6 Unusual Innovations in Tech

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We’re currently living in a world in which technology seems to innovate more quickly than it ever had previously, partly due to the kind of technological Golden Age we’re experiencing, and partly due to the current Golden Age of communication, in that news travels as quickly as ever, which both helps get the word out on new innovations and gives said new innovations a chance to shine. Only a decade ago video games looked like something akin to not wearing your contact lenses and were controlled with plastic controllers, and it was a pain to transfer a single large file. Sleek tablet computers were things only seen in science fiction and PDAs were kind of silly, and printers generally only printed flat words and images on flat paper. Technology has come a long way, and as time goes on, innovation in tech seems to be picking up speed. So, let’s take a look at some of the more unusual innovations in technology.

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1. Tablet Computers and Mobile Devices

No, this might not sound very “unusual,” but give me a chance to make a sales pitch. In just a few short years, we’ve gone from tablet computers being a pie-in-the-sky dream, to a defined sector of the consumer electronics market. Moreover, the very nature of a tablet — that being a flat, handheld, easily portable device that can do pretty much everything a computer does — is a complete departure from the traditional screen-in-front-keyboard-below model of a computer. In short, it’s a weird aberration.

The progression of personal computers up to this point has been pretty straightforward. You sat with your input device(s) — keyboard and later the mouse — under your hands, and the output devices — monitor — in front of your eyes. Even the laptop, a major step in the evolution of computing, mimics this arrangement. The first tablet device to ever come to market was the Newton in 1993, and it presented a radical new interface: The input was the output, and the whole thing was small enough that you could comfortably use it standing up.

Truthfully, the Newton didn’t live up to the expectations of a full-blown computing experience. It and the Palm Pilots and the devices that followed were called Personal Digital Assistants, and carved out a niche of themselves as supplying what your cellphone couldn’t: Note taking, wireless communication, Internet access, complex games, etc. These devices, carried around in the pockets of geeks and high-powered executives eventually converged to create the smartphone — a marriage of PDA computing power and the voice and text messaging of a phone.

In what may be proof that the universe really enjoys symmetry in all things, the success of the smartphone proved to device makers that the technology and consumer markets were mature enough for a tablet computer to really be successful. The launch of the iPad in 2010 was a seminal moment, and the market has exploded with Xooms and PlayBooks — all devices that a year prior might have seemed a longshot technologically, as well as in terms of marketability.

Five years ago, portable MP3 players and laptops had finally become ubiquitous enough to where an average person would see dozens during his or her morning commute. Since then, it is a rare occurrence not to see someone on a bus playing Angry Birds on their mobile device of choice, or reading a Kindle. Tablet and mobile computing is coming of age before our eyes, and we can only suspect at how it will change computing in the years to come.

(image via Gillyberlin)

2. 3D Printers

3D Printers have been blowing up in popularity recently, but they’re actually based on technology that has been around for years. 3D printing, in various forms, has been used for rapid prototyping in several industries since the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since then, there have been several reinventions of the 3D printing process that have made it more efficient, quicker, and cheaper, which has widened its appeal.

The biggest potential for 3D printing is that it represents one step closer to replicator technology, something I think we all want. The technology is still young though. While there is a decent selection of materials that can be 3D printed, including plastic, ceramics, metal and even sugar, some simpler tasks are still relatively out of reach or difficult to pull off efficiently. For example, you can’t easily 3D print an object made of more than one material, and if you want to 3D print in color, you have to resort to the least efficient form of 3D printing and purchase several different kinds expensive printing solution.

Expensive printing solution (and printers in general) are the obstacle the technology is currently trying to get over. For the time being, printing solution typically goes for somewhere around $800-1000 per gallon or cartridge, and professional printers generally are rarely less than several hundred thousand dollars. There are, however, a few desktop models that you can get for $10-30k. These cheaper printers are slowly getting the tech into the hands of (uncharacteristically rich) artists and people who have the time to experiment with the things instead of using them to do work all the time. Be sure to expect some interesting advances in the next few years.

3. Ground Effects Vehicles

What you’re looking at is, strictly speaking, not an airplane. It’s a strange class of craft called a ground effects vehicle, which takes advantage of an unusual aerodynamic quirk. It seems that when craft fly very, very close to the ground, their drag is significantly reduced and they can realize a huge fuel savings. While that may not be a very sexy explanation, the practical upshot is that ground effects vehicles can move tremendous amounts of cargo very quickly without expending much fuel to do so.

Arguably, the pinnacle of ground effects vehicles is the Lun class ekranoplan, made by the Soviet military during the Cold War. This monster had eight turbo fans to give it a boost into the air, carried advanced radar systems in the domes on its tail, and packed six powerful anti-ship missiles in the dorsal-mounted tubes. All that, and an operating ceiling of 15 feet above the water.
In the end, ground effects vehicles haven’t really caught on in a large-scale sense. However, their strange designs and even stranger operating practices will forever enshrine them among the world’s weird innovations.
(image via)

4. Wire Recording

When most of us think of antiquated recording devices, we think of turntables, reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders, minidiscs, and CDs. However, these weren’t the only ways that people captured sound. In the 1890s, during the reign of the Edison wax cylinder, wire recording started to take off. Instead of needle and wax, wire recorders magnetized thin steel or copper wire to store mono recordings. All this before the turn of the century.

While it relied on the same technology that would eventually be used in magnetic tape machines, wire recording were initially smaller, easier to use, and recorded for longer durations than competing devices. Moreover, because they recorded at such high speed, they provided superior fidelity and increased redundancy — a whole inch of wire could be lost without being noticed during playback. This resiliant design also meant that it made an ideal in-flight recorder for airliners.

Though they only briefly rose to prominance in the 1950s, the lasting legacy of wire recording is two-fold. First, it primed an eager audience for the tape machines that would follow, and helped cement the idea of home recording. Second, a number of rare recordings have been found on wire that would have otherwise been lost. Famously, the only live recording of Woody Guthrie was recovered from half-century old wire and released in 2007.
(image via)

5. Torrents

Sharing a large file has always been somewhat of a curious endeavor. Even the techiest of techies (a notion even xkcd tackled) would encounter various issues when attempting to transfer a large file, because basically, not every facet of a file transfer is under the control of the person transferring, whether it be speed limits on either end of the transfer, power outages, or a poor protocol. The easiest modern way to do it for free, aside from transferring the file to a physical storage device like a flash drive, is to distribute it via a torrent. Though torrents tend to be the preferred method of the software piracy scene — which by association gives the distribution method a more nefarious vibe — pirates chose the distribution method because it is currently one of the easiest to operate and maintain due to its innovative design and distribution method.

The peer-to-peer protocol was designed back in April of 2001, and was first released a few months later in July. Since then, torrents are responsible for more active users, on average, than YouTube and Facebook combined and more bandwidth use than Hulu and Netflix combined.

What makes a torrent more innovative than, for instance, an old AIM direct file transfer or an IRC Fserve, is the way in which torrents are created, made available, and how the files are actually obtained. Whereas an AIM direct file transfer is a single-to-single transfer, bending to the whim of the AIM client and the uploader’s and downloader’s respective speeds — which is also similar to the aforementioned IRC Fserve — torrents start off as files of a usually-tiny size, which act akin to a bookmark. When the user opens the torrent file in a torrent client, the torrent points to the swarm, the group of people who have the same torrent and file, both uploading (seeding) to and downloading (leeching) from each other; a method already much different than a direct file transfer. The real gem is that a user downloads pieces of the torrent, out of order, from various people who are uploading said pieces, and the client holds the various pieces in order until the gaps are filled in. Because of the fragmented distribution method and the swarm of users uploading the file, torrents became the easiest method of large-sized file distribution available to the public. To quote a certain infomercial patriarch, torrents work via the set it and forget it mentality. Though the speed of transfer wildly varies, regardless of the seeders’ and leachers’ speeds, the averages speed of a populated torrent is usually a much cleaner, easier experience than any kind of large-sized-file transfer protocol before it, and has become so ingrained in current file transfer culture, that even major companies, such as Blizzard, use the protocol to distribute their game updates, which is genius, because none of the workload is on Blizzard’s own servers.

6. Motion Control

Probably the first widely-recognizable iteration of motion control was the odd Nintendo Power Glove, a glove that the user wore that was intended to recreate his or her hand motions in the video game it was being used to control. Considering it released in 1989, the peripheral wasn’t very good at anything; it was too bulky, was imprecise, and was difficult to use. Fast forward to 2006 when Nintendo unleashed the Wii upon the gaming and non-gaming masses, a video game console with the primary gimmick of motion control. The unit didn’t initially provide the motion control gamers desire, as it instead was something more akin to waggle control, where the user would waggle the controller and the waggles would trigger an on-screen action, rather than replicate the way the user moved the controller. It wasn’t until Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus controller attachment a few years later that the Wii finally achieved the 1:1 motion control Nintendo set out to achieve way back in 1989.

The Wii hardware was a ridiculous success, and it basically forced the hand of Sony and Microsoft to mimic the achievement. Sony released the PlayStation Move, a device similar to a Wii controller along with a tracking camera, while Microsoft released the Kinect, a fairly sophisticated tracking camera. The gaming market responded better than most hardcore gamers thought it would, but not as well as Sony and Microsoft had hoped.

Though motion control is still limited by the games and applications it is used to control as much as it is limited by the ceiling of technological capability the hardware sets, it’s literally science fiction come to life — stuff we remember seeing in movies when we were younger, wishing that we live to see the day technology might put working, smart motion control in our hands. The day has come and passed, and now we’re simply left wishing for the new and better refinements in the tech.

New technology is being created all the time, but the bulk of it is simply improvements on previous iterations. While moderate updates on past iterations are usually useful, the above items are one-of-a-kind innovations that greatly improved the lives of many, even to this very day. Apple’s Newton kicked off the tablet craze, which currently seems to be coming to a head with many companies throwing their tablet into the ring. BitTorrent is providing a new, extremely easy way to share files. Motion control is revolutionizing the way people interact with software. Technology and the creators and purveyors of tech have made modern times an exciting, fast-paced world in which one can only wonder what is just around the corner that will change the way people interact with tech and each other.

This post is courtesy of our partnership with Intel, a company that has dedicated their business model to bringing everyone innovative technology, and what better way to appreciate that than take a look at various innovations in technology that we can all appreciate.

Join the conversation on Twitter with #IntelEmp.

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