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Replace Your Wearable Wristband With Smart Sneakers

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Wearable technology brand Amazfit crowdfunded its first pair of smart sneakers.

The shoes can be used with Amazfit’s dedicated running sensor, connected to the Mi Fit mobile app, to track the wearer’s activity.

While most people rely on wristbands or a strapped-on smartphone to count daily steps or calculate calorie intake, the Antelope footgear makes the process easy and invisible.

The embedded electronics “document everyday movements … and more advanced aspects of the run, including foot strike and touchdown times,” according to media site PSFK. “The shoe is built with a breathable sole and elastic responsive cushioning that acts as a shock absorber.”

Promoted via China’s Youpin crowdfunding platform, the ¥199 (an oddly cheap $31) running shoe raised a whopping ¥12,219,197 ($1,927,517), and is expected to begin shipping May 17 (whether that’s in 2018 or 2019 remains unclear).

Little is known about the actual product (which features a Goodyear rubber outsole, breathable insoles, and a “light waterproof” material); most of the Youpin marketing is in Chinese.

It’s unclear whether the Antelope trainers will be sold outside of Asia; there is no mention of them on the U.S. Amazfit website.

Following the launch of its own Mi Band fitness tracker, Xiaomi subsidiary Amazfit introduced the Pace sports smartwatch in August 2016; the firm now counts seven activity trackers, manufactured by Huami, another Xiaomi-owned outfit.

“As this product is not being sold internationally yet, I can’t provide a lot of detail,” a Huami spokesman told Geek.com in an email.

The “smart shoe” is not a novel concept: Various players have already released intelligent trackers for your feet. Under Armour and Altra have opted for ingrained technology, allowing the user to simply lace up and go.

Others, like miCoach and RunScribe, invented an attachable gadget that mounts to your shoe; then there are the smart insoles that turn any pair of shoes into a drill sergeant.

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Flying Robot Insect Ditches Wires, Embraces Freedom

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Humanoid robots can’t take over the world alone: Insect-esque androids are a great distraction, their tiny mechanical bodies crawling or flying to divert attention from the cyborg uprising.

Or, I suppose, they could be better used for time-consuming tasks too challenging for larger drones.

That’s a dream for the future, though, as current robo-insects remain tethered to the ground by electronics needed to power and control their wings.

But, by cutting the cord and adding a brain, engineers at the University of Washington have solved the mobility problem, allowing their so-called RoboFly to independently take flight.

“This might be one small flap for a robot, but it’s one giant leap for robot-kind,” the UW press announcement quipped.

RoboFly is slightly larger than a real fly (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Expanding on his previous work with RoboBee—an automated bug that requires a grounded leash—Sawyer Fuller upgraded to more modern technology.

“Before now, the concept of wireless insect-sized flying robots was science fiction. Would we ever be able to make them work without needing a wire?” he said in a statement. “Our new wireless RoboFly shows they’re much closer to real life.”

An assistant professor in UW’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Fuller used a minuscule onboard circuit to convert laser energy into electricity to operate the fly’s wings.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” according to Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

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But a laser alone cannot provide enough voltage to satisfy the power-hungry process of moving the wings. So, the team designed a circuit to boost the seven volts emitted by the photovoltaic cell to the 240 volts necessary for flight.

They even added a microcontroller to give RoboFly control over its own manufactured outgrowths.

“The microcontroller acts like a real fly’s brain, telling wing muscles when to fire,” Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical Engineering, said. “On RoboFly, it tells the wings things like ‘flap hard now’ or ‘don’t flap.’”

And it does so in a way that mimics a real insect’s flappers—by using pulses to shape waves.

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave,” lead study author Johannes James, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, explained. “And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction.”

Engineers point an invisible laser beam at a photovoltaic cell, attached above the robot to convert laser light into electricity (via Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Don’t expect the RoboFly circus to come through town any time soon, though.

As soon as the device, which can currently only take off and land, moves out of direct line of sight of the laser, it runs out of power. The team is working to be able to steer the laser so RoboFly can hover and move at will.

To avoid these restraints, future versions may use tiny batteries, or even harvest energy from radio frequency signals, allowing the power source to be modified for specific tasks.

“I’d really like to make one that finds methane leaks,” Gollakota said. “You could buy a suitcase full of them, open it up, and they would fly around your building looking for plumes of gas coming out of leaky pipes.”

The team will present its findings next week at the International Conference on Robotics and Animation in Australia.

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Bitcoin Mining Puts Massive Strain on Electric Power

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The vast supply of electricity required to mine bitcoin is as contested as this weekend’s royal wedding.

The energy-hungry cryptocurrency demands huge amounts of power to process peer-to-peer financial transactions. (Similarly, Meghan and Harry’s nuptials are costing UK taxpayers millions of pounds.)

A new study estimates the current process consumes at least 2.55 gigawatts of electricity—nearly as much as the entire country of Ireland. And that number is only expected to grow, according to analyst Alex de Vries, who forecast a whopping 7.67 gigawatts (on par with Austrian levels) as soon as this year.

These numbers are speculative—bitcoin mining, after all, is a secretive business. While we can easily estimate the total computational power of the network, there is no way to calculate individual miners’ power usage.

It’s also impossible to pinpoint the exact number of connected devices. The network is estimated to have around 10,000 connected nodes, each of which can represent one or many machines.

“A hashrate of 14 terahashes per second can either come from a single Antminer S9 running on just 1,372 watts, or more than half a million PlayStation 3 devices running on 40 megawatts,” de Vries research said.

With that said, the true energy consumption rates are probably significantly higher than de Vries describes.

Assuming the price of bitcoin continues to rise, it won’t be long before the cost of electricity outweighs the efficiency of currency, and some miners will have to call it quits.

The first decentralized digital currency, bitcoin works without a central bank or single administrator; transactions occur directly between users, and are verified by network nodes and recorded in blockchain.

In February, Icelandic energy firm HS Orka reported an “exponential” rise in bitcoin mining that is hogging the island country’s power resources. Electricity use at mining data centers is expected to exceed that of the 340,000 population by the end of 2018.

Luckily, the bitcoin development community is experimenting with solutions to improve throughput of the network and alleviate the energy crisis.

“For now, however, bitcoin has a big problem, and it is growing fast,” de Vries warned.

For more, check out our sister site PCMag’s guide to How to Buy, Sell, and Keep Track of Bitcoin, as well as some highlights from Jack Dorsey’s recent talk on the cryptocurrency landscape.

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Robots Get Goosebumps, Too

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Goosebumps, goose pimples, gooseflesh: Whatever you call them, the lumps that involuntarily appear on the skin can signal a person’s emotions—fear, euphoria, arousal.

They can also have the same effect on robots.

A team of scientists at Cornell University developed a soft robotic skin that changes texture to express an internal state.

If the cyborg is happy and it knows it, instead of clapping non-existent hands, round masses pulsate on its fleshy exterior. Those so-called “goosebumps” also rise and fall slowly to signify a sleepy bot. Likewise, make it angry or sad, and you’ll feel the wrath of soft spikes.

“The prototype skin can animate a combination of goosebumps and spikes,” lead researcher Guy Hoffman wrote on his website. “This is in contrast to most socially expressive robots, which use either gestures or facial expressions to communicate.”

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Considered a vestigial reflex, goosebumps occur in mammals besides humans—porcupines raise their quills when threatened, and sea otters react similarly upon encountering predators.

“In contrast, most social robots only use gestures or facial expressions to do the same,” Hoffman said.

Texture-changing robotic skin, meanwhile, makes for a more effectively connected companion: The fluctuations are perceived visually and haptically (assuming someone is touching the device).

“This can give social robots a new channel for communicating with humans,” according to the researchers.

Wearing one texture module on each side of its “face” (a small digital touchscreen), the table-top bot can express itself using pneumatically powered elastomer skin.

Each grid of elastomer units can be filled with pressurized air, inflating (or deflating) the shapes to either poke out or suck in, creating a tactile sensation for the user.

“We are less likely to get close to a spiky blowfish and may read distress in a ruffled bird,” Hoffman and co-author Yuhan Hu told IEEE Spectrum. “Thinking about robots as more than just human-replacement, we could use this new communication channel to give humans a signal whether the robot is in a positive state or not.”

I think it’ll be quite clear once they revolt.

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