About this time every year, reporters (and, of course, our readers) have to suffer through a slew of April Fool's jokes from tech companies, inevitably promising amazing things and then ending with "ha ha just kidding sucks for you!" And it does suck for us, because we get really, really excited about tech that seems too good to be true, and it's always a bummer when it's not. We get all mopey, seriously. Ray buys himself a new cellphone. Kevin feeds himself a milkshake intravenously. And I — well — I just turn all the lights off, lock myself in a closet, and weep.
This year, however, we noticed that a bunch of those "ha ha just kidding" moments really weren't, in that some or all of the tech behind the impossible gadgets actually does exist, more or less. So, to make ourselves feel better, we're going to take a look at five of this year's April Fool's tech pranks that could almost, almost be real.
The Pitch: "Today we're moving the project one great leap forward with Google Racing, a groundbreaking partnership with NASCAR to help self-driving vehicles compete in the world of stock car racing. We think the most important thing computers can do in the next decade is to drive cars--and that the most important thing Google Racing can do in the next decade is drive them, if possible, more quickly than anyone else. Or anything else."
What It'd Take: Google, of course, has been working on autonomous cars for quite a while now, and you'll notice that the thingy on top of that car up there looks like the same Velodyne LiDAR sensor that Google has operating on its real autonomous cars, albeit the one on the race car isn't actually spinning. You don't need a lot of fancy sensors to perform maneuvers trickier than what usually happens in NASCAR, anyway.
What we want to point out, though, is that the same people at Stanford who originally came up with the autonomous car and who won the DARPA Grand Challenge (and are all now working at Google, pretty much) already have an autonomous race car. Here it is:
This is Shelley, an autonomous Audi TTS designed for racing. Specifically, it was designed to race up Pike's Peak, which it did back in 2010:
Now, that was a hill climb, which is way harder than a NASCAR track. Arguably, a racetrack is one of the easiest places to run an autonomous vehicle: it's a relatively short, highly constrained, completely standardized route, with no traffic signals, road signs, speed limits, bicyclists, pedestrians or inclement weather to worry about. There are lots of other cars moving very fast, but their speed relative to each other is generally not too high, and besides, computer scoff at the reaction times of humans.
Why it's Not Real: Because humans would lose. Badly. And we know it. And that's no fun, except for those of us who are rooting for the robots.
The Pitch: "Available soon to consumers worldwide, the DivontaX lens provides dazzling HD video playback conveniently in front of your vision at all times. The direct lens display delivers an unrivaled screen quality for a better and moderately safe viewing experience. Weighing in at only .24 pounds (109g), it includes 16 GB or 32GB of internal storage. This means that, in addition to it being the heaviest contact lens on the market, consumers can take up to 10 HD or 20 standard definition movies with them wherever they go."
What It'd Take: Having a contact lens display would be so cool and would make so much sense that the fact that we don't have these things yet is not even funny. But, in a lot of ways, we're close. (Just look at Google Glass, though there's no talk of boiling that down into a contact lens.)
The easiest way to go about doing this is by keeping the display outside of your eyeball, and just using a contact lens to enhance your eye to enable it to view a close-range display in (say) a pair of sunglasses. We've already got this technology ready to go, and as soon as the military gets its grubby little fingers off of it, it should be available for consumers.
Now, if we want to talk about having a display on the lens itself, it's a bit trickier, because you don't just need a display, you also need wireless power and wireless data transfer. This, too, is in the prototype stage:
Last we heard, this prototype (from the University of Washington) can do red pixels and blue pixels, and gets both power and data wirelessly from a belt pack. But that was a year ago, and if they've figured out how to do green since then, we've got the potential for a full color wireless in-eye display.
Why it's Not Real: It's not just about making the electronics small, and it's not just about making the electronics wireless. It's about making the electronics functional inside your eyeball. There's demand, people are working on it, and we're getting there, but even though it's (arguably) close to reality (in that semi-functional prototypes exist), there's more works to be done before you'll be shoving something like this straight into your peepers.
The Pitch: "Get off the grid! The KUBE X-15 MiniNuke can power an entire city (the size of Dayton, Ohio) for 50 years. Requires no electricity. Additional plutonium sold separately. Based on technology originally developed for the exploration of Mars, the KUBE X-15 uses newer clean nuclear energy. Of course, this amazing breakthrough will disrupt markets around the world. Especially in the Middle East. Thus the secrecy of this message."
What It'd Take: Okay, well, 50 years of power for a city the size of Dayton in some state called Ohio is a bit of a stretch. But, let's take a look at the feasibility of a plutonium-powered home mini-nuclear generator, since we already have them. Called radioisotope thermoelectric generators, they're popular solutions for when you need to power something for a very long time without messing with it. RTGs were used by the Soviets to power unmanned lighthouses and navigation beacons, but the most notable modern use for RTGs is in spacecraft. The Pioneers, Vikings, and Voyagers all relied on RTGs, which is why we're still in contact with Voyager 1 a whopping 33 years after launch.
Radioisotope thermoelectric generators are nuclear power plants in that they rely on radioactive fuel to generate electricity, but the similarities pretty much end there. An RTG produces power passively, from the heat generated by the natural decay of radioactive elements. That heat gets converted into electricity (quite inefficiently) using an array of thermocouples, and the power output of the generator just depends how much plutonium (or whatever) you decide to stuff into it. The power generating lifetime depends on the half-life of the fuel, so if you decide to go with plutonium 238 (a popular choice for spacecraft, the Mars Curiosity Rover among them), you've got nearly 90 years before you've depleted half of your fuel source. And otherwise, since you can completely seal an RTG and it has no moving parts, it can run continuously, completely unattended, until all the fuel is spent, which takes decades or centuries.
Why it's Not Real: Because RTGs are expensive (requiring refined nuclear fuel), especially if you want to use them to power your life. Most of them produce hundreds or thousands of watts of heat, and only manage to convert that into tens or hundreds of watts of electricity, meaning that you'd need a whole bunch of them to keep your plasma TV fired up. And they are radioactive. Not very radioactive, and most of the time the casing of the generator is plenty to keep any bad stuff contained, but there is still a risk of contamination from a damaged or improperly disposed of generator.
The Pitch: "With uncompromising attention to detail and a passion for design, Sony introduces the next generation in the VAIO® line up; the world's most portable Ultrabook. Now available in full HD 0.75" x 1.25" screen size with a revolutionary feature set and monolithic design, the VAIO® Q Series Ultrabook leaves little to be desired. With barest minimum of visual seams, a built-in battery and a super portable docking station (sold separately), this gadget makes on-the-go computing a breeze."
What It'd Take: We won't argue that a keyboard and trackpad the size of the one on the Sony Vaio Q should ever be anything other than an April Fools prank, but there's nothing wrong with wanting a very tiny computer to do very tiny computer things with. There are two primary parts to this thing: the display, and the innards. Let's just get the display out of the way, because we've got them already:
That's a QXGA (2048×1536) display the size of a postage stamp. Yeah, it's just a rendering, but these displays do exist, primarily for VR applications. Next!
The guts of the Vaio Q are a bit trickier. The specs are obviously ludicrous, so we'll just have to content ourselves with figuring out how realistic it might be to pack a bunch of high-performance hardware into a miniscule form factor. One way to do this is by using glue, as IBM and 3M have discovered. Yes, glue. That's the secret. Gluuue.
With glue, instead of keeping processors and memory discrete and having to space them out with power supplies and heat sinks and stuff and junk, you can just stick them all together into a super dense, super small brick. The glue acts as a heat conductor, sucking heat to the outside of the brick (where it can be more effectively cooled), and since all the bits of the computer are in more or less direct contact with each other, it's fast. Very fast. Very, very fast. According to IBM, this chip brick has the potential to be "1,000 times faster than today's fastest microprocessor." So, if we're trying to match the Vaio Q's 3.88 GHz Intel Core i9 with 8 gigs of RAM and an AMD Radeon™ HD 6650M (1GB), I don't think we'll have too much trouble.
Why it's Not Real: The microlaptop form factor is silly, but the microcomputer form factor is not. Really, the Vaio Q is destined to be used with a second Vaio Q directly in front of your eyeballs for an immersive 3D VR display, and we already have those. What we don't have yet is a self-contained system with all the computing power onboard, and for that, we'll have to wait for those glued-together processor bricks.
The Pitch: "Meet the On & On, from O2. It's a touch-screen, camera-equipped, Wifi-enabled Android device. And here's the show-stopper: It has an earth-shattering 1,000 hours' talk time. With the help of some of the world's leading electrochemical experts, we developed this revolutionary piece of kit. It'll sit in standby for 92 days!"
What It'd Take: A cellphone with a gigantic battery like the O2 On & On would certainly get you a substantial amount of additional talk time, but 1,000 hours (nearly 42 days straight) is a bit of a stretch. Let's forget about some hypothetical energy harvesting system, and find ourselves a way that this phone could actually run for a solid month with no recharging or refueling or anything.
Clearly, we're going to need a power source with a very high density for 42 days straight worth of talk time. Batteries, at this stage, are entirely out of the question. Our only option (besides nuclear power or antimatter power and good luck trying to get either of those to work in a cellphone) is gasoline.
Let's crunch the numbers on this one. A cellphone requires about one watt to make a phone call. Over an hour, you use one watt-hour of energy, so to run a phone for a 1,000 hours, we'd need 1,000 watt-hours, or one kilowatt-hour (kWh). Meanwhile, the energy density of gasoline is 34 megajoules per liter. If you do the conversion, the amount of gas that it ends up taking to provide one kWh of power works out to be about a tenth of a liter, or less than half a cup. So, if you could pour a half a cup of gasoline into your cell phone and convert it perfectly into electricity, you'd be able to get over 1,000 hours of talk time.
The conversion, though, is the tricky part. Our best option is probably to use a micro gas-turbine, which MIT has been working on for a few decades now. As you can see, the turbine components are very, very small, with each one etched out of a silicon chip:
In general, turbines can be very efficient at turning fuel into electricity. In some cases, they're up to 80% efficient, which bests the 30%-ish efficiency of the internal combustion engine in your car. MIT's micro turbines weren't anywhere close to this (at least, not as of 2006, which is the last time we heard about them), but it seems reasonable to assume that by now they might be at 40% or 50% efficiency.
So the question now is, is the butt of the O2 On & On big enough to contain about a cup of fuel along with a millimeter-sized micro turbine? It might be a bit of a stretch, especially since the On & On apparently contains "an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash, which can record videos in 1080p HD," but we're just going to say that it's close enough.
Why it's Not Real: Broadly speaking, it's just not widely necessary. I dunno about you, but I'm totally fine just recharging my phone every night, and if I do find myself lonely while on safari for a month or whatever, there are other ways to charge up a phone battery without having access to a socket. What we do need massive battery life for are things like laptops, which is why we're far more excited about that.