Future Tech & Prototypes in 2011

If 2011 is any indication, our future relies on robots and computer intelligence. In this year's future technology and prototype review we'll take a look at technologies that could one day be common place making our lives easier and more enjoyable.

Much of the robotic innovation we've seen has come from Japan, a country where nearly a quarter of its population is 65 or older. With more elderly than caretakers, robots are a possible substitution. One such robot, called RIBA-II is designed to help with the touch task of lifting patients from their mattress into a wheelchair. It was developed by RIKEN, a Japanese government-run research body that surveyed nursing homes to find that lifting patients was the most tiring thing for workers -- and they do it an average of 40 times each day.

To accomplish the task, the robot has powerful motors to lift a person weighing up to 80 kilograms from ground level, wheelchairs and beds. RIBA-II will go into nursing homes next year for testing and sales are due to begin in 2015. The current target price is around 6 million yen, that's about $78,000.

While some robots like RIBA-II are designed to accomplish specific tasks, some have been made to assist around the home with everyday tasks like Honda's Asmio robot. Asimo turned 11 years old this year and has been outfitted with the most advanced technology yet. Asimo is a humanoid robot and Honda said it's been developing it to one day be useful for people and help enrich their daily lives. Asimo is now an autonomous machine which means it can make decisions based on its surroundings, like avoid obstacles without being told to do so by an operator.

It can also recognize a face and a voice and respond to multiple people who are speaking simultaneously: a task difficult for even humans.



Creating lifelike hands with the dexterity and sensing capability of humans is both important and difficult. Asimo's hands have embedded tactile sensors in both the fingers and the palms and it can complete tasks that require a high level of dexterity like holding a paper cup without crushing it, according to Honda.

NASA's Robonaut 2 also has similar dexterous hands that are able to handle a wide range of human tools and interfaces. R2 was powered up for the first time aboard the International Space Station earlier this year and is designed to perform tasks ranging from simple and repetitive to ones that are especially dangerous. Eventually R2 will get leg attachments which will give it more mobility around the orbiter and with other upgrades it could go outside into the vacuum of space. It's these technology advancements and others that can keep humans out of harms way

Imagine pairing some of the robot's we've seen with some of the most advance computers and software in the world. IBM's Watson crushed its human opponents on a popular TV game show this year, demonstrating an amazing grasp of natural language processing. It competed on Jeopardy a show that offers clues that typically include wordplay, puns and slang and it was still able to come out on top.



Watson has potential applications in finance, medicine and technical support.

With it looking like 3D is here to stay, researchers are already looking toward the next wave in display technology. Sharp debuted the world's highest resolution LCD screen this year with an image that's 16 times the resolution of today's HDTVs. That works out to an impressive 7,680 pixels by 4,320 pixels. Called Super Hi Vision the technology is being developed by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and the first trials are due to start around  2020. Of course a camera is needed to capture the super sharp images and NHK has that covered too. It's developed this super hi vision camera, which is considerably smaller a lighter than the previous model, seen in the background here. NHK is one of the few broadcasting companies to invest heavily in research and development. It's also developed the Twinscam which can capture under water and above water activity simultaneously without the problem of refraction. It hopes that it's used in the 2012 London Olympics.

Touchscreens are common place, but the physical feedback they give to users is relatively limited. Today it’s limited to haptics, where the screen merely vibrates when a key is pressed. Researchers from British Columbia are hoping to change that with a touch screen that can be slippery or sticky.

Vincent Levesque

Post doctoral fellow, University of British Columbia

The screen itself has four actuators. These just shake the piece of glass. They make it vibrate. This is actually the same technology that is used in many cell phones or other devices, but it runs at higher frequency so you don’t feel the vibration itself, but it pushes your finger away from the piece of glass and a bit like an air hockey table it will push your finger off and make it more slippery.

The prototype is bulky and the team hopes to slim it down and add a capacitive screen. Patrick Baudisch a researcher at Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institue and part of the brains behind projects like Luminos and Multitoe said that the holy grail of a user interface is a touch system that produces the tactile properties of a keyboard. For example imagine a touch screen turning into a keyboard when you need it, complete with the physical differentiation of keys and then back into a touch screen when you don’t need it. He said with a little luck, we might see it in about 5 years.

In the field of automotives this year we saw some developments that gave us a glimpse of the future too. Volvo and a team of European researchers are working on automotive technology that will allow a line of cars on a highway to autonomously follow a lead car. Called vehicle platooning the lead car would be driven manually with a road train of cars following close behind. That means that on your way to work you could read the paper, eat breakfast or put on make up while on the highway. Nissan has also shown the prototype technology, which it calls Eporo, but both Nissan and Volvo admit the reality of it is at least a decade away.

Ford's taken a different approach to the future of cars. Rather than make them autonomous it's keeping drivers in control and making cars smarter. It showed its Evos concept car which plans to streamline tasks for drivers, whether it's changing the cabin temperature, picking your favorite music or remembering to close the garage door.



Paul Mascarenas

Chief Technical Officer, Ford Research & Innovation

While the prototypes and future technology we've seen this year might help us imagine a futuristic lifestyle, commercialization of most of these developments is a long ways away.

Nick Barber, IDG News Service.