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Month January 2014

Simple Method for Creating Stem Cells Promises Cheaper, Faster Therapies

Singularity Hub
Simple Method for Creating Stem Cells Promises Cheaper, Faster Therapies

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Stem cells promise bright new frontiers in medicine: Doctors can already study patients’ unique disease manifestations without biopsies thanks to the cells, and one day they hope to use them to spur patients to grow healthy new cells to restore or replace diseased body parts.

Recognizing their revolutionary potential, the Nobel committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine to Shinya Yamanaka and others who made it possible to obtain stem cells by mixing foreign DNA with an adult patient’s cells to create an ersatz embryo. (Cells created using this method are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs.)

But new research has found a way to develop the malleable stem cells using a simpler and potentially cheaper method. In a paper published in Nature, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Japan’s RIKEN Center show that by simply giving an adult cell an acid bath, they can convert it into a stem cell.

“Our research findings demonstrate that creation of a stem cell from an individual that has the potential to be used for a therapeutic purpose without an embryo is possible,” said senior author Charles Vacanti, director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The startlingly simple method was inspired by the researchers’ observations of plant behavior. Injured plant cells create a callus that can develop into a new plant, prompting the researchers to wonder if animal cells might have the same response. In the experiment, they took mature mouse white blood cells and stressed them almost to the point of death. Within a few days, the cells had recovered by reverting into a state of newborn potential like that heralded in embryonic stem cells.

vacanti-stap-stem-cellsThey then put the cells­ — which they call STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells — back into live mice, and confirmed that they specialized and spready throughout the body (pictured).

“Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation,” said Vacanti.

Lorenz Studer, a developmental biologist at Memorial Sloan Ketting Cancer Center who was not involved in the study, told Singularity Hub the findings could represent a breakthrough in stem cell-based medicine.

But “like every really truly breakthrough study, it raises more questions than it answers,” he said.

The major question is whether the process will work as well with human cells as it did with mouse cells, and whether it will work using types of cells that doctors can easily harvest from patients of all ages. Studer also noted that the exact properties of the STAP cells aren’t really evident from the early findings.

If the method does work with human cells, it will have major clinical implications. Yamanaka’s method of creating stem cells is expensive and inefficient — just one percent of cells that undergo the 20-day process become iSPCs. These bottlenecks limit research in the field, and a major improvement to any one could make STAP the new clinical norm, Studer said.

One thing is for sure: With a process this simple and important, many labs are going to be trying it using human cells, so answers should be forthcoming soon.

Photos: Nissim Benvenisty via Wikimedia Commons; Charles Vacanti courtesy Nature

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Amid a Debate That’s Hot As Ever, General Mills Says No GMOs in Its Cold Cheerios

Singularity Hub
Amid a Debate That’s Hot As Ever, General Mills Says No GMOs in Its Cold Cheerios

cheerios_gmo_free (1)

General Mills recently announced they’ll make one of their most recognizable breakfast cereals, Cheerios, free of genetically modified ingredients. The announcement came after an anti-GMO group flooded the Cheerios Facebook page demanding the food giant stop using genetically engineered food.

The controversy surrounding GMOs is, of course, closely related to many of the technologies we cover at Singularity Hub. Fear of genetically modified crops may only be the tip of the iceberg, as biotech moves into the more fraught territory of genetic engineering and therapies in animals and eventually humans.

Is the decision by General Mills a victory and turning point for the movement against GMO foods? Perhaps. But it would also appear that General Mills took action, in part, because it was an easy win.

Cheerios was already largely GMO-free. As General Mills notes, there are no genetically modified strains of oats, the prime ingredient in Cheerios. However, the firm uses some corn starch and sugar in the recipe. Both have now been switched to non-GMO sources and stored separately from other ingredients.

cheerios_boxIn an FAQ, General Mills makes their stance clear. They were willing to make the change because it was simple. But they won’t be making their other largely corn-based cereals GMO-free. And they believe GMOs are safe, in any case.

Genetically modified foods remain a controversial topic, and the battle is passionate and entrenched on both sides.

Opponents claim GMO crops give undue power to unscrupulous corporate giants like Monsanto and rob farmers of traditional freedoms. Crops engineered to withstand herbicides, they say, lead to increased use of herbicides, and GMOs can cause afflictions as wide ranging as cancer, autism, obesity, autoimmune conditions, allergies, bee colony collapse disorder, and superweeds.

Meanwhile, those in favor of GMOs say there is little scientific evidence behind most claims. Resistance to insects and herbicides can reduce crop yield variability from year to year. GMOs appear in some 70%-80% of foods consumed in the US—and they’ve been around for almost two decades now. (Of course, those in opposition note this prevalence is precisely what’s beyond the ill effects on health and the environment.)

So, who to believe? It can be challenging to separate opinion from fact and passion from objectivity. Two recent articles are instructive in the nuances of the debate.

Nathanael Johnson’s December article in Grist notes the controversy is far from simple. But there are a few widely held beliefs that aren’t exactly as they seem.

While herbicide use is rising, for example, the herbicide in question, glyphosate, is less toxic than past products. Insecticide use is down (for now) because some GMOs are resistant to insects. And though genetic engineering may produce unexpected changes in plants, it’s only slightly more likely to do so than other plant breeding techniques.

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Underpinning the GMO controversy is fear our creations will run amok.

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times piece documented the efforts of a Hawaiian lawmaker trying to tease out the truth about GMOs. Bills requiring labeling of genetically modified food have been introduced in 20 states. On Hawaii’s Big Island, the law in question would not simply require labeling but would ban GMOs outright.

Councilman Greggor Ilagan was initially in favor of the ban, but after looking into the issue, he found it far from settled. The NYT describes the challenge Ilagan faced, ”People who spoke as experts lacked credentials, and GMO critics discounted those with credentials as being pawns of biotechnology companies.”

The debate often neglects the benefits of genetic engineering. In Hawaii, for example genetically engineered Rainbow papayas survived a devastating viral outbreak and saved the livelihood of the small farmers cultivating them. Further, less variability in crop yields may prove crucial in developing countries. And in certain populations suffering nutritional deficiencies, crops can be engineered to produce key nutrients.

What may be more important, beyond the details of the GMO controversy itself, is the sentiment driving it. We are only now beginning to understand genetics on a deep level. The fear, it would seem, is that mucking about with partially understood complex systems may result in unintended and irreversible consequences.

The worry is valid. No matter how tightly controlled genetically engineered plants are, there is room for mistakes, unforeseen interactions, and sabotage.

But risk has always played a part in progress. And the benefits need to be weighed too. If an invention simultaneously carries risk and the potential to alleviate human suffering, shouldn’t it be investigated? The fear of unintended negative consequences argues more for caution and close study than complete cessation.

Image Credit: yaybiscuits123/Flickr, bpende/Flickr, kvitlauk/Flickr

DNA Origami to Nanomachines: Building Tiny Robots for the Body and Beyond

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DNA Origami to Nanomachines: Building Tiny Robots for the Body and Beyond

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In 2010, Caltech’s Paul Rothemund gave a TED talk on a field of study called DNA origami, or the creation of microscopic shapes and forms from DNA. As it turns out, Rothemund said, DNA is an ideal nanoscale building material.

DNA’s double helix codes for self-replicating, computing machines called cells. As we begin building our own molecular machines—why reinvent the wheel? DNA origami, or alternately DNA nanotechnology, has been making rapid progress in recent years, but its roots go back more than three decades.

Inspired by an MC Escher woodcut, Ned Seeman, a chemistry professor at NYU, realized that by strategically linking DNA’s molecular base pairs, he could bend a string of DNA into different shapes. That was at the campus pub in the early eighties.

Seeman won the 1995 Feynman Prize for creating a DNA cube in 1991 and later a truncated octahedron. However, his early work didn’t hold together well. It would take another two decades to complete his vision of rigid DNA shapes in three dimensions.

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Nanoscale, self-assembled DNA alphabet and emoticons. Image courtesy of B. Wei, M. Dai, P. Yin; Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Today’s researchers attach short strands of DNA to key points along a longer strand. Base pairs of the shorter strands adhere like pieces of tape or staples at various points along the long strand, thus bending it into form. Shapes include nanoscale tiles, cubes, spheres, polyhedrons, gears, characters of the alphabet, even smiley faces.

Here’s the best part: There’s no painstaking fabrication on mind-bendingly tiny scales. Scientists need only mix the right bits and pieces of DNA, heat the mixture, and as it cools, millions or billions of tiny shapes self-assemble.

Aided by design software and the latest methods, researchers can now make more complex shapes faster—and along the way, they’ve begun to figure out how to make those shapes perform simple actions.

In Rothemund’s 2010 talk, he showed how you could create squares out of two dimensional DNA tiles and govern how big they would grow with code. Rothemund’s tiles were performing rudimentary computation. (Some folks think we might pursue DNA as a material for pure computing in the future.)

But neither static shapes nor simple computers alone are the goal—researchers want to combine the two to make functioning nanomachines.

Ido Bachelet, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Life Science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, is developing early DNA nanomachines to carry and deliver precious molecular cargo—a drug, protein, enzyme, or nanomolecule, for instance.

Bachelet’s DNA nanomachines (he describes them as “clam shells”) remain shut tight until a special circumstance, like a collision with a cancer cell, induces them to open and release their cargo. (Singularity Hub members can check out Bachelet’s longer 2012 talk at Singularity University in ‘Video Central’.)

One revolutionary application of DNA nanomachines like Bachelet’s may be selective drug therapy. Current drug therapy is akin to a shotgun blast. We accept the sacrifice of healthy cells as long as malignant cells are taken out as well.

Bachelet says there’s a long list of drugs that, however effective, simply aren’t practical because they do too much collateral damage or interact poorly with other drugs. “We have amazing drugs already. We just don’t know how to control them.” DNA nanomachines may be able to deliver drugs directly to sick cells, sparing healthy ones.

Or at scale, nanomachines might be programmed to exhibit swarm behavior, where simple rules at the level of individuals result in complex higher level group actions. Worker ants, for example, are governed by a limited set of instructions, but together they scout for food, test weather conditions, care for young, and build colonies.

Bachelet thinks drugs that don’t interact well could be employed in the body simultaneously. Such drug-carrying nanomachines would be coded such that when drug A is active, drug B is repressed and vice-versa.

Or like ants, swarms of nanomachines might build a bridge over damaged tissue—a severed spinal column, for example—and release healing growth factors.

Beyond the body, researchers are working on DNA transistors, wires, and capacitors. And Harvard’s George Church thinks we may use synthetic DNA to someday build macroscopic machines from the molecular level up—just like in nature.

Of course, no field has fuel enough to tackle tough problems without getting fired up about the future. But DNA building techniques are still lab-bound and fabrication isn’t yet ready for prime time. In most cases, only about 30% of “folded origami” DNA molecules in solution match the intended design.

That said, while DNA nanotechnology remains the stuff of seductive TED talks for mere mortals in the immediate future—with a little patience, the promise and potential pay-off in coming decades may be very great indeed.

Image Credit: Duncan Hill/Flickr, Nadrian Seeman/NYU

The Humble Toothbrush Gets an Internet Makeover

Singularity Hub
The Humble Toothbrush Gets an Internet Makeover

kolibree-bannerThe Internet of Things appears to be expanding out from the poles of industrial machinery and everyday household items. Among the latter category, we can now count smart toothbrushes.

Existing smart brushes have tracked how long and how often users brush, displaying the data in a mobile app and, upon request, sharing it with the user’s dentist. But a newcomer to the field, Kolibree, tracks not just the quantity but the quality of brushing behavior.

kolibree-featMany people learn at their semiannual visits to the dentist that they are missing a certain hard-to-reach nook. Kolibree’s smart toothbrush maps where the brush touches each time the user brushes, so no spot remains unscoured for long. (Similarly, smart socks map the foot’s impact with the ground to allow serious runners to track their form.)

“Right now you get your feedback from your dentist maybe once or twice a year, and for the first time you can actually get that real-time feedback twice a day from this smart app,” Renee Blodgett, the company’s PR person, told the Wall Street Journal in a video interview.

Admittedly, oral hygiene isn’t a thrilling topic for most, so $99 – $199 may be a steep price for a Bluetooth-connected toothbrush. But Kolibree is hoping to appeal to gadget nuts and to that mother of all consumer segments, parents, who currently use such low-tech methods to ensure their kids’ oral health as asking them a couple times a day if they remembered to brush.

beam_smart-toothbrush-sm“The quantified-self geeks will love this app because it’s actually tracking something really useful. But the biggest feedback we’re getting is from parents because for the first time you can actually track how well your kids are brushing their teeth,” Blodgett said in the video interview.

The parent can be the master of the app that stores and displays data from several up to five brushes, and the app compares their brushing performance in a gamified way in hopes of turning sibling rivalry into better technique.

Meanwhile, for parents who are just looking to make sure the kids brushed for a reasonable amount of time, Beam Brush’s first-gen smart toothbrush costs just $24.99.

Photos: Kolibree, Beam Brush

Gene Therapy Improves Sight in UK Patients

Singularity Hub
Gene Therapy Improves Sight in UK Patients

blindness-gene-therapy-bannerWith few treatments available and clear genetic causes, progressive blindness has been the focus of several types of gene therapy. But doctors have previously balked at injecting therapeutic genes behind the patient’s retina, for fear of damaging the light-sensing tissue.

In a recent Oxford trial reported in The Lancet, doctors restored sight to patients with choroideremia, a rare inherited cause of blindness that affects about 1 in 50,000 people, with a surgery that involved temporarily detaching the retina to inject mutation-free genes behind it.

Of nine patients who underwent the experimental procedure, the two with the most impaired vision could read 2 – 4 additional lines on an eye chart six months later. Four patients whose eyesight was less impaired had their night vision improve after treatment. Since the results were recorded, all have continued to improve.

gene-therapy-surgeryPatient Jonathan Wyatt, 65, described it this way: “Now when I watch a football match on the TV, if I look at the screen with my left eye alone, it is as if someone has switched on the floodlights. The green of the pitch is brighter, and the numbers on the shirts are much clearer.” Wyatt’s left eye, previously worse than his right, was treated in the trial.

The choroideremia treatment used a harmless virus to carry an un-mutated version of the CHM gene that causes the disease into the retina after being injected behind it. Patients received the therapy in just one eye to ensure that they didn’t lose all sight while allowing the clinicians to use the other eye as a point of comparison.

“The results showing improvement in vision in the first six patients confirm that the virus can deliver its DNA payload without causing significant damage to the retina. This has huge implications for anyone with a genetic retinal disease such as age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, because it has for the first time shown that gene therapy can be applied safely before the onset of vision loss,” said the lead researcher, Oxford University ophthalmologist Robert McLaren.

mclaren“It is still too early to know if the gene therapy treatment will last indefinitely, but we can say that the vision improvements have been maintained for as long as we have been following up the patients, which is two years in one case,” McLaren said.

Gene therapy has also been used with some success to treat other forms of congenital eye disease, notably Leber’s congenital amaurosis, but more common conditions, including macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, have proven more difficult to treat. University of California at Berkeley researchers used a virus, rather than surgery, to push past the retina and deliver normal genetic material. A computerized eye implant is also available to circumvent the impacts of retinitis pigmentosa.

With gene therapies finally seeing clinical success and competing methods emerging to treat more eye diseases, the outlook is good for those facing genetic forms of progressive eye diseases.

Robot Helps Identify the Perfect Cookie

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Robot Helps Identify the Perfect Cookie

cookie-perfection-machine-bannerComputers have changed how we do most things, but they’ve also brought changes to the culture as a whole. One example of that shift — the embrace of data analytics in all things — is epitomized by a new invention by computer programmer and science hobbyist Ben Krasnow: the Cookie Perfection Machine.

The Cookie Perfection Machine makes individual cookies according to the user’s specifications, entered by computer, by meting out the specified proportion of every ingredient and dispensing it into a receptacle. A sheet of cookies thus becomes a “flight” of cookie recipes to taste, and the fastidious baker can identify which recipe is best.

The robot chef needs some fine-tuning to make it easier to use, but with, say, an automatic mixer, it could find a market in bakeries as well as with persnickety home chefs.

Gene Therapy Helps Parkinson’s Patients, But Is It Simply A Placebo?

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Gene Therapy Helps Parkinson’s Patients, But Is It Simply A Placebo?

dopamine-production-pet-scan-parkinson-disease
Since the heady days of the initial human genome sequencing, doctors have pointed to the prospect of administering the “right” version of a gene to patients suffering from genetic diseases to affect miracle cures like those seen in “Awakenings” — but permanent.

A genetic treatment for Parkinson’s disease shows just how close and, at the same time, how far medicine now is from such miracle cures.

The same drug seen in the 1990 movie — L-dopa, which the body converts into the neurotransmitter dopamine — now serves as the gold-standard for Parkinson’s disease. Because it treats the symptoms rather than the underlying cause, its effects eventually dwindle in the face of progressing neurological damage. It can also cause tics and involuntary movements.

The genetic therapy pioneered by Nicholas Mazarakis, of the Imperial College in London, has sought to offer patients relief without the side effects by prompting the body to make its own dopamine. Doctors inject genes, wrapped in a lentivirus, that drive dopamine production into the region of the brain that controls movement. The drug is being commercialized by Oxford BioMedica as ProSavin.

Michael J. Fox, a public face of Parkinson's disease

Michael J. Fox advocates for Parkinson’s disease

The method was recently tested for the first time on 15 human patients suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, and all saw improvements on a standard test measuring movement-related symptoms, with a mean decline of 30 percent. PET scans showed more dopamine production, and none of the patients experienced major adverse reactions. Results of the trial, funded by the company seeking to market the therapy, were published in The Lancet.

“I’m very pleased that it has appeared to work in the clinic. It has the potential to move to the next phase. It needs to be done in more people; we have to find the most effective dose, to further increase efficacy, and prove beyond doubt that this is not a placebo effect,” Mazarakis said in a news release.

Mazrakis’s enthusiasm was muted because the improvements observed in the trial were “within the placebo range reported in other clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease using surgical techniques,” according to the study. It’s therefore not clear whether the therapy, which requires brain surgery, worked or not.

“All the participants knew they were receiving the treatment, and it is well known that surgical treatments create a large placebo effect that can last for more than 12 months. Simply placing lesions in the basal ganglia regions of the brain can help the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s and it is possible that the improvement seen was a result of the surgical procedure itself rather than the novel gene therapy,” the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation stated about the findings on its website.

Parkinson_surgeryEven with promising results in humans paired with dramatic results in earlier tests in primates, ProSavin, first developed in 1997, is heading back to the drawing board. Researchers will tweak the dosage and the delivery method in hopes of proving in subsequent randomized human trials that its effects exceed those of a placebo.

Meanwhile, an alternative gene therapy that delivers the GAD gene is also moving through clinical trials, and electronic stimulation to the brain is emerging as a way to augment the effects of levodopa to control the devastating symptoms of a disease that affects more than 7 million people worldwide.

Photos: Imperial College, Paul Hudson via Flickr, Thomasbg via Wikimedia Commons

MIT’s Tangible Media Group Gives Digital Bits Physical Form

Singularity Hub
MIT’s Tangible Media Group Gives Digital Bits Physical Form

MIT_inFORM_Digital_Physical_Interface (2)

MIT’s Daniel Leithinger sits in front of a screen displaying video of a red ball on a table. Leithinger raises up his hands and a field of columns erupts from the table, forming a pixellated physical model of his hands in real time.

Leithinger’s hands have been digitally transported from one room to another and physically re-manifested using a “tangible user interface.” He can pass the ball from one hand to the other or manipulate objects without being physically present.

Leithinger built the system, called inFORM, with fellow Ph.D. candidate and graduate research assistant, Sean Follmer, and Professor Hiroshi Ishii, head of MIT’s Tangible Media Group. The team hopes their invention and others like it will augment graphical user interfaces, like screens, by giving physical 3D form to bits of data.

Spooky action at a distance--Leitinger uses inFORM to cradle a flashlight in another room.

Spooky action at a distance. Leitinger uses inFORM to cradle a flashlight in another room.

People may one day use such smart, interactive surfaces to view and edit 3D models, tilt mobile devices to view incoming calls or messages and more comfortably use touch screens, manifest a remote user’s hands to interact with objects—or for any number of other as yet unforeseen applications.

The inFORM interface is composed of 900 polystyrene pins. Attached to an array of actuators and a computer, the pins extend up to four inches above the surface of the table in a rough approximation of whatever 3D model the computer commands. Using Microsoft Kinect, inFORM tracks users and objects and overlays visual information with an overhead projector.

In action, it’s a compelling sight, and Ishii’s group thinks such interfaces might lend a more elegant, intuitive design to human-computer interaction.

But inFORM isn’t ready for the rest of us just yet. The system’s resolution is quite low. And the group notes in a paper detailing the project that the currently required one actuator per pin limits how much the resolution can be scaled—adding more pins would rapidly increase the system’s footprint and cost.

Smart surfaces like inFORM could be used to manipulate 3D models or visualize data.

Smart surfaces like inFORM could be used to manipulate 3D models or visualize data.

That said, the principles are sound, and combining what they’ve learned with different interaction methods or novel materials may yield more user friendly or higher resolution surfaces. The group, for example, has experimented with pneumatically controlled materials and malleable materials like “tunable clay.”

Other improvements might include touch sensors in each of the table’s 900 pins to complement Kinect tracking.

The Tangible Media Group compares tangible media interfaces to an iceberg where only a portion of the digital information emerges in the real world. The ultimate goal is something they term Radical Atoms—or materials (nanomachines, perhaps?) that are as reconfigurable as pixels on a screen.

“Radical Atoms is a vision for the future of human-material interaction,” the group says on their homepage, “in which all digital information has a physical manifestation so that we can interact directly with it.”

Parrot’s Latest MiniDrone Fits In The Palm Of Your Hand, Plus Jumping Sumo

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Parrot’s Latest MiniDrone Fits In The Palm Of Your Hand, Plus Jumping Sumo

Parrot_MiniDrone (1)

When you hear drone, you may think of the army or Amazon. But a robot flyer can be just plain fun too, right? Parrot aims to bring drones to the mainstream market with the new MiniDrone—a scaled down, easier-to-fly version of their AR.Drone. Added to their new Jumping Sumo two-wheeler? High-tech good times.

Parrot’s drone for your home is tiny, fitting into the palm of the hand, zippy, and stable. Two removable wheels on protect the drone’s propellers from obstructions, allow it to roll around for optimal take-off location—and lend it a bit of the TIE fighter look.

Users send it flying around the room with naught but a mobile device and app. The drone’s onboard computer uses miniature sensors like a camera, ultrasonic sensor, and gyroscope to handle complex stabilization, leaving higher level maneuvers to the human pilot, and reducing the likelihood they’ll lose control of the drone.

The bigger Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 carries a camera and boasts 18 minutes of battery life,* while the MiniDrone’s only camera is used solely for navigation, and the battery life is a mere six minutes. The MiniDrone, however, should be easier to fly and, though no price has yet been set, will likely cost less than the A.R.Drone 2.0’s $299.

Parrot Jumping Sumo.

Parrot Jumping Sumo.

Parrot revealed MiniDrone at CES 2014, along with another toy, Jumping Sumo. Jumping Sumo rolls around on two big independently controlled wheels for quick cornering and can pop into the air or onto surfaces.

The little two-wheeler is ambidextrous. No matter which side it lands on, it keeps on driving. A camera produces a point-of-view video feed.

Jumping Sumo’s battery life clocks in at slightly more comfortable 20 minutes. Both toys are linked to mobile devices by Bluetooth and have a range of 160 feet.

MiniDrone and Jumping Sumo are the latest in a growing market of toys with computer-enabled navigation onboard. Last year, for example, we covered Anki Drive. On the surface, Anki Drive is a simple car racing game. Under the hood, it’s an amalgam of advanced artificial intelligence, mobile computing, and robotics.

Like the algorithms that effortlessly keep Anki Drive’s cars on the track, MiniDrone is easy to fly because the hardest part of flying is handled by an tiny onboard computer. You can crash it into walls or knock it with your hand, and the drone easily regains its balance, hovering as before, unperturbed.

The toy trend is a trend to watch—even if you could care less about toys. Toys have two prime requirements: ease of use and low cost. That artificial intelligence and robotics, once costly and complicated, are now showing up in toys heralds a wider revolution.

Anki and Parrot are just two examples of how exponentially growing computing power and declining cost are bringing AI and robotics into the everyday.

* Parrot provides two batteries for the AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition and therefore, if you swap batteries, 36 minutes total flight time before recharging.

Image Credit: Parrot

Smarty Digital Ring Delivers Text, Email, and Social Media Updates Directly to Your Finger

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Smarty Digital Ring Delivers Text, Email, and Social Media Updates Directly to Your Finger

SmartRing_Indiegogo

You’ve seen glasses and watches get smart. Time to add rings to the list of everyday wearable items boasting microchips, miniature displays, and touch interfaces.

The makers of Smarty Ring hope to reduce the number of times you check your smartphone everyday. The ring connects with iOS and Android devices to deliver alerts for texts, emails, phone calls, and social media. You can also control music, take pictures, accept or reject incoming calls, and make outgoing calls to favorite numbers.

Smarty Ring’s LED screen (blue or green) displays the time or works as a stopwatch or timer, and the device also functions as a tracker. You can ping your phone, and it’ll go off even when in silent mode. Or if your ring and phone become separated—perhaps you left it behind at the café or someone just stole it—Smarty Ring will alert you.

Smarty Ring comes with an app to set and adjust the ring’s settings and a 24-hour battery powered up on a special inductive charger with two ring slots and a pad for compatible phones. (The picture shows what appears to be an iPhone—but to date, iPhones can’t be charged inductively.)

The ring itself is to be made of stainless steel and custom fit to your finger, and thanks to its waterproof design, Smarty Ring’s creators say it “makes a great companion for a business professional on vacation who needs live updates even while swimming!”

This works, of course, only if you don’t plan on swimming more than 100 feet from your phone. And, we might add, if you need real time updates on vacation, and they can’t wait until you’re done swimming—it isn’t vacation.

Like most smartwatches, Smarty Ring looks to be on the bulky side, particularly for smaller hands. And at $275 (retail), it’s a touch pricey for fairly limited functionality.

Also, note—Smarty Ring doesn’t exist yet. All the Indiegogo campaign’s images are strictly conceptual. Delivery four months from now (April 2014) is an aggressive timeline within which to develop a working prototype and manufacturing process.

Whatever happens with Smarty Ring specifically, the smart ring is another example of people wanting wearable electronics—their Indiegogo campaign exceeded its goal five times over—and companies attempting to meet demand. Experimentation and better components should further improve form and function in the coming years.