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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Game Changers

This blog is almost entirely about Second Life (and occasionally, other virtual worlds.)  But I just had a thought that I wanted to share with you all about Game Changers.

Game Changers (with the capitals, please!) are innovations.  They could be things like social institutions, or novel investment schemes, but since I happen to be trained as a scientist and engineer, I tend to think of them as actual inventions.  A Game Changer is something that is so revolutionary that it completely revises the world and the way we look at it.  The automobile and the airplane were Game Changers.  The personal computer and the internet were Game Changers.

Here are three Game Changers that we need very badly, and they all have to do with energy.
  1. Cheap, clean power.  No, not wind, solar, or nuclear power.  I mean something really cheap, and really clean.  There are rumors of this sort of Game Changer here and there on the internet.  Most of them are probably hoaxes, or at least wishful thinking on the part of their proponents.  However, I recently ran across a report of an Italian fellow who claims to have made cold fusion work in a generator about the size of a picnic cooler.  Independent investigators confirmed that the device seems to be making a heck of a lot more heat than can be attributed to any chemical reaction, but the inventor hasn't come forth with any of the details of how it works.  So, it could be a hoax as well...but we NEED something like this so much!  Even if this report is a hoax, there are others working on the problem.  Electrostatic confinement for fusion looks very promising, if they can just scare up some funding.
  2. High power density storage.  Batteries suck.  They are heavy, expensive, contain harmful chemicals, and don't store nearly enough power.  The person who invents the battery that stores as much energy as your car's gas tank, in the same weight and volume, will go down in history.  And there is a report that some scientists have (maybe!) come up with a way to do it, by producing "spongy" electrodes that have enormous surface area for their physical size.  If the lab experiment can be scaled up to an industrial process, we could see cell phone batteries the size of postage stamps that charge in ten seconds and last for days.  We could see REAL electric cars, at prices like today's gas buggies.
  3. Low loss power transmission.  We need a low cost room temperature superconductor.  I haven't seen any recent reports in this area, but the problem is being worked on.  I hope there's a breakthrough soon.
And one more, not in the energy area:  Really high strength materials.  There are great strides being made every day in this field, particularly with "carbon nanotubes."  As we learn more about this stuff, we could find our cars becoming so light you could pick up a car body.  Or someone building a "space elevator," and making it possible to get into orbit without all those expensive and risky rockets.  No, no, I am dead serious.  Game Changer, remember?

And one last one, this time in industrial processes:  3D printing.  Right now, you can get a "maker cell" that will let you "print" plastic jewelry and knick-knacks in your own home.  There are industrial 3D printers that can "print" rocket engine parts, or medical prosthetics.  Even actual replacement internal organs, or skin.  There is a big machine that can extrude concrete to "print" an entire house right on the building site.  They are even "printing" food!  The latest term for this sort of thing is "additive manufacturing."  Instead of cutting parts out of a chunk of material, the parts are built up in many layers with an extrusion or spraying type of machine that's controlled by a computer and a digital template.

All right, let's tie this discussion back to virtual worlds, at least a little bit.  Virtual worlds are, at least potentially, a Game Changer too.  Second Life and its competitors have changed the way in which we interact with others, as well as the way we perceive others.  As the fidelity of the virtual world experience increases, we'll see even greater impacts on our lives.

Game Changers are, by definition, unexpected.  And they have unexpected consequences, both good and bad.  The airplane ushered in an age of cheap, rapid travel to anywhere in the world...and warfare in a whole new dimension.

Keep your eyes open for new developments.  The future is almost sure to be more wild and crazy than we can imagine, thanks to Game Changers.

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