The most resent wearable computing Kickstarter success (having reached it goal in only 3 days!) is the NFC Ring designed by John McLear from the UK. NFC for those of you unfamiliar with the acronym stands for Near Field Communication, a wireless protocol similar to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification – used to security tag products in shops among many other things). NFC is becoming increasingly popular for particular tasks because of certain qualities that distinguish it from RFID and for this reason it now comes as standard in most new high end smartphones. In fact you may already have been using NFC if you are one of the early adopters of a contactless credit card (See here for some more (scary) information on contactless credit cards).
What distinguishes NFC from its now ubiquitous ancestor RFID is that it allows two way communication (you can only read from an RFID chip) and as the name suggests it works over a very short range (maximum of 4 inches of 10 centimetres). Both of these qualities make it particularly suitable for smartphones and tasks that require more security (like electronic payment). So how does John McLear propose to utilize this technology?
The NFC Ring can be used to unlock doors, mobile phones and to transfer information, link people or even transfer accessibility preferences or login details. Have a look at the promo video below for more details.
I’m sure you’ll agree this a great looking product at a fantastic price (under €30 including delivery) who’s full usefulness is probably not yet completely evident. In addition to that that there are a couple of other features that make this an outstanding Kickstarter project.
First of all the detailed video (below) where John outlines the design iterations and technological barriers the team overcame to come up with the final product will prove very interesting and informative to any potential product designers out there. Also their equal weighting of aesthetics, security and functionality could be considered a blueprint for the design of wearable technology. Releasing the SDK (Software Development Kit) as Open Source should ensure a steady stream of user generated apps and innovation at a rate that just wouldn’t be possible even with a large team of developers. Finally allowing people the option of customizing the ring to their own individual preferences or create unique designs opens the door to allow creative and artistic individuals the opportunity of reselling their designs. You can even just buy the NFC chips and use a 3D printer to print your own ring!
This is true user driven design in the sense that although this is a product in its own right it is also a platform for users to create their own unique product with the functionality they need and the aesthetic they desire… as long as it’s a ring any thing they want with the 3D printing option!
Anybody got any ideas for useful Assistive Technology (or any other) applications for this technology? Please comment below (as long as it’s not spam about rip-off Oakley sunglasses
3D printing is not a new technology, it has been around in one form or another for over 20 years with 1986 being the year many credit with its invention. What has changed over the last couple of years is the availability of this technology to the general public. Like many emerging technologies, 3D printing had to first find its way out of DARPA sponsored university labs before being commercially available and then due to its expense remained the preserve of giant multinational manufacturing companies for a number of years. This meant it’s progress along Gartner’s Hype Cycle has been painfully slow only reaching the “Peak of Inflated Expectation” in 2012. The last few years however has seen “Fab Labs” popping up is many cities around the world. The Fab Lab idea sees 3D printing following the tried and tested model used for many years by the 2D printing industry for large volume/high speed colour copying and printing. Rather than an individual purchasing the (still) prohibitively expensive hardware they either commission the item to be printed and supply the 3D file or they rent use of the printer themselves.
2013 is to be the year that 3D printing becomes mainstream and if this happens there are all kinds of ramifications to design, manufacturing and in fact to society as a whole. We saw the beginning of this only a few days ago when the first 3D printed gun was successfully test fired. It’s makers Defence Distributed plan to make the files available to download as part of it’s Wiki Weapons project so that anyone interested can too can print their own gun. See their video below.
Let’s hope their guns are as bad as their videos but joking aside this is obviously something that will get a huge amount of press coverage and will justifiably concern many people. It’s unfortunate that this will be, for many people their first introduction to the whole concept of downloading a digital product that is subsequently manufactured locally through 3D printing. But this is indeed the future that some experts promise us and a future that could result in a move away from designing for mass production towards more bespoke designs manufactured to a smaller scale on demand. Ultimately this could result in designers being freed from the shackles put upon them by economies of scale and allow them to connect directly with the end user in a way that is economically viable. Whether it will or not remains to be seen but 3D printing certainly has the potential to disrupt the industries of manufacturing and design to the same extent that the digitisation of music and movies disrupted those respective industries.
So what this mean for Assistive Technology? Well big changes, just like every other area of design and manufacturing but in exactly what way it’s still not clear. One project that offers hope for the future is Robohand robohand.blogspot.com/. The Robohand project is focused on developing open-source designs for mechanical finger prosthesis and thanks to Makerbot donating two Replicator 2’s (3D Printers) they already have already made considerable progress, see the video below.
popSlate was launched on crowd funding site Indigogo at the end of November and in a little over a week it successfully reached its goal of $150,000. What is it? Well if you haven’t heard already (coverage has been extensive) it’s an iPhone 5 cover ($100) that adds a 4” e-ink screen to the back of your iPhone. Take a look at the video below but bear in mind this is a pitch and may differ in performance from the finished product (there has been some speculation that the refresh rate of e-Ink would be nowhere near as fast as it appears in this video) :
Other advantages aside from being able to personalise your iPhone cover with photos of your dog come from the unique properties of e-ink technology. These include its low power consumption (only uses power to refresh the image); easily viewable in bright sunlight and the ability to display bar-codes that can be read by traditional laser bar-code scanners.
This final point was exploited a few months back by another successful crowd funded unholy union between iPhone and e-ink the Geode. Have a look at its kick-starter page to see what a really clever product the Geode is.. however considering the iPhone battery life you could be potentially setting yourself up for major problems (all your eggs in one basket comes to mind).
Finally we have the Pebble. The Pebble is different from those previously mentioned for two significant reasons. Firstly it doesn’t discriminate; you can get a Pebble for Android as well as iPhone. Secondly it comes in the form of an e-ink display for your wrists, like a watch, remember them? In spring of this year the designers of the Pebble started their KickStarter campaign to raise a modest $100,000; they rose over $10,000,000. Their device is basically an e-ink display that connects to your smart phone using Bluetooth. You can install various apps on it allowing you to receive messages, control your music, access GPS information (useful for running or as a cycling computer) as well as.. telling the time. They also have a software development kit (SDK) that allows tech minded people to develop their own apps.
If nothing else all three of these products prove that there is a considerable market for e-ink smart phone accessories but what do they have to do with assistive technology? Well the answer to that I suppose is that in their current form not a lot but perhaps a second e-ink display could serve an AT purpose?
Maybe an e-ink display on a wheelchair tray that displays incoming messages or a map/directions? An e-ink display on the back of an iPad that is being used as a communication device (one of the features that distinguished the Lightwrighter from other communication devices was it second screen that allowed people to read the message being produced as well a hearing them). Could an e-ink display be made serve the same purpose on a tablet or smart phone?