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A plethora of firms are racing to develop a feasible method for delivering power wirelessly, but thus far the best we’ve managed are short-range standards like Qi and PMA. A company called Energous is on hand at CES with a demo of its new wireless power system known amusingly as WattUp. It uses a mix of Bluetooth and RF to combine the convenience of wireless power with the security of a wireless network. If it all pans out, WattUp could juice up your phone from up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) away.
The heart of WattUp is a hub that’s basically a powerful RF transmitter station. Devices that want to receive power from the hub announce their presence via Bluetooth 4.0. WattUp then uses that connection to direct the wireless power signal to the device. It operates in the same unlicensed spectrum as WiFi, which makes me wonder about possible interference in busy wireless environments. Assuming the connection holds, though, the WattUp signal is absorbed and converted to DC power in the phone or tablet by a receiver chip.
Opera was one of the original internet browser companies, and the only one that is still alive — and independent — from that era. Jon Von Tetzchner was a co-founder of Opera, and his new company, Vivaldi Technologies, has just launched a technical preview of its new browser. Von Tetzchner has said that the purpose of Vivaldi is to build a browser for sophisticated users and to bring back the community, which was a key differentiator for the Opera browser platform.
Competing in the browser market is no mean feat. Today it is a fundamental piece of every operating system platform — that’s the reason Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have integrated browsers in their desktop and mobile offerings. The browser is also a very important piece of tying an end user closer into the platform. Thankfully, browsers have become increasingly better at supporting standards like HTML5 making it easier to build sites and web apps that work consistently across browsers. Compare that to mobile applications, where apps are clearly tied to iOS, Android, Windows, or Blackberry. While browsers are critically important, because of great standards support it’s becoming harder to differentiate the feature set.
Pebble set a Kickstarter record when it launched the original Pebble Smartwatch way back in 2012. That’s like the smartwatch stone age. Now it’s back with a new campaign for the Pebble Time, a smartwatch with a color e-paper screen and a somewhat more refined design than the original watch. If you think the internet might react negatively to a second Kickstarter from this company after the first one netted a whopping $10 million, you’d be wrong. It took only 17 minutes for the campaign to smash the $500,000 goal, and it’s now well into the millions.
The Pebble Time seems to have more in common with the original Pebble than the slightly more premium Pebble Steel. It looks nice, but not something you’d get away with wearing at a formal event. The body is plastic and the bezels are fairly large in relation to the screen. The back is curved to allow for a more ergonomic fit on your wrist. It still has physical buttons on the side for control rather than a touchscreen as most other smartwatches rely on. There’s also a microphone for voice interaction, but it’s not clear how that will tie into your phone yet.
If you follow the mobile computing scene, you’re probably well aware that NFC — near field communication— is meant to be the next big thing. In fact, NFC and its sister RFID have been the next big thing for years — but for some reason, they’ve just never taken off. A group of Korean scientists think they’ve finally cracked it, though: The lack of adoption is all down to price, and to rectify that they’ve discovered a way of producing really cheap RFID tags using a roll-to-roll printer.
In the last year, huge strides have been made towards printed computer chips. These chips are flexible, much cheaper to produce than their carved-from-a-silicon-wafer cousins, and one of the most important steps towards ubiquitous, wearable computing. The main difficulty of producing these printed devices is turning materials — such as silver, gold, and aluminium — into inks that can be printed (and dried/cured) using existing infrastructure.
Researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park have printed transparent transistors on transparent paper. The finished device is flexible, up to 84% transparent, and in theory this could be the first step towards green, paper-based electronics.
As we’ve covered before, printing computer circuits isn’t overly difficult — you just need to find the right conductive and semiconductive inks (which can be tricky), and then print them out on a suitable substrate until you have a transistor. Because these ink-based printed circuits are very thin, though, the smoothness of the substrate is very important. When you’re dealing with layers of ink that are a few nanometers thick, any blemish on the substrate is enough to disrupt the flow of electrons and break the circuit.
In the case of regular old paper, bumps and blemishes are usually measured in micrometers — far too irregular to print circuitry on. Not to be deterred, the researchers at the University of Maryland used nanopaper — paper created from wood pulp that’s been specially treated with enzymes and mechanically beaten. Nanopaper has a much more regular structure than normal paper, and is stronger (and transparent) as a result. More importantly, though, nanopaper is smooth to within just a few nanometers. “It’s as flat as plastic,” says Liangbing Hu, one of the researchers who worked on the project.
Researchers at Northwestern University have devised a new method of creating large volumes of high-quality graphene, and then printing flexible graphene patterns with an inkjet printer that are 250 times more conductive than previous attempts.
When it comes to the next generation of electronics and computing, graphene has a unique combination of properties that make it an almost ideal material. Not only is it extremely conductive, but it’s very strong, chemically stable, and flexible. There are just two problems: It’s very hard to produce pure graphene in large quantities, and it’s proving quite hard to use graphene as a semiconductor (it doesn’t contain the all-important bandgap). Today, it seems like Northwestern may have solved the first problem — but the bandgap issue still remains at large.
Historically, graphene is produced through mechanical exfoliation — a fancy term that essentially means “peeling off layers of graphite using sticky tape.” This produces high-quality graphene, but it’s impossible to scale up to commercial production. Researchers have recently grown pure graphene on a copper substrate, using chemical vapor deposition (CVD), but it’s still a very slow process, and it’s unlikely to produce graphene in the quantities that we require. The better option for mass production is solution-phase exfoliation — flaking off graphene from graphite using a liquid solvent — but previous attempts have only produced very low quality flakes that don’t possess many of graphene’s “wonder material” properties. Now Northwestern has devised a new method, using ethanol and ethyl cellulose, that can be used to mass produce flakes of fairly high quality graphene.
Researchers at Columbia University have conducted the first exhaustive study into kinetic energy harvesting — the harvesting of “free” energy from common human activities, such as walking, writing with a pencil, taking a book off a shelf, or opening a door. Surprisingly, except for those living the most sedentary lifestyles, we all move around enough that a kinetic energy harvester — such as a modified Fitbit or Nike FuelBand — could sustain a wireless network link with other devices, such as a laptop or smartphone.
Energy harvesting is expected to play a very important role in the future of wearable computing and the internet of things, where direct sources of power — such as batteries or solar power — are cumbersome, expensive, and unreliable. At its most basic, a kinetic/inertial energy harvester is a small box with a weight attached to a spring. When the spring moves, the mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, usually by means of piezoelectrics or MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). If the spring moves with more force, or it bounces back and forth rapidly, more energy is produced.