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Innovation Lab: Self-driving shoes, damp-powered robots and 3D-printed light

Tim Maytom

At Mobile Marketing, we’re proud to help tech companies showcase their cutting-edge solutions, whether its on our website, in our magazine or at our Mobile Marketing Summits. Giving a platform to companies that are breaking new ground in their market brings audiences one step closer to the ideas and developments that will shape tomorrow.

In that spirit, our Innovation Lab feature takes a step beyond the world of apps, ads and handsets with slightly bigger screens, in order to share some of the tech world’s newest ideas. They might be interesting, disruptive or just outright strange, but these are the stories that have caught our eye over the past week.

Nissan applies its self-parking technology to slippers

Upon entering the ProPILOT Park Ryokan, you’d easily mistake it for any other traditional Japanese inn – slippers are lined up neatly in the foyer, ready for guests to remove their outside shoes, and tatami rooms are furnished with low tables and floor cushions for sitting. However, thanks to car manufacturer Nissan, guests can take advantage of some unusual amenities: the slippers and furniture all return to their designated spots at the push of a button.

The experience is all thanks to Nissan’s ProPILOT park system, which was first introduced in the all-new Nissan Leaf in October last year. The technology enables the vehicle to detect surrounding objects and avoid them, so it can automatically negotiate its way into a parking spot with a single command from drivers.

The slippers, floor cushions and tables have all been rigged with a special version of the system, along with tiny wheels enabling them to navigate the inn. Japanese inns, known as ryokans, put a high priority on order and neatness, so the ability to have slippers and furniture returned back to their exact resting spots is actually a huge help to staff in a busy inn.

The system isn’t going to be widely deployed, however. The self-driving slippers are simply a marketing tool designed to raise awareness of automated driving technologies, and their potential non-driving applications. While ‘selected guests’ will be able to visit the ryokan in Hakone during the spring, tourists shouldn’t expect to find a ‘Return Slippers’ button in every hotel the next time they visit Japan.

Wriggling robots run on moisture in the atmosphere
Researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea have created a series of tiny robots that can wriggle, slither and slide forward using only the humidity in their surrounding environment for power. The ‘hygrobots’ were inspired by plant life, which can change shape and size by absorbing water from the ground or air, in a process called hygroexpansion.

Because they rely purely on moisture for power, the robots lack any kind of battery containing toxic chemical components that could injure humans if damaged. This in turn makes them perfect for micro-robotics that operate inside the human body, carrying out health-related operations like delivering drugs to specific locations.

The hygrobots have two layers made from nanofibers, one of which absorbs moisture, and the other which doesn’t. When placed on a wet surface, the humidity-absorbing layer swells up, causing the bot to move away from the surface. Then, as the layer dries out, it goes back down and the cycle repeats, enabling the robot to inch its way forward.

To demonstrate the potential of the technology, the researchers soaked a hygrobot in antibiotics and had it travel across a culture plate that was filled with bacteria. The bot left a sterilised trail behind itself, almost like a snail’s slime. The researchers theorise that with further development, the robots could deliver drugs to the human body, propelling themselves forward using only skin moisture.

Next generation holograms create 3D images that float in ‘thin air’

Ever since Princess Leia asked Obi Wan Kenobi for help in Star Wars, holograms have been held up as the next step in projection technology, but the truth is that conventional holograms wouldn’t be able to create the type of 3D image we’ve seen in science-fiction films, TV shows and video games. That doesn’t mean we should give up though, as new research from a team at Brigham Young University has proved.

Led by Daniel Smalley, professor of electrical and computer engineering, researchers have been able to combine laser-based ‘tractor beams’ with a separate set of laser projectors to create a free-space volumetric display platform capable of producing full-colour 3D images. The system moves a particle of plant matter through space, painting it with light as it moves to create an image.

Smalley describes the system as ‘like a 3D printer for light”, and the team have been able to create multiple images using the method, including a butterfly, a prism, rings that wrap around a user’s arms and even a figure in a lab coat, recreating Princess Leia’s famous message. The hope is that in time, the system could be used to create large persistent images that can be viewed from any angle, and even interacted with by human users.

Hair-sized needles will enable drug delivery straight into the brain
The human brain is a hugely complex organ, and the smallest changes in chemistry can have huge consequences, both good and bad. It’s with this in mind that MIT researchers have devised a miniaturised system designed to deliver tiny quantities of medicine to brain regions as small as 1 cubic millimetre. This type of targeted dosing could make it possible to treat diseases that affect very specific brain circuits without interfering with the normal function of the rest of the brain.

The device consists of several tubes contained within a needle about as thick as a human hair, and enables the researchers to deliver more than one drug deep within the brain, with extremely precise control over how much is injected and where it goes. In a study of rats, they found that they were able to deliver targeted micro-doses of a drug that affects the animals’ motor function.

“We believe this tiny microfabricated device could have tremendous impact in understanding brain diseases, as well as providing new ways of delivering biopharmaceuticals and performing biosensing in the brain,” said Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute professor at MIT, and one of the paper’s senior authors.

Replace your cat or dog with this circular furry robot, complete with wagging tail

Designed to act as a pet for those who suffer from allergies or can’t fit one into their lives, the Qoobo is a robotic cushion with a cat-like tail that is meant to provide users with the same sense of comfort and companionship as a regular household pet. You might laugh at the idea, but it was popular enough to hit its Kickstarter fundraising goal in just six days, raising 12,360,000 (£80,430) over the course of the entire campaign, or 247 per cent of its original target.

The Qoobo was designed by Yukai Engineering, a Tokyo-based robotics startup, and was inspired when a staff member moved to a new apartment that did not allow her to keep her pet cat. The company’s engineers studied the tails of cats, dogs and other animals and created a mechanism that closely mimics the movements, with different actions assigned to react to different touch inputs from the owner.

“The response has been absolutely overwhelming,” said Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of Yukai Engineering. “It shows how many people are longing for the sense of comfort that only animals can provide. Many seniors, including my own parents, wish to own a pet but can’t due to various reasons. I truly hope Qoobo will help make their everyday lives more joyous.”