Every day, progress is made on projects that turn science fiction into reality. Companies invest in cutting edge technology to gain the advantage over competitors, bright eyed idealists who chase after methods that create energy in a cleaner fashion and genius individuals who toil away to perfect their life’s work. From the first fire to the first lightbulb, innovators have never stopped making life safer and easier for mankind. Technology is what sets humans apart, and as time develops, so do our tools. Fascinating changes are happening in the tech scene and changing how we live our lives.
Virtual reality (VR) has come leaps and bounds from its crowdfunded roots, successfully grabbing the consumer market’s attention and rapidly innovating over the course of the last five years. Both Sony and HTC have released their own VR headsets after Oculus Rift’s success, with new hardware promised for 2018. Next year, dozens of high budget games are planned to be released specifically for the mainstream audience, but the uses go past entertainment.
This new development may serve a purpose in demonstrating concepts or ideas in a way words cannot. “I can see it in the medical field,” said Wesleyan’s Director of Technology, Brian Morgan: “It’s hard to see things going on in the body. Someone might be able to walk you through a model of the heart.” Buildings might be toured before they are built, and students may be able to experience historical events as they happen when methods improve. Virtual reality opens a lot of opportunities that are simply not available in actual life.
The virtual world and real world are usually thought of as separate entities, but augmented reality (AR) seeks to bridge the gap. While VR creates new settings, AR modifies existing ones. It shapes experiences around the environment, allowing unreal objects to be perceived within someone’s bedroom or backyard. A current example might be the computers in cars that alert you to obstacles while backing up–but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Senior Leandro Haddad said, “AR is like those sci-fi movies… mirrors might be able to display emails and glasses could show guys’ names when you see them.” It has the potential to help people organize or remember information as the situation demands it or simulate tools, like rulers, without the need for a physical version. And just like virtual reality, it has a place in entertainment; Disney is publishing “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges,” an AR videogame which lets users duel Darth Vader in their own homes. Augmented reality seems to promise just as much as its virtual counterpart.
One idea that has been talked about for decades without coming to reality is self-driving cars. The issues associated with building machines that can recognize and navigate terrain has hindered progress for a long time, but that has not stopped companies from trying. Uber is partnering with NASA to venture into the field, and Google’s “Waymo” looks like a normal car, save for a small dome poised on top, which collects information about the environment for its computer to process. Passengers sit in the back, free to do whatever they please until they arrive at their programmed destination. However, it is not as simple as it sounds.
Waymo may have worked within its test environment, but further issues lie past the practical. Moral ambiguity becomes a real problem as engineers are left to determine how the car prioritizes lives to save in the event of a crash. Morgan brought up the questions: “At what point does the responsibility transfer to the machine? Can you blame the machine for something that didn’t go right?” Cynical scenarios can be made–does the car save the young woman or the Google stock investor? Such questions cannot be answered by humans, much less the machines they build. A third party may be necessary as autopiloted vehicles come closer to being produced.
Innovation is not just on the road, but in offices as well. 3D printers are becoming more and more popular, capable of greater impressive feats than their dimensionally-challenged predecessors. Scott Schroer, who teaches physics and robotics, said, “You can print shapes you can’t mold normally, like a sphere within a sphere.” The creative potential for sculptures could be greatly expanded, with intricate pieces being more precise than what human hands could achieve. The prime motivation for developing it, however, is the large financial benefit if it replaces how companies mass produce.
Currently, companies use a process called “injection molding,” where a casing of the product they want to make is created before filling it with molten plastic. The problem with this method is that a mold must be made for every separate product, each with their own costs. “The price of some things might come down,” said Schroer, “since you have one device for everything you want to make.” If 3D printers become more efficient, the cost of construction will decrease, which decreases the cost of the printers, which makes it more available to mass market. Until the materials become more varied and the production time lessens, however, we are stuck with printing paper instead of sculptures.
Humans are the masters of their environment, bending and shaping it to their will. People carry computers stronger than the ones that brought spaceships to the moon, and can speak to someone across the world with the press of a button–a far cry from the tape reels and telegrams of the past. As time passes, so do endeavors that change not only the course of history, but the future.