Google Glass - now available as shades. Photo: Ajit Niranjan / The New Statesman
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Google Glass launches in the UK, but don't expect to be wearing them anytime soon

Google just launched their prototype smartglasses in the UK, two years after they hit the US.

“Ok, glass.”

Two simple words, and a passable imitation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s public school tones – think Sherlock, not Smaug – start a frenzy of activity in the top right-hand corner of my eye. A list of voice commands appears on a screen that feels as if it's projected eight feet away, which I scroll through with the slightest tilt of my head. 

I triple-tap my temple and suddenly I can see the solar system from within the showroom by Central St. Martins on an overcast Monday evening. Constellations and planets are annotated in space but the text is unnecessary. I turn slowly on the spot till I locate the sun hovering over St. Pancras, and a soft voice reads out a Wikipedia-style entry of the star.

This is Google Glass, the latest in high-tech gadgetry. Star Chart, just one of the apps in the prototype I’m playing about with during Glass’ UK launch last night, is like a virtual planetarium which operates on a point-and-look model – no swiping or clicking needed. GPS and gyroscopes make it perfectly suited to Google’s hands-free headset.

The technology giant is selling the prototype of Google Glass for £1000, but don’t write it off because of the price-tag. Though the final version will undoubtedly be much cheaper, the current model is being released now to get public feedback on the project. Just as it has been in the US, Google is looking for British “Explorers” to test the product out and report their experiences of it. Speaking to The Guardian, 'Head of Glass' Ivy Ross – the intellectual counterpart to Blondie – said:

What you’re seeing now is that the people in businesses that acquired them are coming up with all these amazing use cases for it, but the same thing is happening with consumers – artists, mums, dads, school teachers, scientists – they’re doing amazing things with it too.” 

Their London video gives a little taster of how they expect it to take off.

Set aside the technological jargon – one of the team describes it as an “optical head-mounted display optimised for augmented reality” – and it's hard to deny that Glass is actually quite nifty, and user-friendly too: within ten minutes I've got the hang of interacting with the headset, through a combination of vocal commands, swipes and head nods. The employee demonstrating Glass to me – whose Polish accent is just a touch too strong for the voice recognition software – even showcases the surreptitious "wink-for-a-photo"  command. 

Fun as the applications are, there's a strong mood in the room that Google is onto something bigger than a snazzy gadget. Global director of marketing Ed Sanders believes Glass might help us interact more with the real world by taking us away from smartphones and tablets:

People are looking down; people are getting buried in technology. We have a deep, sort of philosophical desire to help people look back up. And one of the big things behind Glass is how you put people back in the moment.”

Supposedly, its functions can be called up without taking the user away from the action. The demonstrator puts this in perspective: imagine you’re on holiday. Want to find directions to a fancy restaurant? Translate the indecipherable Italian menu? Shazam the Pavarotti in the background? Google thinks Glass will let it embed technology in day-to-day life without detracting from the experiences.

Sanders – who managed to use Glass to record the first time his son said ‘Dada’ – thinks the company really might be onto something. The smartglasses were developed by Google X, a “Charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory” division of Google responsible for projects like the driverless car. The guiding mantra at the semi-secret research facility is to make technology ten times better, not just ten percent – hence the X in the name.

But Glass isn't without its shortcomings. The product's been plagued by bugs and it looks to be a long, long while before a polished, glitch-free version is on the market. Unfortunately the criticisms don't stop there. In the short time I used it, the demonstrator accidentally 'took control' of my glasses by saying commands a bit too loudly. In America it’s come under so much criticism for intruding on privacy that bars and restaurants in tech-hub San Francisco have banned it. Civil liberties groups have voiced concerns that the technology will enable stealthy spying.

Of course, there's the fashion angle as well. Despite partnering up with Ray-Ban and other high-end fashion brands, the fact remains that many users are reluctant to publicise their purchase. Google can make the design as streamlined and versatile as it likes, but something about the mini-computer sat on the bridge of your nose just screams "dweeb". 

So don't expect to see Glass becoming a part of everyday life anytime soon. The technology might be getting there but there's a whole marketing minefield that Google will have to navigate through first. After all, who really wants to be a "Glasshole"?

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.