Brave New World

Philanthropy, Light Bulbs and the End of the Wheel

BY Dino DiGiulioPublished Feb 1, 2006

Technology is ridiculously consumer-driven, dependent on early adopters who pay top dollar to be in on the ground floor. But one of 2006's most exciting developments hinges on being both cheaper and more accessible. MIT is hard at work on a project called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), an attempt to build a $100 laptop, a low cost machine designed to bridge the knowledge divide that threatens to leave the developing world behind.

Even to tech nerds, the technical specs sport quite a bit of bang for their hundred bucks — its monitor will have a colour LCD screen that can be flipped into black and white and zoomed to make it easier to read in sunlight. Its 500 MHz brain over 128 DRam and 500 MBs of flash memory might be modest by today's standards, but flip the keyboard to use it as a writing tablet or grab the PSP-like buttons on either side of the screen. It will network wirelessly by grabbing hub connections or piggybacking on another machine. If that wasn't enough, its rechargeable C-battery can be partially charged by hand crank.

Some critics have charged that MIT is attempting the impossible, and that R&D costs will drive the price beyond the plan, but the project's giving-yet-hip air has lots of potential. Why not try raising first world retail prices on a buy-one donate-one basis? One interesting move made by MIT is refusing the extended hand of big business — Apple apparently offered a Mac operating system free of charge. They refused. It'll be driven by Linux and other open-source components.

Seeing the Light
University student Michael Bowers recently made a potentially revolutionary discovery while working with quantum dots, essentially crystals containing 100 to 1000 easily excitable electrons. When he pointed a laser at them, they began to emanate their own light. On a colleague's hunch, his dots were mixed into a polyurethane mixture and spread onto a blue LED bulb. The coated bulb gave off a soft white light, not unlike a common incandescent bulb.

Although the current crop of energy efficient fluorescent bulbs last longer and use less energy, fluorescents bulbs do not emulate the warm white of incandescent bulbs, nor do they shine as brightly. In theory they don't compare with the LED / quantum dot combination. It's a discovery that could yield a bulb that shines twice as bright and lasts 50 percent longer than incandescents, all while preserving the colour and using far less energy. Unlike the florescents, which tend to be fragile and give off a significant amount of heat, LEDs are both exceedingly durable and do not create much heat. Better than just a bulb, the quantum dots could be applied to any surface, driven by an electric current and chemically altered to create colours. If the experiment can be reproduced, the future will see cheap light in any shape and potentially on anything: ceiling tile, monkey statues, Elvis busts, house siding, road signs, business suits...

The End of The Wheel
Since the dawn of the information age, the most basic of all human inventions, the wheel, has driven our data. This is going to change. Floppy discs, hard drives, and new Blu-Ray DVDs all have a common design: they have a motor spinning a platter so a read and a write head can access different parts of the information quickly. This method of data retention has disadvantages. The motors that move this media are power hungry. Motion by its very nature is likely to cause friction, so any physical abuse the media or its reader suffer can fuel friction and cause its ever-increasing data demise. Even dust can cause malfunction by blocking the heads.

But media in motion is already seeing stiff competition from a competing format you may already own. Many MP3 players like the iPod Shuffle and Nano have it. Your digital camera is likely to have it. It is flash-based storage and it has no moving parts, reads and writes faster, is silent and requires far less power than motor-based media. It does have its limitations — it has a projected shelf life of ten years, with performance decreasing as it ages. And it is expensive, for now.

The largest flash drive currently available is 16 GB; at best it would make for a modest iPod by today's standards. Yet for a product that debuted less than eight years ago with a maximum size of 64 MB, it has progressed quickly and it's likely to amplify our every shrinking, multi-functioning digital world. It will certainly increase the portability of products by improving battery life and decreasing the weight by removing the big hunk of hard drive metal. It is not hard to imagine more modular, user-friendly products that have interior USB (or some future port) bay to plug in and swap your tetra-bytes of data, or a video player that has a port instead of a tray to plug in your flash format Citizen Kane. Think flash is an unlikely entertainment format? It has already happened — a German punk band, WIZO, has already released an MP3 album on a flash memory key chain drive called the WIZO Stick-EP.

The dominant data mechanism has come to an end; a wheel has driven everything from the gramophone to the film projector to the cassette deck and flash media could leave this most basic of human principles spinning in its grave.

Revolution You'll Own

Three Times the Play
The Xbox may have bought HD video to gaming, but the Playstation 3 will be the first to embrace high definition media. By stocking their box with a Blu-Ray drive, Sony is bringing bigger worlds to the gamer. If a DVD (4GB) could hold a city, what shall the dual-layer Blu-Ray (50 GB) accomplish — Grand Theft Auto: France?

Apple Bytes into Intel
Apple has release two computers that run on the same Intel chips that drive PC machines. Although the notoriously closed company will attempt to keep their operating systems from running on machines they don't make and other operating systems out, we could see the first machines able to run all three major operating systems (Mac, Windows and Linux) natively. Emulation — a piece of software that allows a computer to pretend to be another kind of processor — has made this possible in the past, but slowly, because it has to simultaneously run the emulator, the operating system and the program. How long will we wait for a hacker to bring us the best of all worlds?

Flat Panel For You and Me
Last year saw flat panels fall in price and 2006 could see them descend even faster. Why? SED screens have flattened the technology of a traditional tube, which means there will be even more displays and TVs out there. LCD and Plasma manufacturers aren't about to lose market share so they have come up with new methods to improve contrast and backlighting, putting even more screens on the market. Factor in a big push towards HD games and DVDs, and consumers win in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Suddenly 60-inch plasma is 300 bucks!

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