Luckily I’ve never had to wear a retainer and still cringe at even the thought of wearing one.  But one day soon we may all be wearing retainers voluntarily.  For they may enable us to communicate silently.  The next best thing to actually being telepathic. 

Buzzfeed News sums it up best:

“A project led by one of the key creators of Google Glass, the tech giant’s influential but ultimately ill-fated smart eyewear, aims to let people have conversations without talking or using their hands to type, sign, or gesture.

Called SilentSpeller, the project is a communication system that allows people to send texts using a high-tech dental retainer to spell out words without actually voicing them, according to a demo video and academic paper reviewed by BuzzFeed News. The device works by tracking the movement of the user’s tongue. Researchers claim the system identifies letters with 97% accuracy, and 93% accuracy for entire words.

The research is the brainchild of Thad Starner, a pioneer in wearable technology. Starner played a lead technical role in developing Google Glass, the much-hyped device that helped introduce the world to a new genre of gadgets beyond smartphones. But the device courted controversy and pushed the bounds of society’s relationship with technology when Google introduced it almost a decade ago. SilentSpeller, by contrast, is a research project out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where Starner is a professor, so the goal for now is more academic than product road map.

However, the device could eventually be used to help people with movement disorders including Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor, Starner told BuzzFeed News in an interview. He also sees potential consumer applications, like hands-free communication in really quiet places, like a library, or really loud places where people would have to strain their voices to be heard.”

The last use case is what I’m most intrigued by.  I remember a tweet a few weeks ago about someone wishing that there was a way to hear someone in a crowded bar.  I instinctively thought of a smart hearing aid that would filter out ambient sounds.  But what if attacking the problem from the other end, from the point of view of the speaker is the better approach? With SilentSpeller you wouldn’t even need to worry about hearing someone at all since they wouldn’t even be talking. 

But another use case just popped into my mind that’s even better than talking in a crowded bar and that’s communicating with someone when you’re not allowed to talk.  Imagine for instance talking to your friends while you’re stuck in class.  Instead of passing notes around you can pass texts around without your teacher ever finding out.  Or imagine being in a relationship with someone and chatting with them while you’re stuck talking to someone else on the other side of the room while at a party.  While still talking to the person you’re with you could silently let your love interest know that you’d rather be talking to them.  And of course this is technology that could be used by a spy to report back on what they are seeing in a given location without anyone knowing that they’re communicating with the outside world.

All in all, its safe to say that I’ve changed my mind on wearing a retainer.  At least a smart version that is.

Smart Retainer Could Let You Text With Your Tongue
Is Tongue Texting the Greatest Idea Ever?

A new kind of ice cube that’s reusable and doesn’t melt could revolutionize how goods are transported.

New Atlas explains:

“When it comes to keeping things cold, ice cubes are hard to beat … although the things do melt, never to be used again. Scientists have set about addressing that limitation, with reusable water-based ‘jelly ice cubes’ that hold their shape at all temperatures.

Developed by a team at the University of California – Davis, the cubes are made of a hydrogel consisting of 10 percent protein-derived gelatine and 90 percent water.

The material can be cut into any size or shape needed. It’s transparent and jiggly at room temperature, but becomes hard and opaque once frozen. The cubes made from it can be used for applications such as keeping perishable foods cold while in storage or in transit … just like regular ice cubes.

Unlike such cubes, however, the jelly ice cubes won’t melt into a puddle as the ice within them thaws. Instead, the water remains within the hydrogel matrix, for subsequent refreezing and reuse. In fact, each cube can reportedly be reused 12 times without degradation – just a simple rinsing-off in water or diluted bleach is required between each use.

And because the cubes contain no synthetic compounds, they can be composted once discarded. In order to make them even more eco-friendly, the scientists are now looking into using agricultural waste as a base for the gelatine.

Along with saving the water that would be required to keep making new ice cubes, the jelly ice cubes should additionally help reduce cross-contamination in facilities such as food processing plants. This is because unlike regular ice cubes, they don’t melt into the form of bacteria-carrying liquid water that flows from one food item to another.”

Hopefully this technology makes it way into a consumer facing product as well so that I don’t have to keep adding new ice cubes to my drink on a warm summer day.

Could reusable 'jelly ice' cubes replace regular ice? | Science News for  Students
Are Jelly Ice Cubes the Greatest Idea Ever?

The place I’m moving into has a cracked window that I’m going to have to repair.  When I do perhaps I’ll get some new smart glass instead! Glass capable of adjusting itself based on heating or cooling needs.

Forbes sums it up best:

“An international team of scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has created a new and highly energy-efficient form of ‘smart window.’ Their proprietary material, when coated on glass window panels, reacts and adjusts to light to regulate ambient temperatures.

This novel technology can switch between heating and cooling depending on incoming light wavelengths, thereby slashing energy usage and cost used to control indoor climate. With politicians and scientists urging emission cuts of 45 % globally by 2030, breakthroughs like this are paramount in our effort to cut energy consumption.”

And this smart glass isn’t alone either.  Combined with super white paint, invisible wood, and other new meta materials we could soon have entire smart houses fully capable of regulating themselves making it much easier for us to meet our energy saving goals.

NTU Singapore scientists invent energy-saving glass that 'self-adapts' to heating and cooling demand
Is Smart Glass the Greatest Idea Ever?

The other day I wrote about a new camera the size of a grain of salt. Impressive as that is it may have already been surpassed though by another new camera design. One that can see through and around any object!

Futurism explains:

“Engineers at Northwestern University have created a powerful camera that can see through solid and opaque objects such as fog, corners, and even human flesh and bone — a device seemingly ripped from sci-fi.  

The camera relies on a light capture system called ‘synthetic wavelength holography,’ according to a press release from Northwestern Engineering. It works by scattering laserlight onto hidden objects, then bouncing it back to the camera, where an AI reconstructs the signals to show the hidden object. 

A paper of the researchers’ findings has been published in NatureSince the holography method allows the scientists to see fast-moving objects such as cars driving around corners, or even a heart beating through a person’s chest, it could be used in early-warning navigation systems for automobiles or for non-invasive medical imaging. 

‘Our technology will usher in a new wave of imaging capabilities,’ Florian Willomitzer, assistant professor at the McCormick School of Engineering and lead author of the study, said in the release. He added that the camera method ‘could be applied to radio waves for space exploration or underwater acoustic imaging.'”

Take that grain of salt camera!

This Holographic Camera Can See Around Corners, Under Human Skin
Is a camera that can see around corners and through skin the Greatest Idea Ever?

The other day Quebec made news when they announced that they had seen a four fold increase in the number of people getting vaccinated after announcing plans to require proof of vaccination to buy alcohol and weed.  Two things people can’t seem to live without.  Especially during a pandemic when we’re all stuck at home and can’t go out to bars or socialize with friends.  And now considering that weed itself may be able to keep people safe from COVID there will probably be a whole lot more people signing up to get vaccinated so that they can buy some. 

Bloomberg explains:

“Cannabis compounds prevented the virus that causes Covid-19 from penetrating healthy human cells, according to a laboratory study published in the Journal of Nature Products. 

The two compounds commonly found in hemp — called cannabigerolic acid, or CBGA, and cannabidiolic acid, or CBDA — were identified during a chemical screening effort as having potential to combat coronavirus, researchers from Oregon State University said. In the study, they bound to spike proteins found on the virus and blocked a step the pathogen uses to infect people.

The researchers tested the compounds’ effect against alpha and beta variants of the virus in a laboratory. The study didn’t involve giving the supplements to people or comparing infection rates in those who use the compounds to those who don’t. 

Hemp is a source of fiber, food and animal feed, and extracts are commonly added to cosmetics, body lotions, dietary supplements and food. 

‘These compounds can be taken orally and have a long history of safe use in humans,’ said Richard van Breemen, a researcher with Oregon State’s Global Hemp Innovation Center. ‘They have the potential to prevent as well as treat infection by SARS-CoV-2,’ he said in a statement.”

I’ve never smoked pot before but if this news is true I may have finally found my motivation.

Researchers Say THC From Cannabis May Treat ARDS, According To Study On Mice
Can weed cure Covid?!

#2,543 – Beyond KFC

Vegans rejoice.  You can now enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken! Thanks to the world’s first plant based fried chicken alternative.

As the New York Post puts it:

As of Jan. 10, the fried chicken chain is offering vegetarian-friendly nuggets in partnership with Beyond Meat, which created the fried chicken special for KFC.

Despite it being sans-meat, the nugs promise the juicy, savory flavor true to traditional KFC chicken and just as finger lickin’ good.

‘The mission from Day One was simple – make the world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken from plants,’ said KFC president, Kevin Hochman. ‘And now over two years later we can say, ‘mission accomplished.’”

I’ll be the judge of that! I tried the Beyond Burger and thought I could taste the difference.  I’ll have to see if plant based fried chicken really is finger lickin’ good. 

Hopefully it is because the world desperately needs to move beyond eating meat in order to counteract the effects of Climate Change.  Not to mention all the animal lives that could be saved by not having to slaughter them for meals.

KFC goes plant-based with new Beyond Meat fried chicken | Lexington Herald  Leader
Would you eat plant based chicken?

Back in 2018 I wrote about the world’s smallest computer; the size of a grain of a salt. Flash forward four years and our diminutive friend has some company: a camera that’s also the size of a grain of salt. An innovation that could turn any surface into a camera even the entire back of our phones.

Vice explains:

“A newly-developed camera the size of a grain of salt can take clear, full-color images—at the level of cameras that are 500,000 times larger.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Washington created a new type of optical system, called a metasurface, to shrink the camera’s hardware down to size, and combined this with machine-learning image processing that enables the camera to produce clear images in natural lighting. Previously, micro-cameras could only produce useful images in perfect laboratory settings, according to the researchers. Their work is published in the journal Nature.

Each camera consists of 1.6 million cylindrical posts which interact with light to produce the images. These posts are as small as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The surfaces are made from silicon nitride, a material that makes them compatible with computing microchip manufacturing. This means they’d be cheaper and faster to produce than current full-size camera lenses.

The researchers envision these types of cameras being used in procedures like endoscopies, where high-quality photos from inside a patient’s body also need to be as minimally invasive as possible. They also foresee these metasurfaces as covering the whole surface of devices like cell phones.

‘We could turn individual surfaces into cameras that have ultra-high resolution, so you wouldn’t need three cameras on the back of your phone anymore, but the whole back of your phone would become one giant camera,’ Felix Heide, the study’s senior author, said in a Princeton news release. “We can think of completely different ways to build devices in the future.”

Pretty neat for a camera we can’t even see.

This Fully Functional Camera Is the Size of a Grain of Salt - Nerdist
A camera the size of a grain of salt could be a real game-changer.

#2,541 – Spy Stone

There’s no shortage of spy gadgets in existence. Just think of what Q developed in any James Bond movie or what your own imagination can conjure up from hidden explosives and concealed flash drives to tricked out watches and fortified cars. But soon there may be one more weapon in a spy’s arsenal: the humble rock.

As Popular Science puts it:

“Under lightly falling snow, a soldier sets a rock on the ground. A moment later the rock animates, extending first a periscope-like camera, and then lifting the whole of its rocky exterior to reveal a small set of tracks. With mobility now possible, the little robot wheels down the slight embankment of the sidewalk as though it’s a tank crashing over frozen hills. Once in place, the rock body lowers, leaving only the camera peeking out, observing the world around its concealed perch.

Dubbed the “Spy Stone,” this little robot is the creation of Russian Air Force cadets, over the course of three years at the Military Educational and Scientific Center at the Zhukovsky and Gagarin Air Force Academy. It looks, in many respects, like a conglomeration R2-D2 from Star Wars, a remote control toy tank, and a hide-a-key rock.

The robot is only a prototype, but it is one with potential real-world combat implications.

The Spy Stone can record up to 15 hours of video and audio, which it will process and transmit to human operators at a distance of up to 1.25 miles. To ensure that the stone is only recording video of interest, filming is activated by motion sensors, and the robot can go into a dormant sleep mode for close to 24 hours before recording.”

Considering that I’m already paranoid enough to begin with hopefully these spy stones stay on the battlefield. The last thing I need to be doing is looking over my shoulder while hiking.

Russia develops bizarre James Bond-style 'spy rock' listening devices once  used by MI6 - World News - Mirror Online
Is the Spy Stone the Greatest Idea Ever?

When we think of innovations drawn from mother nature we often think of biomimicry (designs inspired by the real thing)  or the medicinal properties of certain plants and fungi.  But a new outside the box idea could add one more way that we can stand to benefit from the natural resources at our disposal: using bananas to create a fire barrier around our neighborhoods.  That’s right.  The humble banana could soon become our first line of defense against potentially devastating forest fires.

Atlas Obscura explains:

“California’s deadly, damaging wildfires worsen by the year. The state’s naturally dry landscapes, parched by a changing climate, have turned into tinderboxes. A stray match or lightning strike has the capacity to incinerate forests, fields, and neighborhoods. Last year saw a summer and fall of choking smoke and blood-red skies over huge portions of the state.

To avoid fiery disaster, local governments often clear away dried brush from the hillsides and fields surrounding homes and streets. But one professor has a rather bananas idea: Barath Raghavan thinks growing groves of banana trees around towns and cities could help halt these now-yearly tragedies.

Raghavan, it has to be said, does not teach horticulture or a related subject. Instead, he’s a computer scientist at the University of Southern California. He’s worked on networks and systems for institutions as large as Google and as small as startups. But his other love is gardening. He’s a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers organization, and he currently grows 150 different edible plants in his yard, as well as the yards of his friends, family, extended family, and in any public patch of land he can find.

A decade ago, Raghavan combined his interests by researching how computing could make agriculture more sustainable. But he first hit on the idea of using banana trees as a firebreak two years ago, during an October fire whose name he doesn’t even remember, since they happen so constantly these days. (It was likely the devastating Kincade Fire.) After corresponding with Michael Kantar, an agricultural and plant breeding professor at University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Raghavan hashed out a theory: that banana forests in fire-vulnerable areas could serve as a green buffer against the flames.

Banana trees, Raghavan explains, are special. For one, they aren’t wood. In fact, they aren’t even trees; they’re herbs, albeit herbs that can grow 25 feet tall. With juicy, sap-filled stems rather than trunks, they are vastly more fire-resistant than grass or trees. The fire resistance extends to other parts of the plant as well. ‘If you go on YouTube and you search for banana leaves, you’ll find videos of people taking a banana leaf and putting it straight over their gas burner,’ Raghavan says. ‘The leaf will wilt, but it usually doesn’t catch on fire.’

Raghavan has theorized that groves of banana trees, irrigated with recycled water, could shield fire-imperiled communities just long enough for firefighters to get a handle on a blaze. The California wildfires of the last few years were hot enough to turn even fire-resistant bananas to ash, but, Raghavan points out, it would take a long time for even a wildfire to sear through a dense banana grove. ‘Eventually, once the temperature gets high enough, anything will burn because it’ll completely desiccate,’ Raghavan says. ‘But it won’t be a source of fuel, is the key thing.’

To hear Raghavan describe it, it’s a plan with practically no downsides. Planting protective bananas could slow down fires, pay for itself with the banana sales, and thrill local residents. Bananas, after all, are ‘sort of a charismatic species,’ he says. ‘It’s the panda, the polar bear of the plant world or the fruit world.’

I know people who were impacted by the recent fires just outside of Denver, Colorado that quickly tore through their entire neighborhood aided by surprising 100 mph winds.  Considering how much more prevalent fires like these are becoming due to Climate Change this is an idea worth serious consideration. No matter how crazy it may seem.

A Guide to Dwarf Cavendish Banana Trees - This Old House
Are Banana Barriers the Greatest Idea Ever?

I thought that the future of driving would involve electric vehicles and driverless cars. Maybe even flying cars one day. At no point did I imagine getting driven around by a goldfish. And yet that’s exactly what might happen thanks to a plan to teach goldfish to drive fish-operated vehicles. Wait. What?!

USA Today sums it up best:

“If teaching your 16-year-old how to drive was rough, imagine how tough it is to teach a goldfish.

In a peer-reviewed study published in December, scientists aimed to do just that by training goldfish to drive a ‘fish-operated vehicle’ or FOV to study the navigating mechanisms of the species.

Six different goldfish got behind the wheel of the FOV that was operated by a camera system to record and translate the fish’s movements into forward, backward and side-to-side directions to the wheels, according to a press release from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

‘The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment. Second, it shows that goldfish have the cognitive ability to learn a complex task in an environment completely unlike the one they evolved in,’ Shachar Givon, an author of the study, said in the release.

Each fish was put into the FOV – equipped with a fish tank – at different locations in a room and tasked with a goal to drive to a visual target. If they steered to the target, they were rewarded with a fish pellet.

To the scientists’ amazement, the goldfish successfully reached the target after a few days of training, no matter what position they started in or if they were interrupted by hitting a wall or by false targets, according to the release.”

So, does this mean that we could one day get into an Uber driven by a goldfish?! I sure hope so. That would be super cool! Just so long as they don’t try to get revenge for all of their pet store and carnival brethren who have been flushed down toilet bowls after passing away.

Wild video shows goldfish 'driving' a water-filled car in weird experiment  | Live Science
Is a fish-operated vehicle the Greatest Idea Ever?