Sci-fi draws ever nearer to fact

Advances in technology have wonders such as holographic communication lighting the way in 2014

Ad Astra's VASIMR rocket will make space travel much faster, using super heated plasma as propellant. The trip to Mars will take just three months.
Ad Astra's VASIMR rocket will make space travel much faster, using super heated plasma as propellant. The trip to Mars will take just three months.

Countdown to Mars
As it stands, if you felt the urge to make the 87 million km trip to Mars, it would take you nine months. That's around 39 weeks dealing with cosmic radiation, asteroids and wastage to your bones and muscles.

But VASIMR could change all that. Set to be tested aboard the International Space Station in late 2014 to early 2015, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket is an experimental engine that, if it works, could get us there in three months.

To simplify enormously: existing chemical rockets only produce short bursts of speed as they burn a vast amount of fuel in one go, but at a relatively low velocity. By contrast, VASIMR takes a tiny bit of propellant (plasma), heats it to very high temperatures (2 million degrees centrigrade) using radio waves, then uses magnetic fields to push it out at extremely high velocities. The result is a steady, continuous acceleration to higher speeds, using far less fuel.

In theory. One current problem is the power required to heat the plasma. For short flights near Earth, solar panels suffice. But a mission to Mars would require a far bigger continuous power supply - and that means a wider initiative to build a nuclear reactor small and safe enough for the trip.

The Swiss Army knife of credit cards

All forms of payment will be combined into one slim card permanently linked to your phone for security.
All forms of payment will be combined into one slim card permanently linked to your phone for security.

According to a recent survey, one in five consumers in America no longer carry any cash on them. From next year, they won't need their ever-growing collection of plastic payment cards either. San Francisco company Coin has invented a device the same size as a credit card that holds the information of up to eight debit, credit, loyalty or gift cards. Customers press a button to choose which one they want to use and then simply swipe their Coin in the usual way. And if you lose your Coin? The card is synched to your smartphone and when the two are separated your phone receives a notification. In other words: you can't leave home (or a shop, or a restaurant) without it.

Beam across the world
The growth in video communication has been exponential. Skype now boasts 300 million users, and a 2012 Ipsos/Reuters poll revealed one in five people worldwide now frequently "telecommuted" to work. But Star Trek fans will be happy to hear that incoming technology will add a further dimension to international conference calls. Known as holographic telepresence, it involves transmitting a three-dimensional moving image of you at each destination - allowing you to converse as if you were in the room. One system from Musion, based in Britain, uses Pepper's Ghost, an effect popular with illusionists, to beam moving images on to sloped glass. Musion has already digitally resurrected rapper Tupac Shakur at a music festival. But full 3D holographic communication is not far behind - in the shape of the Polish company Leia. Named after the Star Wars princess, its Leia Display XL uses laser projectors to beam images on to a cloud of water vapour. The result is a walk-in holographic room, in which 3D objects can be viewed and manipulated from every angle.

Formula E racing
If you think the atmosphere at a Formula 1 grand prix is electric, you're going to love the new motor sport starting next year. Formula E will see drivers racing around city-centre circuits in battery-powered electric cars. The new championship, which is backed by the FIA, motor racing's governing body, promises cars as sexy as those driven by Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel et al, but with lithium-ion batteries and electric motors instead of fuel tanks and pistons. And, while their top speed is expected to be 250km/h, slower than Formula 1, the event will compensate with exciting street circuits and brightly-lit night events. The pit stops will be different too: with the batteries running out of juice after 20 minutes, drivers won't just change their tyres; they'll jump into new cars. The season is scheduled to start on September 13 in Beijing, with further races in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin and Los Angeles among others, before the final event in the centre of London on June 27, 2015.

Faster online deliveries
In this age of instant gratification, waiting days for internet purchases to arrive suddenly seems very 2013. So, from next year, behemoths like Amazon and eBay will be stepping up their efforts to deliver goods on the same day they're bought, even if that day's a Sunday. Eventually, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos envisions unmanned drones bringing products to our doors within half-an-hour. In the meantime, he's increasing his number of warehouses and overhauling his partnerships with couriers to get us what we want as quickly as possible.

It's another nail in the coffin of traditional bricks-and-mortar stores.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality made real thanks to Oculus' Rift goggles.
Virtual reality made real thanks to Oculus' Rift goggles.

Possibly the decade's most exciting development in computer hardware looks a little like a fat black envelope stuck to a pair of ski goggles. It promises to bring back that most laughable of '90s computing obsessions: virtual reality.

This device is called the Oculus Rift, and it has come a long way since 2011, when Palmer Luckey, a 19-year-old Californian student, built the prototype from scavenged parts in his parents' garage. Luckey was an enthusiastic collector of old VR hardware such as the clunky headsets that had enjoyed a brief tenure in '90s amusement arcades and had long dreamed of bringing back the technology in a useful form.

By 2011, the magic combination of accurate motion-sensing with lightweight, high-resolution displays no longer seemed so far off. The prototype Rift used the equivalent of a large smartphone screen to display offset moving images, one for each eye, which the brain combined into an illusion of 3D depth. Head movements were tracked with phone-equivalent gyroscopes and accelerometers, adjusting the view so the user could look freely around a 3D world. Oculus charges just US$300 ($369) for a low resolution "developer kit" - a kit for companies interested in developing software for the device - and has shipped more than 40,000 worldwide, the biggest deployment of virtual reality headsets in history.

The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo. Among the demonstrations was a London tourism experience, built from 360-degree camera views of locations in the capital by the media agency Visualise. The viewer begins perched on top of the London Eye wheel, staring out over the capital, and can beam into various 3D-modelled locations across town - London Zoo, the Gherkin, Piccadilly Circus - by a shift of visual focus. Another demonstration by Arch Virtual, a business that creates 3D software for a wide range of clients, offered a virtual tour of an architect's concept house.

Virgin Galactic launches. Yes, really
Despite delays in testing - the first flights were promised by 2011 - Sir Richard Branson's dream of making money in space is nearing reality. A test flight was completed in April, and it was announced in November that television network NBC has agreed to televise the first ever public flight from New Mexico "sometime in 2014".

Shanghai's underground hotel

Shanghai's five-star resort will have rooms on and under Tianmenshan Mountain and two floors under water.
Shanghai's five-star resort will have rooms on and under Tianmenshan Mountain and two floors under water.

In an abandoned quarry at the base of China's Tianmenshan Mountain, 50km outside Shanghai, an extraordinary hotel is taking shape. At a cost of £345 million ($699 million), the InterContinental Hotels Group is building a five-star resort that will boast two floors above the top of the 100m rock face and another 17 storeys below ground level, two of which will be underwater. If construction goes to plan, the first guests at "the world's lowest hotel" will check in by the end of 2014.

More transparent shopping
For some people, it's about whether the factory workers are being treated ethically. For others, it's about the impact upon the environment. For a great deal more of us, it's about checking whether you're about to feed your child a Turkey Twizzler made out of freshly-slaughtered Romanian horse. Either way: in the age of globalisation, knowing where your product has been made or grown, and its route to market, has taken on a new importance.

Embracing this shift in consumer priorities is Provenance - a new type of search engine attempting to chronicle just that. From chocolate bars to jackets to shoes to chef's knives, Provenance tells you where a product is made, who the manufacturer is and what the product is made from.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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