Over the last five years brain research has rapidly developed technologies for influencing and changing our thoughts, perceptions and feelings. The new field of optogenetics, for example, has proven that light delivered via fiber optics into the brain can change the behavior of individual neurons and may one day help those suffering from Parkinson's, depression or other brain disorders. And most recently, researchers have used brain stimulation to increase one's appreciation and enjoyment of art.
Neuroscientists at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy had subjects study and rate 70 abstract paintings and drawings, and 80 realistic paintings and photographs. Then they received transcranial direct-current stimulation to specific parts of their brain. This technique sends small electrical impulses to the brain via electrodes placed on top of the head (no drilling needed!) I know it sounds medieval but it's quite modern, non-invasive and delivers zero feeling, no pain, no tickle, nothing. In fact the subjects had no awareness of the electrical impulses. Scientists aimed the current at what is called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area responsible for emotional processing.
Design can sometimes make all the difference in very unpredictable ways. A case in point: Utility is one thing, but it was a change in design that led significant improvements to the public health of Cambodia. Here's that story...
About five years ago an epidemiologist Christopher Charles traveled to Cambodia to research anemia, the most common red blood cell disorder. Essentially it's caused by a decrease in the number of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. And it can be caused by a lack of iron and it is especially common in third world countries—about half of all Cambodian children suffer from it. Symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and muscle fatigue. Over time it can lead to growth and cognitive impairment.
Anemia can be easily treated with iron supplements, or increasing the intake of iron-rich foods. One of the problems is that few can afford such supplements or food in these poorer countries. Often cast-iron skillets are used to infuse food with iron during cooking. But these are also expensive to buy. So Charles thought if they could distribute smaller iron blocks to families to use in their cooking pots, as they boiled water or made soup, it might solve a big problem. He tested it out with a few families. But when he came around to check in on their progress he found they used the small chunk of iron as doorstops. (An aside: It reminds me of a family planning expert who taught sub-Saharan Africans how to use condoms by demonstrating with a broom handle. Later he learned that men and women were fitting their condoms on a broom handle, propping it up against the corner of the bedroom and then proceeding to have sex.)
The big challenge for renewable energy is storage: Energy captured by solar or wind power will never be much good if there isn't a cheap way to store it. Lithium batteries are just not up to a wide-reaching, cost-effective task. So a lot of researchers are working to solve this problem, including a team who founded the startup Aquion, which recently raised $55 million of venture capital funding, including $35 million from Bill Gates.
The funds will help ramp up production of a new kind of battery. Jay Whitacre, a materials science professor at Carnegie Mellon, invented it and says it will as cheap as a lead-acid battery—the oldest rechargeable battery, which is still widely used to restart our cars—but it can last twice as long. It's also very safe—safe enough to eat, apparently. Lead-acid batteries, on the other hand, are toxic and pretty dangerous.
These batteries, charged with renewable energy, can mimic the balancing of supply and demand on a power grid and so can replace the much more expensive natural gas power plants that are currently taking on that job.
Forget passwords, your heartbeat can unlock your laptop, phone and even your car. Passwords are considered to be not as secure as some would like for them to be, and are often a total pain to recall, so many companies are trying to cash in on replacing them entirely. Authentication using fingerprints, iris scans, and facial features is the trending field in security. But one company is going deeper into identification and personalization by tapping our heartbeat.
Nymi, created by the Canadian company Bionym, is a wristband that confirms your identity through electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors that map your unique heartbeat. It translates that pattern to authenticate various devices, via Bluetooth, like smartphones and cars.
See their demo video here:
It was in the 1960s that scientists learned that our cardiac cycles are unique because the position, shape and size of each heart is different. (Fun fact that might disrupt Nymi's function: During pregnancy a woman's heart can move four inches.) But the unique pattern means that it can accurately identify you—and according to the CEO of Bionym, Karl Martin, is harder to fake than fingerprints, irises or facial features.
Here's a few key innovations in the massive and ever-growing video game industry. The blockbuster studios have laid down the hardware, but it's the smaller indie joints that are ditching the TV screen and creating entirely new games out of the already-existing consoles, batons, wands and controllers. Just as Twitter became something beyond what Ev Williams had envisioned, video games are evolving with purposes never imagined by the original designers.
Here is a sample of the best new designs in gaming, according to MIT Tech Review.
Spin The Bottle: Bumpie's Party
This game makes use of the Nintendo Wii motion controllers and the Wii-U console and has players compete in teams to play various mini-games. For instance in so-called "Rabbit Hunt" one team hides the Wii remote controllers and then the other team tries to find them, in only one minute, while the controllers emit random sniffing rabbit sounds. So the room itself becomes the set for the game. It's a great example of how a hack of hardware can become a new game in ways the original developers never intended.
This game uses the new and powerful virtual-reality headset created by Oculus Rift (see video below of the Oculus Rift creator's 90-year old grandmother playing with the VR headset). Inspired by Hitchcock's Rear Window, it's a detective game in which the player spies on occupants of a building from our wheel-chair (head movement is all you can do), knowing a murder will take place at 10pm. We then need to piece together answers by catching key details. What a refreshing change from the bloody war and killing rampant in most vid games.