Augmentation: Not Your Father’s Nip Tuck

Ok, you’ve been patient with me and I appreciate it. I admit to straying a bit from the sub-title of my blog “Technology Observations…” for the past 2-3 months. A better sub-title for recent posts would be a “technologist’s observations about community and creativity.”

But, it’s time to return to the core. So, if you have enjoyed the community and creativity posts, then mosey on over to the blog at LifetimeValue(dot)Me. This is the venture where I’ll continue writing about tools, services, and examples for making strategic investments in your communities.

Back to the subject at hand, I want to offer updates to three different but related posts in “The BroadBrush Update” over the past year. I believe them related because they all describe some aspect of a future, augmented human capacity. I’m a big believer in this augmentation trend, because of the natural human desire we all possess to extend our healthy lives as long as reasonably possible.

The first update concerns exoskeletons, which I wrote about in a post a year ago entitled “Grandpa Ironman.”  The update is the announcement of two Honda products based on technology the company invented with work on its Asimo line of robots. The two products are the Stride Management Assist and the Bodyweight Support Assist, the latter demonstrated in the video below.

At first glance the cartoonish nature of the video and the unwieldy nature of the device itself may make it hard to be taken seriously. But the potential freedom that such a device can provide people with the need for a boost in leg strength should be taken very seriously. This comment I found on a technology hub where the Honda devices were being discussed says it all:

I am 82 years old and totally healthy except my legs are getting weak and I have difficulty getting up the stairs. I live alone and I do not want to move, and this looks like an ideal solution. Where can I get one and how much?

The second update concerns vision systems. In a post I wrote entitled “Adventures in Reality,” I speculated about GPS-enabled mobile phones, using their on-board cameras, that could provide nearly zero-latency data streams of a person’s surroundings. No more need for speculation – it’s already here.

A recent issue of Time magazine brought to attention Raimo van der Klein, one of a trio of Dutch inventors who created Layar, the augmented reality browser and company of the same name (in the photo at the beginning of this post).  The browser, as well as a growing host of “layers” for Layar are available free on the iPhone. Check them out.

The third update is related to advances in materials. I wrote a post earlier this year on “Bio-printing” in which I talked about the ability to print atomic-sized transistors and even human tissue.

Recently, I ran across a video of a venture called Fabrican, which is a sprayable fabric created by particle engineer Paul Luckham and fashion designer Manel Torres. Below is a video of the fabric being created on a female model.

While this update may stretch the imagination the most in terms of practical implications, of the three updates I’ve shared, don’t judge too fast. Just start thinking about the ability to augment the sprayable materials with various pharmaceutical and health treatments, and you can quickly begin to imagine the life-extending possibilities of such a technology.

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.”