different sides are acting and understanding their organisation and logistics.

What would be interesting to see in this game will be the amount of reality that the designers are putting in the game. Since “part of the money raised through crowdfunding will go towards travel expenses, so that the team can document and experience live riots going on in Italy, Greece, Egypt“, I expect that they will reproduce (or be strongly influenced from) a factual reality in order to make the players feel the vibe of a real protest and not just assist without power to a video on Youtube.

An inseparable characteristic of the game is the beautiful Pixel Art with which the game is being presented. It is the trademark of the new wave of Indie games (Like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery: just to mention a superb example).

The Game has been remarked since its first days on IndieGoGo, on which it easily reached the modest goal and greenlighed by the Steam community.  The developers are preparing a multiplatform publication. as written on IndiGogofrom the IndieGoGo campaign and will be released on PC, Mac, iOS, Android and OUYA.

The game isn’t ready yet and the developers haven’t announced any release date (luckily, for the end of the year) but, personally, I am excited to try this game out fighting brutally for your rights or trying to calm the violent crowd down for the sake of the nation(or the interests of the corporations).

FLowboard: the presentations to the next level

Until last year there was desktop and laptop computer to create presentation. From this year on they’ll be created on tablets (at least, for the moment is just iPad). Before there was Powerpoint, then Prezi and Keynote, now there is Flowboard.

Flowboard

Flowboard, which is recent but it has already released the 1.1 update, is trying to be the best tool for interactive storytelling. The founder, Brent Brookler has been recently interviewed by techcrunch and, thanks to a simple presentation, explains how simple is the approach to the app and how epurates and simple is the design of this free app.

What he did was simple: he chose a template available on the app, he imported some media and manipulated the uploaded object thanks to touchscreen. Then he showed that there is the possibility to, easily, zoom on a specific object in order to deepen the presentations making it more detailed and more focused. The result looks great on the tablet but it could be imported on desktop and mobile having it available at full compatibility on every device.

Brookler said that they are not trying to compete with power point since they don’t have charts or bullets because they are more focused on storytelling.

What I believe is that, nowadays, storytelling is replacing charts (which are useful in attachments and in internal communication but not anymore in clent and external presentations). Of course we could use power point, prezi or Keynote, which have always revealed to be a perfect tool, but if we really want to amaze the attenders we want to have our presentation made with flowboard.

Here you can find the presentation on Techcrunch.