Flying cars and heated pants: Shouldn't we be able to buy this stuff by now?
Jet packs! Motors that run for ever! Centrally heated pants! We've been promised these wonders, and many more, for ages. So what's the hold-up?
Sunday 25 October 2009
As any Chelsea fan will attest, Russian billionaires can make dreams come true. Likewise, last September, the Californian company Moller International unveiled a flying car to help a "wealthy foreign businessman" commute between his country home and Moscow. The "autovolantor" is a two-passenger car designed to lift off vertically from a traffic-jammed street and fly at 150mph for 15 minutes. It's totally impractical, thoroughly illegal to drive on public roads, and incredibly sexy.
Less sexy, but slightly more practical, is the Terrafugia Transition, a two-seater vehicular mutant developed by former Nasa engineers and expected to hit showrooms next year. Less a flying car than a road-worthy plane, the Transition unfolds its wings in 15 seconds, can fly up to 500 miles on a single tank of petrol, and will retail at £132,000.
Looking at the available options, you have to wonder whether personal flight is a realistic aspiration for the masses. Perhaps we should simply hope for cheap private planes. With that in mind, the Cirrus Jet, a budget seven-seater private plane, is due to be delivered to its 400 pre-order customers in 2011. It needs a run-up of only 850 metres to take off, and cruises at 350mph. Sadly, Cirrus recently hiked the asking price to £880,000.
When the 60th birthday celebrations of the People's Republic of China were threatened by rainclouds over Beijing last month, the country's rainmakers swung into action. China has the world's biggest rain-creation set-up, and with 18 cloud-seeding aircraft and 48 fog-dispersal vehicles, this was its biggest operation yet – bigger even than that prior to the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when more than 1,100 rain-dispersal rockets were used to precipitate precipitation before it reached the capital.
The rockets contain silver iodide particles which attract water vapour, creating ice crystals that fall as snow before melting into rain – leaving skies elsewhere blue. Rain-making technology has been around for decades, though its efficacy remains a matter of dispute. Now, scientists are hoping to manipulate the weather in other ways.
In September, the Royal Society produced a report advocating the advancement of "geo-engineering". Among their suggestions were earth-sized sunglasses, forests of artificial trees to suck up excess CO2 and a fleet of unmanned yachts that could spray a fine mist of seawater into the air to create not rain, but reflective cloud cover to bounce the sun's rays away from the Earth's surface and slow down global warming.
Star Trek fans could be forgiven for wondering why we're not all wearing figure-hugging jump suits with in-built temperature control by now. It seems the closest we've come to "smart" clothing is Global Hypercolor: those T-shirts that went pink when you got hot, and were hip for about five minutes in 1992.
Yet textile design, says chemical engineer Dr Raymond Oliver – also a senior research fellow at the Royal College of Art – has come on considerably since then. "There are already materials that can make you cool or warm, but at present they don't conform to high-quality aesthetics, which will stop people buying the clothes in the high street.
"But in the next five years, we'll see materials in interior design that are smart enough to give a carpet the memory to, say, change the climate in the room to suit your healthcare needs, or release a menthol that helps asthma sufferers." He adds that it will take three to five years more before smart clothing arrives; not only climate-controlled underwear, but garments able to pick up wi-fi signals and scavenge electricity remotely – powering fragrance-enhanced blouses, musical trousers, even T-shirts with cinema-quality moving images. And in 10 to 15 years, our outfits will respond to our emotions – if you're happy and you know it... so will we.
Forget the Kindle coming to Britain. The Apple Tablet, aka the iPad, is the most hotly anticipated consumer technology launch of the next 12 months – if it actually exists. Ever since the launch of the iPhone, speculation has been rife that the ultra-secretive Apple is developing a larger touchscreen device that will leave Amazon's e-reader in the dust.
"It is first and foremost going to be Apple's re-imagining of the book, like the Kindle, but far more forward-thinking," says Jeremy Horwitz, the editor-in-chief of iLounge, an independent blog devoted to Apple news. "There is a large market for a device that can carry a library of print content, but also display video and interactive media content. Touchscreen technology and a colour screen will make it intuitive, powerful, and beautiful in a way other e-readers have never been."
With an iPhone-style operating system, a 10-inch colour screen, pin-sharp resolution and 3G capability, the Tablet, it's anticipated, will also fulfil many of the specifications of a small laptop, and in a far prettier package.
Tech bloggers reckon the Tablet has been built in the bowels of Apple's California HQ. Now the question is whether head honcho Steve Jobs will release it into the wild, and when. Most believe it will be announced very sdoon and hit the shelves in 2010.
Voice-recognition software that works
When the speech-to-text service Spinvox was caught using call-centre workers to help transcribe voice messages into texts, rather than the promised computer algorithms, it left many wondering why something that should be so simple is such a challenge.
"Spoken language is very complex," says Professor Andrew Sears, director of the Interactive Systems Research Centre at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). "There are complex grammar rules that may not be followed while we're speaking. There's evolving vocabulary. There's context-dependent speech, where you miss a word but are able to fill the gaps. Computers simply aren't able to do that yet."
Until such a time as they are, developers will stick to specialist programmes for narrower linguistic realms, such as medical or legal transcription. Sears' own work is focused on making communications technology easier for disabled people to use. Eventually, these specialist solutions will be integrated into more general-purpose software.
"There are key problems to be addressed," he adds. "There's still too much training required before these systems become sufficiently accurate for most people to be willing to use them. And we need software that can learn how it mishears certain words and recalibrate itself accordingly."
Motors that do 100mpg
When Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic to win the Orteig Prize in 1927, it revolutionised the aviation industry. The Progressive Automotive X Prize, a $10m jackpot due to be awarded next year, will revolutionise the automobile industry (and perhaps even slow climate change) – by demanding a car that can cover 100 miles per gallon, and generate CO2 emissions of no more than 200 grams per mile. At present, the average US driver gets 20.2mpg, and the average car in the UK emits more than 260g of CO2 per mile.
Funded by the X Prize Foundation, next year's prize will culminate in a series of races contested by at least 111 teams from around the world. Each potentially ground-breaking car design will have to meet four crucial criteria besides the 100mpg/200gpm targets.
According to Cristin Lindsay, one of AXP's senior directors: "The teams have to prove their designs are safe and affordable and that their fuel or energy source [are] available and widely acceptable to consumers today."
Among the more offbeat fuel sources being trialled is emissions-free "compressed air technology". Hydrogen and solar power are also viable fuels. So don't be surprised if hydrogen pumps and solar recharging stations start to spring up across the land.
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