Testing the Internet of Things

That tsunami of new IoT gadgets? They all have to be tested before they roll out into the world, not only to meet government regulations but to verify adherence to a host of voluntary standards, like WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Thread and others. That is a lot of testing. And that’s why TUV Rheinland recently opened a huge Silicon Valley test facility in Fremont, Calif.

It’s important for testing to be near the design teams, says TUV Rheinland’s Sarb Shelopal, the company’s global director of wireless and IoT testing. Distance, he says—and Silicon Valley’s traffic—is a big deal when companies are trying to move fast.

“Typically at the testing point,” says Shelopal, “a product team typically involves eight to ten people, but could be as big as 100, including safety engineers, software engineers, and hardware engineers. And when a product isn’t passing, we need to get them all in, and they will change this piece of hardware or this bit of software.”

Many of the tweaks, he said, can be made on site, with companies only having to go “back to the drawing board if they have a huge flaw in

Zizmos Continues Its Quest to Create an IoT Earthquake

I first met Battalgazi Yildirim two years ago. He had posted a request in my local online community: His startup, Zizmos, wanted volunteers willing to mount a sensor package inside their homes, preferably on a bearing wall, to test whether a network of cheap packages of electronics, based on the Android phone design and his algorithms, could give early warnings of earthquakes. He wasn’t looking to do long-term prediction, just 15 or 30 seconds—enough to allow people to grab their kids and move to the safest spot in their house.

Yildirim funded that first trial—which eventually involved 100 sensors—with an NSF research grant of $150,000. Like many first design attempts, it didn’t work out so well. It turned out, Yildirim told me last week, that the Android platform had a fatal flaw—it couldn’t pull in data from an external sensor and simultaneously recharge. The alpha testers might have been willing to deal with keeping the gadgets charged, but this approach wasn’t going to appeal to the masses. And Yildirim’s idea is going to need mass adoption to work; it relies on large numbers of low-cost sensors that report possible earthquake vibrations to

Startup Neurable Unveils the World’s First Brain-Controlled VR Game

Imagine putting on a VR headset, seeing the virtual world take shape around you, and then navigating through that world without waving any controllers around—instead steering with your thoughts alone.

That’s the new gaming experience offered by the startup Neurable, which unveiled the world’s first mind-controlled VR game at the SIGGRAPHconference this week.

In the Q&A below, Neurable CEO Ramses Alcaide tells IEEE Spectrum why he believes thought-controlled interfaces will make virtual reality a ubiquitous technology.

Neurable isn’t a gaming company; the Boston-based startup works on the brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) required for mind control. The most common type of BCI uses scalp electrodes to record electrical signals in the brain, then use software to translate those signals into commands for external devices like computer cursors, robotic limbs, and even air sharks. Neurable designs that crucial BCI software.

The game on display at SIGGRAPH is a collaboration between Neurable and the Madrid-based VR graphics company estudiofuture, and it is meant merely as a demo of Neurable’s tech and its capabilities. It’s played on an HTC Vive headset by swapping out the Vive’s standard elastic strap and putting in Neurable’s upgraded strap, which is

How Technology is Saving the Tiniest Lives

The evolution of medical technology has been a lifesaver for many.  Now there is a way to monitor newborn babies during a crucial stage of their development, and possibly prevent a heartbreaking condition called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS.  Crib death is another name for this condition, and for years, doctors and researchers have been baffled by it.  Today there have been advances that have enabled parents to exert more control over their baby’s susceptibility to this disorder, and the babies are winning.  Since the introduction of a monitor that straps around their little ankles, parents can now monitor their breathing and movement without losing sleep unnecessarily themselves.

Unfortunately, it comes too late for millions of parents who have suffered the loss of their precious infant, but many take heart in the technology that is used to make the device and hope the time comes when no more babies are lost to in this heartbreaking way.

Little is known about the cause of this SIDS, but putting a baby to sleep on its back has cut down the number of deaths to date.  This ankle monitor takes things a step further and is more accurate

The Development of Acoustic Metamaterials

Metamaterials are man-made, specially fabricated materials featuring properties never found in nature, such as zero or even negative refractive index. The result is the creation of cutting-edge designs and functionality, such as superlenses and sound absorbers. Recent research efforts have turned to the arbitrary manipulation of sound waves using metamaterial devices, including making an object acoustically invisible.

The research has been a success. Using little more than a few perforated sheets of plastic and a staggering amount of mathematical modeling and numerical simulation work, engineers at Duke University have demonstrated the world’s first 3D acoustic cloak. The device bends sound waves smoothly around an object, fills in the shadow and gives the impression the waves went straight through the surrounding air.

Acoustic invisibility is just one aspect of the broad concept of transformation acoustics, in which carefully designed materials can deform or control sound waves in almost arbitrary ways. From sci-fi to mundane, there are many possible applications of this technological breakthrough.

Designing silent metamaterials

Duke University, alongside MIT, University of California, Berkeley, Rutgers University, and the University of Texas at Austin, forms part of a five-year research program sponsored by

Novena: A Laptop With No Secrets

Will we be forever reliant upon large, opaque organizations to build them for us? Absolutely not, we say. And to prove our point, we built our very own laptop, from the circuit boards on up.

Admittedly, we did not delude ourselves that we could build a laptop that would be faster, smaller, or cheaper than those of Apple, Dell, or HP. However, we did set out to build a machine powerful and convenient enough to use every day. Fortunately, our dream inspired enough people to crowdfund the effort. Our laptop, which we call Novena, started shipping to backers in January 2015.

Events favored our quest. Because Moore’s Law is slowing down, garage innovators can take a couple of years to develop a high-tech gadget without discovering that the completed version is obsolete. It has been three years since we started the Novena project and yet the 40-nanometer process on which our central microprocessor is based continues to occupy a sweet spot between cost and performance.

Also, the economic malaise of 2008 left a lasting mark on global supply chains. Even today, manufacturers are no longer too busy printing money to make the time for producing small, boutique projects

Virtual Reality App: Takes Over Your Social Life

The door to mass-market virtual reality is about to burst open. Engineers have solved most of the hardware challenges, driven down the price to just a few hundred dollars, done extensive testing, and gotten software tools into the hands of creative developers. Store shelves will soon be teeming with head-mounted displays and hand controllers that can paint dazzling virtual worlds. And then the first wave of VR immigrants will colonize them.

You might think the first adopters will be gamers, but you’d be wrong. The killer app for virtual reality will more likely be something to enhance ordinary social experiences—conversations with your loved ones, a business meeting, a college class—but carried out with a far richer connection than you could establish by texting or talking or Skyping.

Jeremy Bailenson, founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and his coauthors predicted in these pages in 2011 that such “social VR” was on the horizon. “Current social networking and other online sites,” they wrote, “are just precursors of what we’ll see when social networking encompasses immersive virtual-reality

Kiss Your TV Goodbye

Since the 1950s, when television displaced radio as the major form of home entertainment, the TV set has ruled the consumer-electronics world. Its look has changed—from a tiny, round porthole in a sturdy, wood-grained cabinet to today’s impossibly thin screen balancing on a sculpted stand or hanging on the wall. But through its various incarnations, it has been this box of electronics—tuner/demodulator, video-processing boards, audio hardware—fronted by a glowing display that has determined the design of homes and the placement of furniture and, in general, dominated people’s entertainment lives.

There have been many technical skirmishes along the way. Flat-screen technologies displaced the cathode-ray tube, then warred with each other, the LED-backlit LCD emerging dominant (for now). In the 1980s, you probably took the antenna off your roof and plugged your TV into a cable box, and later you might have even bought something called a smart TV and started using it to watch Internet video along with broadcast shows. But there is still something in your house that you recognize as a television, even though it’s vastly flatter, lighter, and wider than the thing on which you watched cartoons as a child.

That comfortable familiarity

Augmented Reality: Forget the Glasses

In mid-2014, Magic Leap began teasing us with visions of realistic baby elephants playing in the palms of our hands, promising to soon unveil a mind-blowing augmented reality technology that would dramatically change the worlds of both entertainment and computing. Investors have ponied up an astounding US $1.39 billion so far to own a piece of this AR future, according to Crunchbase.

We’re still waiting. For a while, it seemed that 2017 was going to be the year of Magic Leap, but the company’s technology does not appear ready for prime time, though AR fans are hoping for at least one public demo.

Meanwhile, a funny thing happened on the way to beta testing. While we were waiting for Magic Leap to show us what’s behind its curtain, another startup, Niantic, working with the Pokémon Company and Nintendo, launched a free mobile app in July 2016 that inserted the little critters of the decades-old Pokémon franchise into live scenes on the screens of mobile devices. Pokémon Go challenged fans old and young to go out and “catch ’em all!” And it worked: CEO John Hanke, speaking at an Apple event in September, reported 500 million downloads worldwide in just two months, with players collectively

Fold-Up Smartphone Screens Could Finally

The rumors have been swirling for months. Though they couldn’t be confirmed, their persistence suggests that something significant may be coming from ­Samsung, possibly as early as this year: a foldable mobile.

Today, the world of mobiles consists of two major realms—tablets and smartphones. Tablets are good for reading magazines and books, typing long messages on a linked keyboard, looking at pictures, and surfing the Web. Smartphones are good for texting and ­talking. Engineers have long dreamed of merging the two.

Such a device would morph from one to the other by folding: Open, it’s a tablet, but by bending or folding it in half you’d transform it into a phone. “You can expect to open up your phone and double the screen real estate,” says Roel Vertegaal, a computer scientist at Queen’s ­University in Ontario. Besides the versatility, you’d have interesting new ­possibilities—imagine bending your phone to flip ahead in an e-book, just as you would flex a novel’s covers to jump ahead a few pages.

Samsung has pursued flexible designs for at least four years, going so far as to develop “artificial muscles” that push and pull a smartphone’s components into

Let’s Stop Using Ankle Bracelets

Imagine this: It’s early morning, and you’re sleeping alone in your bed. Suddenly your ankle vibrates, and a voice blurts out from beneath the sheets: “This is the monitoring center. You are not in your inclusion zone. Do you have permission to be outside this area?”

That’s what happened to a man named Jeffrey B. when his GPS-equipped ankle bracelet went berserk. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had strapped a tracking anklet on Jeffrey for good reason. He had pleaded guilty to 26 counts of peeping into windows and video recording young women while they were undressing. After three years in prison, Jeffrey was released. Local county officials decided, however, that because he had broken a previous five-year probation order, they would attach a second GPS monitor, which they controlled. He then had to live with a tracking device on each ankle.

Having two anklets, though inconvenient, ultimately helped Jeffrey. Although the county anklet was squawking about a violation, the state anklet was silent. Suspicious county parole officers had Jeffrey arrested, but given the inconsistency, the district attorney quickly dismissed the charge. The vendor of the county’s equipment admitted later to a “system error.”

Circuit Bending With the Casio SK-5

All the cool kids are coaxing crazy sounds from old electronic toys and synthesizers via the process of “circuit bending,” so we thought we’d give it a try. Circuit bending is the deliberate violation of all the careful electronic design by a device’s original creators in the name of finding interesting new audio effects. As our bending target, we used an SK-5, a 1980s-vintage Casio keyboard. We opened it up so we could wire up connectors to the sound synthesis chips and the key matrix. Then we made an external patch box to ground or cross-connect the pins of the synthesis chips, plus an Arduino Mega controlled switch box to play pre-programmed tunes.

This Water-Jet Cutter Can Slice Through Anything: Steel, Glass, or Steak

The phrase “desktop fabrication” has for the most part meant 3D printers and laser cutters. There are also small computer-numerical-control (CNC) mills and routers to be had, but until now you’d be hard pressed to find a small computerized machine hefty enough and flexible enough to cut complicated patterns in, say, steel. And you’d be totally out of luck if your material of choice was glass or ceramic.

That may be about to change, thanks to Wazer, which yesterday began offering Kickstarter backers the possibility of purchasing a small-scale water-jet cutter appropriate for DIYers or small businesses.

The company was founded by several young engineers who first met as students at the University of Pennsylvania, where they were involved in building small race cars and found themselves tediously fabricating many flat steel components by hand. “Even Penn didn’t have a water jet,” says Nisan Lerea, Wazer’s CEO. That frustration led Lerea and his colleagues to build a low-cost water jet as a senior design project in mechanical engineering.

Water jets cut through material using a narrow, high-pressure stream of water that (typically) carries abrasive particles. While this is a standard industrial process, it’s been limited to settings where

Build an Air Theremin

IEEE Spectrum’s own Stephen Cass has been on a several-month-long quest to make groovy electronic music—in spite of a complete and utter lack of any musical talent whatsoever. So when he stumbled across the TeraRanger One range finding sensor, the wheels in his head started spinning.

The sensor uses reflected infrared pulses to determine distances of up to several meters. Cass quickly realized that with the help of an Arduino Mega, he could translate different distances into musical notes on his 1980s vintage Casio SK-5 keyboard, creating an instrument you can play with your whole body. The result is quite possibly the most epicconference room dance party the world has ever seen.

AxonVR Brings Realistic Touch Sensations

AxonVR’s HaptX system is an enormous metal box with some buttons and blinking lights. It’s very much a prototype. You put on a HTC Vive headset, stick your left hand into the box, and then experience the magic of a tiny virtual deer taking a warm and fluffy nap on your outstretched palm.

AxonVR’s mystery box is able to replicate tactile and thermal sensations, with force feedback. It does it all at once, and very compellingly. The resolution of the tactile sensations is spectacular, from the edges of a cube, to the roundness of an apple, to the tiny prancing hooves of the deer. And when the deer tucks its little hooves underneath itself and lays down, you can feel how warm and soft its belly is. The warmth is immediate, just like you’d expect, and it is the same with the dragon blowing fire, or the ice cube sliding around. There’s no noticeable latency, and the thermal sensations are powerful enough to be completely convincing. Ice feels like, well, ice, and fire feels like you’d imagine fire feeling if you could hold it without actually burning yourself.

Controlling Robot Swarms With Augmented Reality

While robots are getting increasingly more capable and autonomous, they may still require our help to carry out tasks in real-world environments. That’s why robotics researchers continue to look for new ways to allow human operators to control robots without extensive training.

At New York University, Jared Alan Frank has turned to augmented reality (AR) to develop a robot control interface that runs on a conventional smartphone or tablet. The system uses the device’s camera to capture details from a scene and overlay virtual objects, as other AR applications do. But in this case, you can simply tap and swipe on the screen to make the robots move or pick up objects.

“You no longer need some of the expensive laboratory-grade equipment that roboticists normally use to do their projects, such as motion capture systems,” says Frank, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Using Xcode, Apple’s software development platform, Frank built an app that can detect robots and objects in the environment and create a virtual grid—along with a coordinate system—to keep track of those objects on the screen. The user can then manipulate the objects on the device and watch as

MIT Builds Drone-Based RFID

Boxes are everywhere: The United States Postal Service shipped 5.2 billion packages in 2016, while Amazon shipped 1 billion packages just for the holidays. A single Girl Scout has sold an astounding 101,100 boxes of cookies.

Keeping track of all these boxes is a real pain. Retailers, shipping companies, and manufacturers are always looking for better ways to manage inventory. In recent years, they’ve begun using RFID tags to track boxes from warehouses to trucks to retail stores and then to customers’ homes.

But RFID tags aren’t perfect—at every step, employees must scan each tag with an RFID reader. These scans must be done at close range, because RFID tags harness power from the signal the reader transmits to them.

Recently, researchers have begun to investigate other ways for these industries to trace items, including systems that can snap photos of labels or identify shipments by other visual cues. Now, an MIT group thinks they have an even better answer.

A team led by Fadel Adib, a principal investigator at MIT Media Lab, attached an RFID relay to a drone that he says could fly around and scan all the RFID tags on every box in a warehouse, and transmit

Startup Nanoport Wants Your Obsolete Smart Phones to Be Your New Best Friends

Ever fiddle with a pile of round magnets, building and rebuilding it into a sculpture? One of the companies making that toy for adults came out of a Canadian company called Nanomagnetics, founded in 2009. A very cool and creative product, but it didn’t actually DO anything.

A research team within Nano Magnetics, back in 2014, started investigating ways to make cool things with magnetics that had more functionality. The first thing they came up with was a computer connector, similar to Apple’s MagSafe connector, but one that could transfer USB data, not just power. With that in prototype, and venture money from Horizons Ventures, the group in 2015 spun out as startup Nanoport  Technology and packed up and moved to Silicon Valley.

Says founder and CEO Tim Szeto: “The investors told us to end our OEM relationships and business development efforts, focus on IP and product development, and move to the Valley.” He says the researchers, now 30 in all, have filed for more than 100 patents, and have a plan to change the way we think about discarded smart phones—and personal computing in general.

“When you buy your new smart phone, we want your old phone to become your home controller, or

Why U.S. Battery Startups Fail, and How to Fix It

Battery startup companies often fail in the United States. To fix this problem, the pharmaceutical industry could provide insights, a new study finds.

Recent advances in battery performance have largely come from incremental changes at large companies. However, this state of affairs falls short of the rapid growth in consumer demand for better batteries, say Eve Hanson, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and her colleagues.

Battery startups in the United States have largely failed, even when supported by major investors such as Bill Gates, Hanson adds. For instance, only 36 battery startups received more than $500,000 in funding since 2000, and of these only two returned more money than was invested into them, according to tech industry analysis firm CB Insights.

The Apple Watch’s Heart Monitoring App Gets Smarter

Apple announced today that the company is updating the heart rate monitoring software in existing Apple watches so that they gather and display more information. This short statement, delivered amid two hours of hardware and software announcements, packs a huge amount of potential.

Jeff Williams, Apple chief operating officer, described the new features, explaining that enhancements to the heart rate app include: correlating heart rate and accelerometer data to calculate a wearer’s standard resting heart rate; monitoring recovery time, that is, how long it takes after an activity for the watch wearer’s heart rate to return to its resting state; and alerting the user when the app detects an elevated heart rate at times when other sensors are not picking up physical activity—a potential sign of trouble.

The app will also monitor heart rhythms, Williiams said. In a pilot study with Stanford Medicine set to begin later this year, the heart rate app will notify users of heart rhythm problems such as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a common heart rhythm problem that can be asymptomatic until it leads to complications.

These enhancements represent just the tip of the iceberg with respect to what can be done with continuous heart rate monitoring. John Rogers, a pioneer in wearable electronics,