👽 FiToSci December 2021: Horizon Worlds, Drive Pilot, Ameca Humanoid, Bionic Eye, Hungry Hippo, and More
Hey there, I'm Emil Protalinski. This is FiToSci, a monthly newsletter that tracks how humanity is taking the fiction out of science fiction.
Star this email to easily reference December's highlights:
🕶️ Augmented/virtual reality: Meta opened its metaverse.
🚗 Transportation/logistics: Germany approved Level 3 self-driving.
🤖 AI/robots: The humanoid robot Ameca woke up.
🧬 Biotech/bioscience: Researchers built an implantable bionic eye.
🚀 Space: Rocket Lab revealed Neutron's Hungry Hippo design.
I recommend skipping to the sections you like, opening what you find interesting in a separate tab, and bookmarking links for later reading. Let's get started.
🕶️ Meta opened its VR social platform Horizon Worlds after testing the massive VR multiplayer world in private beta for over two years. Meta, formerly Facebook, announced Horizon Worlds, formerly Facebook Horizon, in September 2019. You can try Meta's first stab at the metaverse if you're in the U.S. or Canada, own a Quest 2 or a Rift, and have a Facebook account that says you're at least 18 years old. It will be difficult for Meta to keep children out of Horizon Worlds, assuming they even want to leave existing metaverse-lite experiences like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox.
🕶️ Oppo unveiled Air Glass, a 30g "assisted reality" wearable that projects 2D info into the user's field of view, supports gestures such as nodding to show notifications, and includes an integrated speaker and dual microphones for features like speech translation. Unfortunately, the smart monocle head-up display only lasts for three hours of active usage and is launching solely in China as a "limited release" in Q1 2022.
🕶️ Google started actively hiring to form an "Augmented Reality OS" for an unspecified "innovative AR device" according to company job listings. Google is still updating Google Glass for enterprises, including adding Meet videoconferencing in July, but the listings mention "new hardware" and "Augmented Reality (AR) products" (plural, not singular) while one even states "as Google adds products to the AR portfolio."
🕶️ More news leaked about Apple's first AR headset, reportedly weighing 300-400g, entering mass production in late Q4 2022, and featuring four sets of 3D sensors to offer a user interface with hand gesture controls, object detection, eye tracking, iris recognition, voice control, and skin, expression, and spatial detection. Apple is also working on a second-generation AR headset for 2024 that is supposed to be lighter, adopt a new battery system, and feature a faster processor, serving as your latest reminder of the tradeoffs of early adoption.
🕶️ Microsoft reportedly partnered with Samsung on a "HoloLens project" targeting a commercial device unveiling in 2024. It's not clear if the project is for a HoloLens 3 or another augmented reality device, but it's likely Samsung would be the hardware manufacturer and make the waveguide module.
🕶️🚗 Nio partnered with Nreal on AR glasses for cars that can project dashboard information on an effective screen size of 201 inches, reducing the need for in-car screens. Nreal's AR glasses are meant to be paired with Nio's new ET5 sedan, set to begin deliveries in September 2022, but must be bought separately.
🚗 Mercedes-Benz won regulatory approval to deploy its Drive Pilot package hands-free driving system in Germany, and said it's also aiming for the green light in other markets including China and the U.S. Drive Pilot, which will be an option for the company's S-Class and EQS models in mid-2022, was approved for Level 3 autonomous driving on 13,191 kilometers of the country's Autobahn network at speeds of up to 60 km/hour. Drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic and focus on secondary activities like communicating with colleagues, writing emails, surfing the internet, and watching films. Honda started selling the world's first car certified with Level 3 autonomous driving in March, but only leased 100 models.
🚗 TuSimple completed its first driverless autonomous truck run on open public roads, without any human intervention. Plus achieved a similar feat in August but didn't share the distance traveled; TuSimple said its Level 4 autonomous semi-truck drove on an 80-mile route, which included streets and highways.
🚗 Alphabet's Waymo partnered with Geely to build an electric self-driving ride-hailing vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals, that instead includes plenty of head and legroom, reclining seats, and easily accessible screens and chargers. The companies will integrate Waymo's autonomous Driver system into Geely's Zeekr vehicles for Waymo's U.S. robotaxi fleet "in the years to come."
🚗 DeepRoute.ai priced DeepRoute-Driver 2.0, its production-ready Level 4 self-driving system for automakers, at $10,000. The autonomous vehicle package meant to undercut the competition includes five solid-state lidar sensors, eight cameras, a proprietary computing system, and an optional millimeter-wave radar, with lidar accounting for roughly half the total cost.
🚗 Volocopter announced plans to design, implement, and operate the world's first public eVTOL mobility system in the future smart city Neom, Saudi Arabia. Neom initially ordered 10 VoloCity passenger eVTOLs for public transit and five VoloDrone cargo drones for logistics, slated to begin initial flight operations in the next two to three years.
🚗 Ascendance released an updated design for Atea, its five-seater long-range hybrid air taxi with eight vertical lift fans across its front and rear wings and a 400km range thanks to electric batteries and kerosene. Atea still needs to be certified before its first public flights at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and its production scheduled for 2025.
🚗 Motional partnered with Uber to pilot autonomous food delivery in Santa Monica, letting Uber Eats customers order some restaurant meal kits via retrofitted Hyundai Ioniq 5 robotaxis (with a Motional human safety operator) in early 2022. Motional partnered with Lyft in February to launch a fully driverless service in 2023, meaning its partnerships with ride-hailing companies are not exclusive.
🚗🤖 7-Eleven tapped Nuro to pilot a self-driving delivery service in Mountain View using autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles, which will include a safety driver behind the wheel, before eventually shifting over to its fully driverless R2 delivery vehicles. In November, Korea Seven, the operator of 7-Eleven stores in South Korea, began testing Neubility sidewalk delivery robots in Seoul.
🚗🤖 Coco contracted Segway to build Coco 1, its new partially automated, remotely-piloted sidewalk delivery robot. Coco plans to deploy 1,000 units in Los Angeles and two other U.S. cities in Q1 2022 and has ordered an additional 1,200 vehicles that it hopes to deploy by May or June 2022.
🚗🤖 Ottonomy deployed Ottobot, an in-airport food delivery robot, at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Travelers can use a dedicated app to purchase and get status updates about their food, beverages, and retail products, delivered contactless by a fleet of four-wheeled autonomous Ottobots that use lidar and other sensors to avoid obstacles, including other people in the airport.
🚗🤖 Swiss-Mile upgraded ANYbotics' ANYmal quadruped wheeled robot from walking and rolling at up to 22 km/h to also moving while standing upright. The Swiss-Mile Robot, set to be commercially available in 2022, can use its front legs as arms to grab packages from clients, place them in a cargo compartment on its back, and go back down onto all fours to transport those packages by using GPS, lidar, and cameras to autonomously navigate city streets.
🚗🤖 Hyundai announced Mobile Eccentric Droid (MobED), a four-wheeled indoor service robot about the size and shape of a dolly, designed to carry anything from parcels to people. The "mobility platform" features 12-inch pneumatic tires that can be controlled independently via a trio of motors at the end of each axel, a suspension system that lets its central platform tilt in any direction, a top speed of 30km/h, four hours of battery life, and too many potential applications that even Hyundai isn't sure how to commercialize it.
🚗🤖 Airobotics partnered with ShotSpotter on an autonomous policing system that would send drones to the source of gunshots in urban areas. Shotspotter, which in August was deemed as insufficient evidence in a murder case that kept a man in jail for nearly a year, already helps dispatch police to the triangulated location where it detected the sound of a gun firing, but sending Airobotics drones would be faster and more controversial.
🚗🤖 Ascento Robotics unveiled Ascento Pro, a self-balancing autonomous robot with an eight-hour swappable battery, a 12 km/h top speed, and use cases spanning inspection, surveillance, urban deliveries, and robotics research. Like its predecessor, Ascento Pro has two bendable legs that let it roll across flat surfaces and jump over obstacles, but it is also fully autonomous thanks to lidar, onboard cameras, and LED headlights for navigation and docking in its charging post.
🤖 Engineered Arts demoed Ameca, a humanoid robot with human-like expressions offered as a platform for testing robotic technologies. While Ameca is meant to show how robots can use non-verbal communication to interact with humans, waking up in a robotic laboratory and looking surprised by your robotic body is probably not the best initial interaction. Ameca thankfully can't walk yet, though its modular architecture means upgrades to both software and hardware components are possible without purchasing a whole new robot. Ameca runs Engineered Arts' Tritium operating system that lets robotics companies test and even demonstrate their tech in front of an audience, including purchasing or renting just a head or an arm for expos or live TV, so expect more videos reminiscent of I, Robot.
🤖 Researchers developed System 206, an AI prosecutor that can charge people with Shanghai's eight most common crimes based on 1,000 traits obtained from the human-generated case description text. Built to reduce prosecutors' daily workload, RoboCop's predecessor will soon be upgraded to recognize more crimes and file multiple charges against one suspect.
🤖 Engineers built stereotyped nature-inspired aerial grasper (SNAG), a bird-like aerial robot that can attach to a quadcopter drone to fly around, catch objects, carry items 10 times its own weight, and perch on various surfaces. SNAG has already been used to measure microclimates and to compare different types of bird toe arrangements, but future applications include more environmental research, search and rescue, and wildfire monitoring.
🤖 Researchers created a table tennis-playing robot by training a machine learning algorithm in virtual simulation and then in the real world for a total of 90 minutes. The real robot arm, powered by two cameras to track the location of the ball every 7 milliseconds, uses the algorithm to keep up a rally against humans, although it struggles with fancier shots.
🤖 Engineers built ILDA, a highly dexterous robotic hand with a linkage-driven mechanism that gives each finger three degrees of freedom, and can crush beer cans, delicately hold an egg, press buttons, squeeze small balls, pick up computers chips with tweezers, and cut paper with scissors. All the components are integrated within ILDA, which should make the hand easier to mount onto existing commercial robot arms, for applications ranging from prosthetics to industrial robots.
🤖🧬 Researchers created a robotic largemouth bass that scared eastern mosquitofish so badly the invasive species was deterred from breeding: It exhibited weight loss, changes in body shape, and a reduction in fertility. The robot fish looks like the real predator and mimics its swimming behavior, but is controlled via magnets underneath an aquarium, which means the next step is figuring out how to operate it in the wild.
🤖🧬 A 62-year-old man with ALS used Synchron's brain-computer interface Stentrode, implanted in his brain via the jugular vein, to turn his thoughts into tweets. The company claims this is the first time someone has wirelessly controlled a digital device through thought to post a message on social media, opening the door for millions with paralysis.
🧬 Researchers developed an implantable bionic eye, consisting of a stimulator attached to the eye and a communication module positioned under the skin behind the ear, that is safe for long-term use according to a three-month sheep study. The Phoenix99 Bionic Eye relies on a complex system capturing the visual scene via a small camera attached to the wearer's glasses, processing the images into a set of stimulation instructions sent wirelessly through the skin, and decoding the wireless signal for the stimulation module. The prosthesis then bypasses any malfunctioning cells in the retina by stimulating the remaining cells with electrical impulses in patterns matching the images recorded by the camera, triggering neurons that effectively trick the brain into interpreting vision of the scene. The team hopes to obtain ethics approval to perform clinical trials in human patients living with severe vision impairment and blindness caused by degenerative diseases.
🧬 Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and bioengineer Blake Byers founded NewLimit, an epigenetic reprogramming startup with the mission of extending human health span. They acknowledge that curing aging is "incredibly ambitious" and could take decades, which is "precisely the reason we feel the urgency to get started today."
🧬 Scientists developed cryobioprinting, a 3D-printing and preservation technique that keeps artificial human tissue viable for at least three months so it can be stored and even transported before use. Cryobioprinting uses bioink that freezes within milliseconds of being printed onto a -20°C plate (before being immediately transferred to cryogenic storage), potentially making it possible to one day bioprint 3D tissue structures, such as whole organs, for transplantation.
🧬 Scientists created female-only and male-only mice litters with 100% efficiency using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which could help prevent culling animals of an unwanted sex in scientific experiments and agriculture. Producing single sex litters to help farmers and scientists prevent countless animal deaths sounds great, unlike the many possible dystopian futures if this CRISPR technique is ever used on humans.
🧬 Researchers found that a chemical isolated from grape seed extract kills senescent cells to improve the physical fitness of young mice and prolongs the lifespan of old mice by 9%. This backs up a discovery in May that suggests anti-ageing therapeutic treatments for humans should target senescent cells partly responsible for many diseases.
🧬 Researchers discovered that extracellular vesicles deliver genetic instructions for a longevity protein and restore youthful features to cells and tissues of elderly mice given blood plasma transfusions from younger mice. Extracellular vesicles could be used as therapeutics to counteract age-related defects from cognitive performance to muscles that get smaller, weaker, and less able to heal after injury.
🧬🚀 Scientists developed a vacuum-sealed sleeping bag that mimics the pull of gravity to counteract vision problems that astronauts develop when staying in outer space for extended periods. The sleeping bag consists of a rigid frame and a gasket at the top that seals around the user's waist, sucking blood and spinal fluid away from the user's head and into their lower body, giving their eyes a break from the pressure while they sleep.
🚀 Rocket Lab detailed Neutron, a 40m reusable rocket launch vehicle for future satellite mega-constellations, interplanetary missions, and human spaceflight. Neutron will be propelled by seven Archimedes main engines, which can thrust up to 15,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit (or up to 8,000 kilograms for reusable launches that land upright on a landing pad, rather than ships in the ocean). Neutron will be made from a special carbon composite (an industry-first for a rocket this size), stand on its own two feet without any conventional launch site infrastructure, and feature a "Hungry Hippo" fairing design (evoking the rocket in You Only Live Twice) that lets the payload deploy into space without losing the fairings. Neutron, which is slated for its first flight in 2024, was first announced in March, during which CEO Peter Beck ate a hat after vowing to do so if Rocket Lab ever made its boosters reusable.
🚀 NASA activated Sentry-II, its next-generation impact monitoring algorithm for near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), replacing the original Sentry that has been in operation for nearly 20 years. Sentry-II can rapidly assess all potential NEA orbits and impact odds as low as a few chances in 10 million, including some special cases not captured by the original Sentry like accounting for non-gravitational forces.
🚀 NASA launched Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), its first end-to-end laser relay system, to test sending and receiving data over invisible infrared lasers, which could enable data rates 10 to 100 times greater than radio frequency systems traditionally used by spacecraft. LCRD will involve two years of experiments to test laser communications in space, including transferring data at 1.2Gbps between geosynchronous orbit and Earth, assessing the impact of weather and other changes in Earth's atmosphere, and simulating relay scenarios between the Moon and Earth for NASA's upcoming Artemis missions.
🚀 The SETI Institute installed two alien-finding laser instruments on the rooftops of an existing building on Haleakalā, or the East Maui Volcano, to widen the search for technological signatures originating beyond Earth. The east-facing cameras are part of LaserSETI, designed to detect potential laser pulses originating from outside the solar system, and are meant to complement two existing west-facing cameras in Sonoma.
🚀 The U.S. Missile Defense Agency finished constructing the Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), with integration and testing expected to continue until the U.S. Space Force takes over and begins operations in 2023. At that point, the LRDR will be able to simultaneously search and track multiple small objects, identify and differentiate lethal objects from non-lethal decoys, as well as monitor space activity like satellites orbiting the earth, spent rocket bodies, and fragmentation debris.
And that's December. As a treat for reading right to the very end, check out the lickable TV, a video uploaded in October that went viral over the holidays.
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