Aug 21 2012

Armor Cloth: “Utility Fog” Without The Need For Nano


About twenty years ago, way back when I was taking my courses in electronic repair, I got interested in MEMs, Micro Electro-Mechanical devices. They were at a very early stage then, barely even out of the lab, but the potential was so enormous that I spent considerable time thinking about ways that they could be used to create unbelievable amounts of change in our daily lives without ever invoking nanotechnology. I really wish I still had all the notes I wrote down, but sadly they got lost over the course of a couple of hard drive crashes and moves.

I’ve already introduced two of the concepts I had contemplated on H+ magazine and here on Acceler8or —I discussed the Camera/Display MEMs in my article on Quantum Dots, and cloth composed of synthetic muscle fibers in my article on “dirty” uses for technology. These are two of the multiple items I collectively called “Active cloths” because they were all basically types of cloth that did something rather than merely set there. “Display cloth” and “Muscle cloth” were the simplest of the four, followed by “Cling cloth” which used static fields like a Gecko’s foot to cling to any surface, and the last and most complex, “Armor Cloth.”

Armor cloth was inspired by several Sci-fi novels that described “spacesuits” that could harden on impact to prevent penetration of blades or projectiles, then return to cloth-like softness. My concept revolved around cubical MEMS, each about a micron on a side, joined to each other by telescoping links — essentially ball joints at the ends of a shaft that could extend about 3 microns or collapse to less than one. This would allow each cube to connect to six other cubes in a network that would allow the entire structure to act like cloth on a human scale. As I planned to make these cubes out of carbon, as well as the shafts connecting them, it seemed reasonable to assume nearly diamond-like strength for any individual unit, and with multiple layers of thickness, an overall toughness likely to withstand impacts sufficient to protect an individual from most forms of combat weaponry short of anti-tank rounds. Under normal circumstances, the “blocks” would use small magnetic fields to repel one another and remain extended, giving the cloth-like effect. However, at the moment of impact, these fields would reverse, causing the “links” to collapse as each cube snapped against their neighbors, creating a “solid”. As I had oriented these blocks to be in a diagonal mesh with the corners pointed outwards, the impact would push the outer layer of blocks against their neighbors in a manner that would divert the force along the cloth rather than through it, allowing the wearer of such cloth to avoid the majority of impact, and prevent damage. While Shear-Thickening Fluids can perform similarly, the advantage to armor cloth is it’s a controllable process. A tiny microprocessor in each cube would be able to control the magnetic fields that either repulse or attract each neighbor, and the strength of those fields. As each cube could identify where it was in the grid, such control would allow a given item composed of armor cloth to be as hard or as flexible as it was programmed to be, even allowing different regions of the same cloth to have different properties.

In other words, this is the “cloth” that Batman is using in his new cloak in the Christian Bale movies. Cloth with a controllable hardness could allow for such things as tables that are strong enough to support an elephant, but that collapse to the hardness of rubber when you trip and crash face first into it. Or a “parachute” that can snap out into a pair of wings like Batman’s cape. I had several hundred pages of concepts that use the properties of armor cloth, from children’s “safe furniture” to full body “Ironman” armor suits designed to protect police and firefighters in dangerous environments and even combat armor for troops. In fact, one of the items I lost is my copy of the letter I sent to the Army’s research division working on combat suits outlining the concept.

The point is that by using armor cloth, you could do some very radical things. Hollow shells of cloth could act like entire pieces of furniture, be it an ottoman or a desk. My wings could be composed entirely of armor cloth, the “arms” programmed to mimic bone, with the membranes as pliable as rubber. Toss in some “muscle cloth” to enable me to control them like wings and, viola, lightweight succubus wings that I can collapse down when not in use.

Now, I’m sure some of you more astute readers will likely realize that “Armor Cloth” is merely a simplified form of “Utility Fog” at the micro scale rather than the nano scale. In other words, it’s a form of Claytronics or Programmable Matter. And I’m sure that many of you are also dismissing this concept as “impossible” or “wishful thinking”. Don’t worry, I’ve been getting that response for nearly 20 years.

Pity is that you are not merely wrong, but in denial. In fact, MIT is already pretty far along in making it a reality. Aside from the telescoping arms connecting each “block”, their “Smart Sand” is virtually identical to the “Armor Cloth” concept. Each block connects to every other block via controlled magnetic fields. Each has a tiny computer able to determine its place in the whole and vary its “magneticness” according to a program. And they can assume any shape that can be broken down into a 3D grid.

Smart Sand. It might be the size of pebbles now, but the concept has been proven, and it’s only a matter of time until it gets smaller. Before very many more years have passed, we might be seeing thousands of products whose “existence” consists of nothing more than a computer file that tells a pile of “Smart Sand” what shape to assume and what properties to have.

So, if I were you, I’d get busy playing Minecraft. Those are going to be some valuable jobs skills in the near future.

Apr 18 2012

Google Glasses Are Ugly But Important



They are ugly. They are definitely not “cutting edge” hardware. They are so very limited in their “usability”, but none of that really matters. They will still likely replace your current smartphone’s interface over the next five years. They are the “Google Glasses” and you should probably get used to seeing people wearing them.

Why? Because despite their rather primitive state at present, they fulfill a need, and Google is betting that its partners in the android market will find ways to exploit that need. It’s a risk, a search engine company stepping into the manufacturing market, but it’s one they took before and it paid off in spades.

And yes, I am referring to the Google Phone, and despite what you might think, it was one of the single most successful “failures” in history. You see, Google never had any intention of the phone actually being a “success.” It had only one purpose alone and it succeeded brilliantly. Almost overnight, Google shattered the iPhone monopoly on smartphones, and it has been steadily taking that captive market away from them since. That was its sole purpose. In fact, they could have given the phones away and had an even huger success, but they still turned the market on its ear by blowing a hole in Apple’s walled garden that was bigger than what the orcs did to Helm’s Deep. Without Google’s “stupid risk” and “utter failure”, the massive Android market place would not exist.

In much the same way, Google has been slowly building towards a long term goal I believe they have been pursuing for more than a decade. With the Google glasses reveal, I am more certain than ever that Google’s aim is the creation of the “Mirrorworld” I have written about in the past.. They already have an overwhelming majority of the necessary technical hurdles surpassed with the various software packages they have released, such as Google Earth, Google maps, their suite of 3d model building software, and sundry other projects, such as Streetview. I discussed a lot of this in the very first set of articles I wrote for H+ magazine, Virtualization part 1, part 2, and part 3, and this latest glimpse into Google’s plans is simply another piece of the puzzle being put in place.

And you will want to use these glasses. It’s going to look like a perfect solution to a rather large problem, texting while driving. Combined with speech to text apps, these glasses would offer perfect hand’s free texting, not to mention cellular calls. Toss in a GPS map overlay app, and you have a simple way to use Google glasses as a HUD. No more taking your eyes off the road for long seconds to look at the GPS. No fumbling with the phone while driving. No scrunching your neck to try and hold a phone to your ear. With the increasing ability to manufacture displays of nearly any size on flexible plastic, and advances in making plastic electronics, it’s pretty reasonable to expect that in a few years, the cost of a pair of VR lenses with all of the capabilities I described in my article on Quantum Dots will likely fall below the cost of a current smartphone, while far exceeding them in processing power and abilities. This is the gamble Google is taking. It is betting that just like the Google Phone, Google Glasses will create the market. Just the proof that Google is working on VR lenses will inspire other manufactures to enter the market with their own offerings, and push the envelope on the underlying technology.

And Google will be right there, already waiting with dozens of tools and offerings to make those manufacturers jobs easier. And maybe people will talk about how Google had another miserable failure.