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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Of What's New In 2011



Auto Tech: Ecomotors Opoc Engine

EcoMotors
Three decades ago, Volkswagen engineer Peter Hofbauer found himself staring at a Beetle engine’s cylinder head—that awkward slab of metal sitting on the combustion chamber—and wondering, Can’t we just replace that thing with more pistons? The answer turned out to be yes, so he eventually started a company, EcoMotors, to do just that. The company’s product is the opposed-piston, opposed-cylinder engine: OPOC. Each OPOC engine consists of two horizontal cylinders, each contain- ing two opposite-facing pistons. Twice the pistons per cylinder equals almost twice the power. OPOC weighs 30 percent less than the most efficient turbodiesel engines, and it has the highest thermal efficiency of any automotive engine in the world, converting as much as 50 percent of the energy in gasoline or diesel fuel into propulsion. A small OPOC-powered car could approach 100 mpg.
In 2010, Bill Gates and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla invested $23 million in EcoMotors, and this year the company signed development deals with a Chinese automotive supplier and the commercial truck manufacturer Navistar. Next it will demo a 1.2-liter, 160-horsepower OPOC in a compact sedan. Hofbauer says the engine is five to seven years away from commercialization, which would put it on the market well before federal fuel-economy standards rise to 54.5 mpg.



Auto Tech: Mazda Skyactiv Technology

Mazda
Before building hybrids and plug-ins, Mazda has decided to improve the fuel economy of its conventional gas-powered cars. With the Skyactiv initiative, the company aims to make every car in its fleet 30 percent more fuel-efficient by 2015. Starting with the 2012 Mazda3, fuel-saving improvements include a new, low-friction six-speed transmission and the highest-compression gas engine outside of a high-performance sports car—a new four-cylinder that gets 40 mpg and generates 155 horsepower. Next up is the 2013 CX-5, which will use a Skyactiv engine and transmission in addition to a new lightweight body that will cut the weight of the crossover SUV by 8 percent.
See the rest of the year’s greatest Auto Tech.                                     

Auto Tech: Ferrari FF

Ferrari
All-wheel drive is helpful on slick surfaces, but it can sap a car’s performance. The 4RM system on the new 208mph, 650-horsepower Ferrari FF is the first to employ two separate, electronically controlled front- and rear-wheel-drive units, which eliminates the heavy secondary driveshaft, thereby reducing weight and allowing the FF to drive like a true sports car. Normally the rear wheels do the driving, but when the car’s predictive algorithms sense that the rear wheels are about to slide, it sends a fraction of the 6.3-liter V12 engine’s power to the front, keeping this rarity (only 800 were made this year) out of the body shop.$295,000 

Auto Tech: Audi Connect

Audi
The Audi A7 is the world’s first fully Web-connected car. A built-in cellular data connection allows drivers to pull high-resolution 3-D aerial images from Google Maps into the navigation screen, dispatching with current cartoonish maps. Using voice commands or controls on the center console, drivers can also search phone numbers, weather maps, real-time gas prices from nearby stations, or Google “coffee shop” to look for a spot in the neighborhood. For safety reasons, drivers can’t pull up fantasy-football scores at a stoplight—but because the A7 generates a Wi-Fi signal, any passenger with a laptop can check them for you.

Auto Tech: Brammo Empulse

Brammo
With a 100mph top speed and 100 miles of driving range, theBrammo Empulse 10.0 is the fastest and farthest-driving consumer electric motorcycle ever made. The speed comes from the 57-horsepower motor; the range comes from the hefty 10-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The Empulse 10.0 recharges in 10 hours from a 110-volt household outlet. Brammo also sells two less-expensive variations on this bike—the 6.0 and the 8.0, which come with smaller battery packs. $14,000

Auto Tech: Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid

Porsche
The hybrid version of Porsche’s popular Cayenne SUV proves that performance and efficiency aren’t mutually exclusive. Powered by a 333-horsepower supercharged V6 and a 47-horsepower electric motor mated to an eight-speed transmission, the Cayenne is as nearly as fast as the V8 version, yet it delivers 20 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway—up from 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway. It also includes a smart feature that gasoline versions do not: On a downhill, the Cayenne shuts off the engine and decouples it from the transmission, so the car coasts fuel-free at highway speeds while recharging the battery.$69,000

Aviation and Space: SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX
The end of the shuttle program left the U.S. with two options for getting to space: paying for a seat on a foreign rocket or hiring a ride from a commercial space company. The commercial option became viable last December, when the SpaceX Dragon became the first privately built vehicle to orbit the Earth and return home safely. During Dragon’s unmanned flight, the 13,700-pound reusable capsule rode on top of a SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center into orbit and circled the planet twice before splashing down 500 miles off the Pacific coast of Mexico.
If subsequent test flights succeed, NASA could begin using the Dragon–Falcon 9 combination to deliver food and equipment to the International Space Station next year. Eventually, astronauts could fly on Dragon to the moon, Mars or beyond—SpaceX designed the capsule to accommodate seven passengers, and a planned upgrade will allow it to land on any rocky plane.

Intel Sandy Bridge

Most processor upgrades are incremental, touting small speed boosts and slight bumps to a computer’s battery life. The new generation of Intel chips takes a more substantial leap. The iSeries chips, code-named Sandy Bridge, run at up to twice the speed of their predecessors and clock up to 10 hours of battery life. Intel combined the CPU and the graphics processor onto a single 0.6-inch piece of silicon. Such a formation reduces data’s travel time from component to component by replacing lengths of wire with nearly a billion close-knit microscopic transistors. Laptops from $500

Knickerbocker Bridge

The 540-foot Knickerbocker Bridge in Boothbay, Maine, is the longest fiber-reinforced bridge ever constructed. Its lightweight hybrid-composite beams, designed by John Hillman of the HC Bridge Company and built by Harbor Technologies, are made of a corrosion-resistant fiber-reinforced polymer shell filled with reinforced concrete. The shell is one third the weight of steel and one tenth the weight of concrete, allowing for quicker construction (it takes just one backhoe to place the beams), and each beam lasts 100 years longer than ordinary concrete and steel, at a similar cos
Eye-Fi's new Direct Mode wirelessly shoots photos right from your camera to your smartphone, so your Twitter photos will be faster and sharper than ever

Eye-Fi Direct Mode in Action Like pointing two mirrors at each other, this is a photo of an app that's uploading the photo I'm taking of the app that's uploading the photo I'm taking. And so forth. Dan Nosowitz
Why are we reviewing an SD card? Usually, SD cards are just there--these days, high-capacity cards are dirt-cheap and nearly disposable. They're essential, but in the same way shoelaces are essential--you replace them when you need to, but you don't give them a lot of thought. Eye-Fi's new Direct Mode for its X2 line of SD cards, though, is different. Its main hook: The card wirelessly transfers photos from your camera to your iPhone or Android phone, from which you can upload to Facebook or Twitter, or do whatever you want. Basically, it gives your DSLR all the connectivity and power of your smartphone.

What's New

Eye-Fi cards are wireless-enabled SD cards, meant to be used with digital cameras (note: while SD is the overwhelming memory card standard, some high-end DSLRs use CompactFlash, and some older Sony cameras use the irritatingly proprietary MemoryStick format. Check before buying!). Prior to the release of Direct Mode, Eye-Fi cards were used to beam photos from a camera to a computer, a photo uploading service (like Flickr or Picasa) or to social networking sites, but those cards always required you to sync with a Wi-Fi hotspot, like in your home or a coffeeshop. That's kind of a pain: You'd have to enter the network name and password of every hotspot you wanted to use in the Eye-Fi program on your computer, and then find one of those when you wanted to upload photos. Not fun! But since many of us now carry permanent wireless networks with us all the time, in the form of smartphones, why not just use that, and never have to worry about hotspots at all?
Direct Mode is a free firmware upgrade for all X2-branded Eye-Fi cards, of which there are several (either 4GB or 8GB), and it comes baked right into the new Eye-Fi Mobile X2 card. That's accompanied by a new, free app for iPhone and Android, which essentially creates an ad-hoc wireless network between your phone and your SD card. It uses Wi-Fi, but you don't need to be in a wireless hotspot or anything--this is just a simple device-to-device connection and can be done anywhere, anytime. The card sends its photos to your phone, so you can upload them to your social network, photo service, or email client of your choice. Or you can edit them, or use them in games, or set them as your wallpaper, or whatever else you do with photos on your smartphone.

Eye-Fi Connect X2 SD Card: Probably the cheapest option to snag Direct Mode, and our recommendation. 4GB is plenty of space when you're constantly backing up photos to the cloud.  Dan Nosowitz

What's Good

Direct Mode, once it's set up (no easy task--see the next section), works very well. Photos transfer automatically as you take them, and you've got the option to upload them to a photo hosting service like Flickr or Picasa on the fly. Smartphone cameras might be getting better and better, but they're not, and probably will never be, as capable as a decent DSLR. So it's a pretty great feeling to shoot a crystal-clear, properly lit photo with your expensive DSLR, then upload it to Twitter right then and there, without having to run home to sync with your computer.
It's also nice that Direct Mode is available as a free upgrade to many existing Eye-Fi cards--those things aren't cheap, and it's good that users who just dropped $80 on an SD card won't have to do it again for Direct Mode.

What's Bad

I should start by saying that I tried out Direct Mode immediately following the release of the app, and that most of the problems I had with setup won't be shared by anyone who's using the app now. But setup was, to be honest, pretty awful. The Android app had some odd problem that wouldn't allow many users, including me, (I was using an HTC Thunderbolt) to log in, which makes using Direct Mode impossible. Eventually I talked with someone from Eye-Fi who advised me to first connect my phone to my home Wi-Fi network, which somehow un-broke it, so when I disconnected from my home network, it finally let me log in via 4G. Eye-Fi is doing their best to sort out the problem, so hopefully this won't affect future users, but I can't in good faith ignore the difficulties I had.
But even working properly, setup is kind of confusing. You have to sync the card with your computer, download the new firmware, download software for your Mac or PC, sync your card with your phone while it's plugged into your computer, and only then can you start actually using the card. I'm not sure why the computer has to be involved at all--why can't the smartphone app just discover the Eye-Fi card on its own?

Eye-Fi Center Mac Software: This is the software used on your computer to set up Direct Mode. It's slightly more confusing than it needs to be.  Dan Nosowitz
The Android app is not thrilling--sort of tricky to set up, and for some reason it imports every photo and video on your phone, rather than just the stuff imported from an Eye-Fi card. Makes things unnecessarily cluttered, especially if you have a lot of album art. Just do Eye-Fi, Eye-Fi App! The sharing options are also confusing; you can only share to the services you've previously set up on your computer, so you can't just share to Facebook unless you've put some forethought into it. I ended up avoiding the sharing options in the app altogether, and just using Android's Gallery app to upload to my Twitter and Facebook account. It all works okay, but it's not particularly elegant.

The Price

Free upgrade for existing X2 users--cards range from around $45 for the 4GB Connect X2 to $100 for the 8GB Pro X2. It's expensive, considering you can get a non-wireless 8GB SD card for about twelve bucks, but given the extra features, I think the $45 Connect X2 is fairly price. $100 for an 8GB SD card is lunacy, though.

The Verdict

I can't ignore the difficulties I had setting up Direct Mode, but it did all get taken care of and Eye-Fi's technical folk were very proactive in getting things sorted. Now that it's all set up, I don't want to ever use a non-connected Wi-Fi card: My DSLR has never felt so versatile, and my smartphone has never felt so powerful (at least, as a camera). If you don't have a DSLR, I'd say it's probably not worth the admittedly steep entry price--most modern smartphone cameras are nearly as good as your average point-and-shoot camera, anyway. But if you take a lot of photos on the go, a Direct-Mode-enabled Eye-Fi would be a great addition to your toolkit.

Bio Soil Enhancers Forage Boost

PURETi

Farmers and ranchers worldwide use about 180 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer every year, much of which eventually runs into waterways and oceans, causing algae blooms that kill aquatic life. The mix of more than 30 microbes in Forage Boost could eliminate all other fertilizer use on the planet’s eight billion acres of pasture grass. Forage Boost’s microbes replace naturally occurring ones that are lost in overfarmed soil, increasing productivity by locking nitrogen in the soil and breaking down organic waste into useful nutrients. The treatment increases grass yield by some 20 percent over standard fertilizer. And because microbes create micro-channels in the soil structure, water runoff decreases by about half, reducing watering needs. From $40/gallon
Titanium dioxide, typically used as a pigment in toothpaste and an active ingredient in sunscreen, can also, in ultraviolet light, act as a catalyst to break down air pollutants. After 10 years of research,PURETi produced a titanium dioxide nanoparticle spray that dries into a clear coating on almost any surface, including rooftops, fabric, windows and roadways. In tests, coating asphalt roads with PURETi decreased smog-causing pollutants by about 50 percent.

Bosch GLM 80 Laser Distance Measurer



The GLM 80 takes most of the time and thought out of measuring distances for home-construction projects. Just point the handheld unit at a spot up to 265 feet away, press a button, and the display shows how far it is. An internal two-axis tilt sensor allows the device to take angle readings when it’s not level, whether it’s held horizontally or vertically. By taking an angle measurement and a secondary distance reading and doing some clever math, it can calculate distances indirectly from any position.$249

Diagnostics For All Liver-Function Test

A quarter of the 13 million patients worldwide who are undergoing treatment for HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis will die not from their diseases, but from liver complications caused by the treatment itself. In many cases, all it would take to prevent their death is access to a regular screening process that would tell doctors when to back off on treatment, but until now that process has required $1,000 plastic pumps, $100 computer chips and $30,000 microscopes—resources entirely unavailable to millions of patients in the developing world. Diagnostics for All’s “lab-on-a-chip,” on the other hand, costs less than a penny to make. Drop a blood sample onto the stamp-size paper chip, and 15 minutes later it changes color to indicate liver health. The company shipped its first batch of chips to India this year. $0.05/chip (est.)

Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3-D Viewer

3-D in theaters looks more realistic than 3-D at home for two reasons: The screen is huge, and the projector’s resolution surpasses that of any HDTV. Sony’s personal viewer is the first to bring theater-quality 3-D to your living room. Inside the HDMI-connected visor, twin 0.7-inch OLEDs sit about one inch from a user’s eyes, taking up the entire field of view; the sensation is equivalent to sitting 65 feet from a 62.5-foot movie screen. The OLEDs can turn on and off every few millionths of a second (about 1,000 times as fast as an LCD), a rate that all but eliminates the “ghosting” during fast-moving action, live sports and SOCOM 4 shootouts. And because every one of the screen’s 921,600 pixels is its own light source, no light can bleed between dots and spoil the crispness of a color, a common problem on many displays. Lest viewers not feel immersed enough, onboard earphones use time-shifting effects to produce virtual five-channel surround sound. $800

Billabong V1

Several big-wave surfers have been killed while attempting to conquer giant swells. Billabong’s V1wetsuit significantly reduces that risk. After a wipeout, the surfer pulls an attached ripcord, puncturing a carbon dioxide cartridge that inflates a bladder in the back of the suit.
The submerged surfer then rises to the water’s surface in just a few seconds. Billabong teamed up with professional surfer Shane Dorian to develop the suit and commissioned a company that makes military survival gear to create the inflation system [see “Keeping Heads above Water"]. Price not set

Aerovironment Nano Hummingbird UAV

The nimblest hover-spy


Most flying robots use rotors or propellers, limiting the craft’s ability to maneuver in tight places. The Nano Hummingbird navigates by changing the angle and shape of its paper-thin wings—which beat 20 to 40 times per second—and can hover in place for up to 11 minutes. It is also small enough to fly through windows or other small openings, strong enough to carry a microphone or camera, and stable enough to maintain a highly controlled hover, even in gusts of wind. Once the design, which is still in prototype, matures and goes into production, operators could use the Hummingbird on reconnaissance missions in environments where maneuverability inside buildings or around near-ground obstacles, such as huts or tents, is essential.



                                 


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