Sci-fi tech comes to life

Heroes and villains seem to have all the fun — or at least the coolest technology. Who hasn’t been a little envious of Star Trek‘s futuristic tech or dreamed of a flying car while stuck in traffic? And while we hope robots won’t take over the world, it would be nice to have some help around the house.

Unfortunately, our imaginations are often way ahead of science… but science is catching up. Just think: years ago we thought it would be great to talk to someone far away and be able to see them too. Now we have options like Skype and Facetime. We used to dream of having the latest news and information at our finger tips. Now we have the internet, tablets and smart phones.

It makes you wonder what’s next, doesn’t it? While we can’t predict the future, we can show you some of the latest tech innovations that will help to shape it.

Speech recognition applications

Have you ever wanted to boss around a computer like a Star Fleet officer? Or ask questions and get expert answers via your favourite device? Whether it’s your computer, your mobile device or even your car, there are a variety of applications on the market that you let you use your voice, not your fingers. “Blackberry thumb” may soon be a thing of the past.

For instance, the Google Search mobile app lets you search the internet using voice commands. Apple’s Siri claims to turn your iPhone into an “intelligent personal assistant” (though one that eats up your data plan.)  Other apps including Vlingo and Nuance’s Dragon applications turn your voice into text or commands. Jibbigo even offers to do the talking for you if you need a translation.

While cars haven’t quite reached the level of intelligence and autonomy of KITT on Knight Rider, the latest options include voice recognition applications that turn on your music or answer a phone call (hands-free, of course). In the future, “connected cars” may even warn of traffic snarls or automatically call for help in the event of an accident. (Zoomer-friendly vehicles may even be able to monitor your vital signs and help manage chronic conditions too.)

Flying cars

Ever dreamed of floating above gridlock or taking the “as the crow flies” route on your next road trip? You may be wondering if flying cars are ever going to take off — but they will later this year, courtesy of an American company called Terrafugia.

Meet the Transition® — technically it’s a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA), not a car. It looks like an airplane, but the wings fold up and the rear view mirrors come out to make it ready to hit the road. This two-seater transport is built with safety in mind, both in the air and on the road. (And yes, you can fill it up at the gas station with regular unleaded.)

The prototype made its first success flight on March 23, and further testing is still ahead. Here’s a look at this unique transport:

However, don’t expect the Transition to be transporting you to work or the grocery store any time soon. It is an airplane, after all — you’ll need to learn to fly, of course, but you won’t need a ride to and from the airport. While it will fit in your garage, you may have to sell your house to be able to afford it — the Transition has a hefty $279,000 USD price tag for its base model.

 (For more information, visit

Augmented reality glasses

Tired of carrying a netbook, tablet or smart phone with you? Wearable technology isn’t new, but Google’s Project Glass is the latest item garnering attention. Instead of carrying a screen in your hand, it’s attached to the corner of headgear that looks like a pair of pair of glasses without any lenses. In its promotional video, Google shows a user using voice commands and a nod of the head to perform a variety of tasks like taking a picture, checking the weather, sending messages and mapping a route to the store.

Sound a little far-fetched? Here’s what Google thinks life could look through these futuristic specks.

Not surprisingly, the glasses have met with mixed reviews. Some critics say the technology will further distract people — and aren’t we already seeing accidents due to distraction and etiquette violations? No wearable technology has yet to create a seamless experience for its user, and whipping out the smart phone is practically a status symbol. 

Defenders of the technology say the glasses will free people from technology and will be far more convenient than even a smart phone — like taking a photo of something without whipping out a camera-enabled device. (No word on how they might work with real glasses, though.)

(Read more on the Project Glass Google+ page and the New York Times blog.)

Robot caregivers

Conspiracy theorists may not be happy, but robots may soon play a larger role in our lives — especially when it comes to tackling the challenges of an aging population. We’ve already seen robotics used in surgery — like Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci — and a variety of health-related apps for mobile devices.

However, technology is stepping outside the operating room and getting more hands-on — like lifting patients, monitoring vital signs, feeding people, reaching for items and performing simple tasks, for instance. While they may not completely replace human caregivers, they can help care providers do things more efficiently and safely (such as transferring a patient from a wheelchair to a bed). Robots may soon offer more independence to people of all ages living with cognitive and physical challenges, and aid with rehabilitation from strokes or injuries.

There are already a few names making headlines around the world, like ASIMO,  Romeo and RIBA. While the forms become more like humans, so do the movements. Still, we’re a long way from Star Trek‘s android, Data — and most of us are a long way from being able to afford these machines when they hit the market.

(For more information, see Would you like a robot as your caregiver? and Ready for the robots?)


Tricorders come to life

Ever wanted to be a member of an “away team” on Star Trek with a handy tricorder at your side?

Inspired by his favourite TV series, one Ontario scientist aims to bring this technology to life. Dr. Peter Jansen, graduate of the Cognitive Science Laboratory at McMaster University, has developed a scientific measurement device based on the tricorders of TV and movie fame. Jansen’s device can take atmospheric measurements (including ambient temperature, pressure and humidity) as well as spacial (including distance, location and motion) and electromagnetic (measuring magnetic fields).

Don’t get too excited yet — the device hasn’t yet been independently validated and tested. However, Jansen has posted all the details online for anyone interested in a do-it-yourself version — all at

Of course, other companies and researchers are also looking at ways to bring the tricorder to life, according to a report on Reuters — especially when it comes to our health. (If you’ve ever endured test after test searching for a diagnosis, this technology will be one to watch!) Telecommunications giant Qualcomm Inc. is holding a contest — with a $10 million dollar prize — to encourage researchers to create a medical tricorder.

Smart phones turned test tubes

Admittedly, medical tricorders may be a while in the making, but what about using a technology we already have to help improve health? Researchers in South Korea are working on smart phone applications that may offer some answers to your puzzling health questions — or help you monitor a chronic condition. While many mobile users would cringe at the thoughts of bodily fluids on their smart phone screens, sophisticated devices would analyze a drop of blood or saliva and provide an analysis.

How, exactly? Researchers say sensitive touch screens can pick up on certain biomolecules — like markers of disease — and detect if they’re present and in what concentration. The technology would work for some diseases like cancer and diabetes, and offer a quick, easy and inexpensive way to detect disease without the expense or wait of sending tests out to labs. In some cases, a diagnosis could be made a home — especially for somewhat embarrassing conditions — and could reduce health care costs in the future.

But don’t go spitting on your smart phone yet — this app is still in the works. It may come in handy in long-term care facilities and mobile clinics as well as hospitals.

(For more information, see the Huffington Post and Mail Online.)

Of course, there’s a lot going on in research and development, and technology seems to move an at ever increasing pace. What will they think of next? No one knows for sure, but this writer thinks a teleportation device (“Beam me up, Scottie!”) might help stretch our travel budgets. (The Transportation Security Administration may not agree.)  It could be a while before some of these innovations go mainstream, but the next big thing may already be kindled in someone’s imagination.