Bio-printing: the next Applied Materials?

Last Fall, I wrote about advances in design, materials, and fabrication technologies combining to place the “printing” of intelligent, microprocessor-controlled products within reach in a post titled “Print Your Pet.”

Another tiny piece of this puzzle was announced publicly earlier this month when HP reported recent progress in the development of memristors, a new class of diminutive switches capable of replacing transistors as computer chips shrink closer to the atomic scale.

“Our brains are made of memristors,” said Dr. Leon O. Chua, referring to the function of biological synapses. An electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who first conceived of memristors in 1971, he continued in the New York Time article on the subject, “We have the right stuff now to build real brains.”

Speaking of real brains, what about real flesh? On this topic, a fascinating update on the subject of human tissue printing was reported by CNET in their write-up of the San Diego venture, Organovo. While still in early clinical trials, the potential is for Organovo’s specialized 3D printers to make it possible for doctors to fabricate new human tissue based on a patient’s own cells.

What appears to make Organovo’s approach novel is the patented, proprietary printing devices, that are expected to price in the hundreds of thousands of dollars when they reach FDA-approved, commercial-ready stage, not unlike the fabrication machinery for semiconductors from companies like Tokyo Electron or Applied Materials.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department – as frequently happens with advanced, experimental technologies – has been pushing the envelope of human tissue printing with work at the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s Wake Forest lab. Watch this Youtube video from LabTV to observe how the Lab’s R&D staff has repurposed off-the-shelf inkjet printers to essentially create “rapid prototypes” of human skin.

The immediate target objective is a significant advance in the ability to respond to the needs of burn patients, by accelerating their healing and improving their recovery, physically and cosmetically. But, the over-the-horizon tease is the potential to fabricate larger and more complex biological constructs.

Okay, admittedly, we’re still a long ways off from Robocop or the Terminator. However, advances like these in biomechanics, as well as other intersection points of software, engineering, and life sciences, seem to be on pace to produce significant life-enhancing (and sim-life creating?) results over the next generation.

Haptic Tech: The Next Communications Breakthrough?

The idea of tapping into the brain via the senses to convey more immersive experiences isn’t new. Aldous Huxley introduced “the feelies” in his 1932 classic Brave New World, often overlooked versus Orwell’s darker version of the future in 1984.

With the superheated hype around 3D movies and now televisions, it’s worth spending a moment on the other augmentation technologies that are starting to emerge over the horizon. I believe that haptic technology in particular – involving the sense of touch – is poised to enter the mainstream.

As frequently happens, push-the-envelope domains of consumer technology – gaming and porn, for example – are some of the first to produce demonstration applications of the leading edge technologies.

For example, there was a great recent write-up in IEEE Spectrum about a new haptic vest, designed to produce simulated bullet and knife impacts for a first-person action game. In a sunnier vein, CNET covered the demonstration of a haptic system integrated with Second Life avatars to produce a more physical interaction between people using the virtual world, like a long distance hug.

To highlight the increasing international work in this area, the First Augmented Human International Conference was held just two weeks ago in early April at a resort in the French Alps. Over two dozen papers were presented, ranging from gesture innovations to emotion interpretation.

The reason these events matters is because touch matters. As recently as six weeks ago, the New York Times wrote a fascinating research summary on a basketful of work underway describing compelling applications of touch, from increased classroom volunteerism to improved health. Touch, as one research leader explains in the article “…is the first language we learn…[it’s] our richest means of emotional expression throughout life.”

When you begin to think about the ability to receive touch-based communications, as well as the continuing advances in the ability to send touch-based communications through gesture-control innovations from companies like Canesta, you start to get the feeling (figuratively and literally) that we are at the dawn of a whole new richer form of communications.

How will this begin to creep its way into the hurly-burly business world? It’s early to say. But, one thing we do know is that most of communications is conveyed in systems outside of the plain, written word. The fullest form of communications comes from how a person looks when they speak, the way the say their words, how they move, etc.

The other thing we seem to have learned is that the major waves of internet applications seem to be triggered by ground-breaking innovations in communications.

On this point, I thought Tim Bray, Director of Web Technologies at Sun, said it best last year (you can watch or read his full interview) when he said “One thing though: every killer app on the Internet, every success story on the Internet entirely without exception has been about communication. The killer app of the Internet is people. …Email, the web, lightweight publishing, chat, IM, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, Flick, Youtube, it’s all about finding new ways of sharing with other people.”

The Next Great Software Delivery Device

Reader Alert: this isn’t another story about Apple’s iPad. However…I was catching up on the current issue of Time magazine last night before hitting the sack, and one bit of it particularly stuck with me. That bit was about how the iPad, as a device, isn’t novel. Tablet computers have been around for a long time.

Instead, among the several things that are innovative about the iPad – and the iPhone before it – was envisioning them as delivery devices for a whole new extension of the software industry. I vividly remember a Walt Mossberg interview with Steve Jobs at the All Things D conference three years ago, where Jobs talked a lot about how important the content and software businesses were to them.

Now let me switch gears for you to a different innovator, Will Wright. Will, as some may recognize, is most notably the creator of the Sims and Spore. For anyone who has followed my writing, you may have picked up on some references I made to him last year in a post on Wikinomics entitled “Robot Mass Collaboration.”

Shortly after that post, Will did an interview for VentureBeat and said this about one of the things that always amazed him about the gaming industry “… if you got a lot of people involved in the experience, how much effort the fans would put into it. You give them tools and they run with them. We want to take that model into other areas.”

At the time of interview, which was last October, he said he was “keeping my fingers” crossed on the first product from his new design company – which is presently trying to stay very under the radar – being commercialized in six months to a year. This month, April, marks six months.

I’ll be keeping my eyes open. Because, while the “nouveau tablet” (i.e., iPad) business will see an intense surge in activity for some time, I tend to agree with what the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter said yesterday, who called the iPad transitional. Just what that next, major device is that becomes the target for a new wave of software and content delivery, remains to be seen.