MIT projects that are set to revolutionise your life

From fluffy robot pals to screamingly fast computer chips

MIT Tofu robot

Scientists often get a hard time from technophobes - not least because some of their research stems from the university of the bleedin' obvious.

But over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) there's plenty of real work being done - resulting in technologies, concepts and techniques that really could change the way you live work and play. Here are some great recent examples.

1,000GHz computers, anyone?

Scientists at MIT have developed an experimental microchip that uses graphene - a material made from pure carbon.

Graphene enabled the scientists to use frequency multiplier technology commonly uses in radio frequency and other electronics, but without the associated noise. Result? A microchip that has the potential to run at speeds of up to 1,000GHz, and which could eventually appear in PC, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets in the very near future.

Turning it into a commercial reality "may take a year of work, maximum two," says Tomás Palacio, assistant professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Building better batteries

Normally, of course, we try to avoid viruses like the plague they are, but MIT scientists have found a use for the biological kind - creating high-powered, long-lasting batteries for use in mobile gadgets. The non-lethal, genetically-engineered virus forms part of a new carbon material that acts as the battery's cathode.

Team that with news from the same team that it's also discovered a way to build superfast-charging lithium-ion batteries and we could be headed for some kind mobile gadget nirvana - both techniques could only be a couple of years away.

MIT's battery expertise has already resulted in at least one high profile win - Chrysler's new range of Envi hybrid and electric cars will soon run on cells using MIT-derived technology . The use of iron phosphate rather than cobalt oxide should also make future lithium-ion batteries a lot less likely to catch fire or explode.

BATTERY TECH: Future electric cars from Chrysler - like this Dodge Circuit EV - will use battery technologies developed at MIT

Saving the world, one car (part) at a time

As well helping to develop the next-gen technologies that will power future cars, MIT has also been helping to cut their carbon footprint - showing off both a solar-powered car called Eleanor, and by developing shock absorbers that can generate and store energy creating riding over bumps in the road.

The solar-powered car isn't really a concept that could ever go into mass-production short-term, but the regenerative shock absorbers are: the MIT students who invented them are already looking to capitalise on their idea.

A robot that won't weird you out

Building robots that don't scare the living Bejasus out of you is a lot harder than it looks - why else would we still be getting sleepless nights over Kismet, Huggable or the ReplieeQ1 Expo (shudder).

MIT roboticist Ryan Wistort may have come closer than most, though, with Tofu - a Furby-like 'bot whose expressions and movement have been inspired by Disney cartoon characters

TOFU: You know this robot would never turn on you and kill you in your sleep

At last, a reliable helping hand in the garden

Cute as Tofu is, robots are arguably better when they just look like robots and do something useful like the ones in MIT's CSAIL project do.

Each robot comprises a robot arm, camera and watering pump mounted on a 're-imagined' version of the iRobot Roomba.

A network of sensors in the garden tells the robots when the cherry tomato plants need to be watered or fed - and the robots can even pick the tomatoes when they're ripe. MIT's aim is to build a totally autonomous greenhouse - all of which suggests a modern, optimistic update on Doug Trumbell's 1972 sci-fi movie Silent Running which features a trio of gardening robots.

Spatial operating systems - Minority Report made real

It's become something of a geek movie cliché, but the Tactile User Interface (TUI) used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report began as a project at MIT. John Underkoffler came up with the idea when he was working with Hiroshi Ishii at MIT's Tangible Media Group.

The Minority Report interface - now known as g-speak - is still in development, with MIT students and Underkoffler's Oblong Industries working together on the project. However, g-speak is already in use 'at Fortune 50 companies', while an developer SKDK is available for Mac OS X and Linux.

G-speak has obvious implications for Apple, Microsoft and other OS makers - a patent application last year suggests that Apple is already investigating something similar while Microsoft has Surface, of course.

Beyond multi-touch

An MIT project that could dovetail neatly with g-speak is SixthSense - a wearable computer that turns any surface into a display enabling you to interact with its interface using hand and finger gestures in mid-air. A series of online videos show how the system could be used with maps, books and interactive newspapers or even as a virtual digital camera or mobile phone. Are you listening, LG?


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