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The next big tech toy

Aug 28 2012 10:05

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A SEISMIC shift occurred in the world of gadgets just over two years ago. No, it wasn't the release of the first iPad. It was something far more important.

In January 2010, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world was introduced to the Parrot AR.Drone, a radio-controlled "quadrotor" helicopter.

It sounds like a silly toy, but it captivated the geeks at CES for two reasons: it was designed to be controlled from an iPhone, using Wi-Fi, and it included two cameras that could be viewed through the controlling device.

Aside from that, the device is enormously compelling for its lightweight materials – it is constructed from carbon-fibre tubes, plastic and polystyrene, allowing its small rotors to lift it as high as the Wi-Fi link will extend. It also looks like something from science fiction.

Two years on, and the AR.Drone 2.0 has been brought to South Africa by SMAC to take the experience to a new level (see Sean Bacher's review). 

Launched at CES in January this year, its main technical innovation is a pressure sensor that functions like an altimeter. For the geeks, though, the camera upgrade to high-definition was the call to action. And that call was: "Upgrade!"

Aside from being compatible with all iOS devices – iPhone, iPad and iPods that are Wi-Fi enabled – it also works with Android devices.

In this country, most (but not all) iOS and Android phones are owned by the well-off who can afford them. But then, at R3 500, the AR.Drone is no laggard in the wallet either.

For those owning a Nokia smartphone, unofficial apps also exist to control it using the Symbian operating system.

The significance of the device goes beyond the astonishing sight of what looks like a military spying device hovering overhead.

While it has potential to be used for invasions of privacy, the protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement last year showed it can also be used to turn the tables on such invasions.

When police evicted protestors from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, journalists were prevented from entering the area and recording the events. Journalist Tim pool turned AR.Drone into an "occucopter" to stream live video to the internet, enabling the media and the public alike to watch the action unfold (see the story on YouTube).

Its educational potential is also huge. Because the drone has an open API – an application programming interface – applications can be built to draw on sensory data and images collected by the device for tracking, mapping and monitoring of anything from traffic to animal behaviour.

And, of course, human behaviour.

At the Czech Technical University in Prague, it's used for robotics research in the department of cybernetics.

Not only did the researchers "demonstrate the drone ability to act as an external navigation system for a formation of mobile robots", but also developed a software package for conducting and adapting such experiments.

Ultimately, of course, we're probably not going to get away with claiming it is more than just a toy. But it is. It is the toy that has given other toys a new lease on life.

Wi-Fi-controlled devices are popping out of the woodwork everywhere.

Soon, the cheap radio-controlled helicopters that have flooded toyshops will give way to iPhone- and Android-controlled helicopters of every shape and size.

Variations on the quadrotor were the first out of the starting blocks. At this year's CES, interactive toys took some attention away from Parrot with their range of "Wi-Spi" helicopters and cars that include night-vision cameras and can record video, photos and sound.

All-terrain robots (ATRs), which look like miniature versions of the Mars exploration vehicle Curiosity, were next.

The SuperDroids 4WD WiFi Controlled ATR includes a 360 degree pan-and-tilt camera, and can be controlled from a PC.

And then you will find any number of Wi-Fi-controlled tanks, ranging from classic shapes to futuristic fighting weapons. Aside from being the 21st century rich kid's alternative to guns and military toys, this is clearly part of the future of war and crime-fighting.

But it is also part of the future of legal precedents, as the fight for privacy takes to the sky.

 - Fin24

* Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.


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arthur goldstuck  |  gadgets
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