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Living in the Future: May 20, 2013

This week on We are Living in the Future: Musical Tesla Coils, MIT’s cheetah robot, and software that can identify people and demographics from a webcam

Giant towers that emit lightning are a sci-fi staple – and they’ve existed since the early 1920s, even factoring into video games. But a practical use for these “Tesla Coils” has been harder to find, despite their wow factor. Maker-Musicians ArcAttack have found a use for these towers – they have hooked them into a MIDI synthesizer, which controls the pulsing – creating musical notes that sound like the ragged soundwaves that they are. ArcAttack is based in Texas, but they take their Tesla Coil show on the road, each year improving the sound and size of the show. Currently (ha!), the ArcAttack tesla coils emit 600,000 volts and 10-foot long bolts of lightning. In between the tesla coils, the musicians either dance within a faraday cage – or wear a special faraday chainmail suit that directs the high voltage around their bodies. Recent shows have had audience members dancing in faraday cages too!

If you’ve ever looked at a webcam and wondered what it was capable of knowing about you, you’re not alone. Tech Startup IMRSV has developed a software suite it calls “Cara” that allows computers connected to webcams to analyze video footage, determining gender, age, and how much attention the people pay to the camera. The software is available for PCs at the moment, but the company hopes to expand into the mobile market too – which opens up all sorts of privacy concerns and business opportunities for the world we live in now. Imagine something like Minority Report, or Mass Effect where shops advertise just to you – this is now a possible reality.

Boston Dynamics has been designing high-tech robots for some time, but MIT’s redesign of their Cheetah robot is efficient enough to carry its own power supply. The new design uses kevlar “tendons” to conserve energy – allowing it to be powered by 7 pounds of Lithium-Ion batteries, though the robot has not yet been tested on its own power. The robot can run at 13.7 miles per hour – about 22 kph – and may be a prototype of a delivery system in the near future. Are you ready for self-powered robots? We truly are living in the future.