Android 5.0 Lollipop adoption rate is so low it didn’t appear on Google’s distribution chart

Android 5.0 Lollipop has been out for almost two months now, but as you should know by this point, that doesn’t mean very many people are actually using it. Actually, according to Google’s new platform distribution numbers, even fewer people than expected are on the latest and greatest Mountain View has to offer. Lollipop didn’t even hit the 0.1% cutoff required to be represented in the data.

Android 5.0 Lollipop adoption rate is so low it didn’t appear on Google’s distribution chart

Once per month, Google aggregates data about the various Android devices that check into the Play Store. This data is turned into some nifty tables and graphs for the developer dashboard, which app makers can use to better target devices. The largest chunk of active Android devices this time is represented by Jelly Bean (all three versions collectively) at 46%, followed closely by KitKat at 39.1%. The oldest version still showing up in the data is Android 2.2 Froyo (0.4%), which is positively ancient by technology standards — it was released in May 2010.

The newest version of Android that runs on Google’s flagship devices is a smaller part of the Android ecosystem than a version released nearly five years ago. That’s certainly not ideal from Google’s perspective, but the data doesn’t lie. You have to give Google credit for providing this service for developers without any PR spin. By comparison, last year after about two months, KitKat was on 1.1% of devices, which still isn’t great, but it’s at least ten times more than Lollipop right now. So, what gives?

Android 5.0 Lollipop adoption rate is so low it didn’t appear on Google’s distribution chart

There are a few things going on in the data that might explain the absence of Android 5.0, not all of which are bad. First, we don’t know anything about the absolute number of devices out there. It’s possible there are more Lollipop phones and tablets right now than there were on KitKat this time last year — all we know is that they comprise less than 0.1% of the whole Android ecosystem.

That’s not to say Lollipop uptake has been great, though. The Nexus program really stumbled this year. The Nexus 6 is a great phone if you can find it, and you probably can’t. Even two months after the announcement, this device is out of stock constantly. Nexus phones have always been in high demand, but it’s clear Motorola and Google were not prepared for the rush this year. The usual influx of new software that usually hits the Play Store around the end of the year didn’t happen this time — it’s not a lot, but enough to show up in the data. There simply aren’t sufficient Nexus devices to go around, and the limited updates of unlocked phones and tablets aren’t going to compensate for that.

Interestingly, KitKat usage jumped in this month’s data. That’s likely an effect of people trading in their old phones for new ones over the holiday season. Most flagship phones are still waiting on their Lollipop update, so that’s not too surprising, but even budget phones are starting to ship with Android 4.4. This version is tuned to play nice with slower devices, which has led to a ton of high-quality inexpensive phones. Thankfully, cheap devices powered by the archaic Gingerbread version are in heavy decline in this data, probably because of KitKat’s better support for the budget end of the spectrum. This is a very good thing.

Slow adoption of Android is a fact of life, and things are still better now than they used to be. A slow start to Lollipop’s deployment isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t point to user discontent. Lollipop isn’t something people go out and buy, it’s delivered to them whenever an OTA is ready. Slow updates are sometimes cited as a potential downfall for Android, but year after year it keeps growing. The platform numbers are odd, but it’s not time to panic yet.

New kinetic cooler is a heatsink that’s also a CPU fan

Heatsinks and CPU fans can be very large, limiting the hardware configurations in any computer, but what if you could condense and combine them into one component? At CES 2015, startup CoolChip Technologies has done just that, making the physical constraints of a case easier to work with.

New kinetic cooler is a heatsink that’s also a CPU fan

If you’re building a rig with specific size constraints — like if you live in cramped city quarters, for instance — the heatsink and CPU fan can become a (literally) huge problem. Certain heatsinks tower above a processor, rendering a PC case unable to close or causing problems for the placement of components and wires. Some rigs just generate too much heat, though, and a large heatsink is necessary. If you could condense the heatsink and fan into one object, you could save a bunch of room. CoolChip Technologies is developing this very object, and it not only saves space, but looks really cool.

New kinetic cooler is a heatsink that’s also a CPU fan

Dubbed “kinetic cooling,” the heatsink is a circular, flat component made from aluminum that, instead of coming with an attached fan, spins and acts as the fan itself.

The heatsink-fan combo is composed of two pieces: a metal fan that sits atop a metal plate, which itself rests on the CPU. A bearing allows the metal fan to spin, and the whole device acts as a heatsink. Both parts are composed of thinner metal circles offset from each other. This creates pockets of air between the circles, which helps the fan pull the hot air out and blow it away.

New kinetic cooler is a heatsink that’s also a CPU fan

It connects to the motherboard via pins like any other heatsink would, but it doesn’t push the same cubic feet per minute as traditional fans. However, CoolChip claims that while the CFM is lower, the all-metal construction and combination design makes up for it.

The entire rig is more shallow than most traditional heatsinks, so you won’t struggle finding a tidy place for stray wires, and your case should close with ease. Unlike a regular plastic fan, the metal fan won’t warp over time, and perhaps best of all, reports state that the rig makes little-to-no noise, which is surprising for something composed of metal spinning on top of metal.

At the moment, the heatsink-fan doesn’t currently have a name. You can check out more info on CoolChip’s website, but you might have a difficult time referring to it.

TrackingPoint rifle lets you hit what you can’t see

When we first covered TrackingPoint’s computer-assisted weapons at CES, it was the rifles’ object-tagging that got everyone’s attention. Its Precision-Guided Firearm system allows a shooter to tag the target prior to pulling the trigger. Once tagged, the shooter can squeeze the trigger, but the rifle will not fire until the target is correctly sighted. The gun’s ballistic computer takes into account the target distance, ammunition, barrel condition, and the shooter manually inputs wind conditions. In a new development, TrackingPoint has pushed its Xact System technology even further, allowing the shooter to look at a video screen not connected to the rifle while aiming — thus making possible that spy movie dream of shooting around corners.

TrackingPoint rifle lets you hit what you can’t see

Making un-sighted shooting work for hitting stationary targets is actually easier than it sounds for TrackingPoint, because what looks like an optical scope on the rifle actually isn’t a scope. It is a video camera and small display, with a lot of electronics in between. Think of it like the Electronic Viewfinder on a mirrorless camera, except the rifle shoots bullets instead of pictures. Having an EVF meant it was a small step for TrackingPoint to stream the same video to another device over WiFi – where it can be seen in the company’s Shotview mobile app. Initially, this capability was marketed for recording shooting sessions, but it didn’t take long for TrackingPoint to realize the same technique could actually be used while shooting. Shooting around corners makes for a great demo, but the company hasn’t explained whether the link is secure enough to keep it from getting hacked, or fast enough to allow shooting at a moving target.

TrackingPoint rifle lets you hit what you can’t see

TrackingPoint has said that the US Army has purchased six of its rifles, possibly for integration into its M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle, so someone is paying attention. Outside of military and SWAT team use, though, it is a little hard to see the value of turning a $10,000 to $20,000 rifle into more than a party trick.

TrackingPoint rifle lets you hit what you can’t see

The largest use of TrackingPoint rifles is for hunting. Whatever you think about hunting, ethical hunters believe that the best kill is a quick, clean one. If the tagging feature of a TrackingPoint is used to help with that, great. Unfortunately, it is also being marketed and used with more of a “cowboy” mentality to set distance hunting records, so it isn’t hard to imagine the weirdness that will happen now that hunters don’t even need to be looking at what they kill.

Intel roadmap update: Skylake on track for 2015, will debut alongside Broadwell-K

Intel has unveiled new details of its product roadmaps for 2015 and beyond, and it’s now clear that the company is pushing Skylake full steam ahead, despite Broadwell’s exceptionally late arrival. Intel now expects to introduce a bevy of 14nm products based on both architectures in 2015, with additional 14nm Atom hardware replacing Bay Trail as well.

Intel roadmap update: Skylake on track for 2015, will debut alongside Broadwell-K

First, a bit of a mea culpa is in order — I initially predicted that Skylake could slip into 2016 based on the Broadwell delay and the unlikely prospect that Intel would launch multiple architectures within the same year. It’s now clear that the company does intend to go this road, though it’s still possible that it will arrange its introductions in a manner that doesn’t leave Skylake overwriting just-launched Broadwell hardware.

Desktop and mobile

Here’s how the introduction is going to happen, courtesy of ZDNet:

Core M (Broadwell’s ultra-mobile flavor) is already shipping in a few early devices and will ramp up through the end of the year. By this coming spring, it’ll have branched out and taken over the product stack Haswell currently occupies, with fifth-generation refreshes for the entire laptop/convertible market. In the back half of 2015 we have new budget product launches, including Braswell (more data on that in a moment), and finally Skylake with its new architecture on 14nm.

Intel roadmap update: Skylake on track for 2015, will debut alongside Broadwell-K

That’s it for Intel’s official statements. According to WCCFTech, Intel will also launch new desktop parts next year, with a Core i7 5000 unlocked CPU (Broadwell-K) and a second set of desktop SKUs dubbed the Core i7-6000 family, or Skylake-S. Broadwell-K is reportedly compatible with the Z97 family of chipsets that are already shipping, while Skylake-S will require a new motherboard.

Broadwell is the 14nm refresh of Haswell, with a die shrink and a handful of minor improvements to the CPU, but not much more. Skylake, in contrast, is the full architecture refresh — so what are its (rumored) features?

No More FIVR: Intel’s Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator has always been rumored to cause the company headaches. Whether or not that’s true, we do know that putting the voltage regulator next to the CPU can cause additional heat to build up on-chip, and that heat only increases as the CPU clock and voltage increase. Skylake is supposed to dump the FIVR design, though it’s possible the ultra-low power CPUs will retain it to maximize power savings.

New instruction sets: Skylake is expected to include the updated form of AVX with support for 512-bit registers (AVX 3.2/512F), along with specialized instructions for executing SHA-1 and SHA-2 securely. Intel MPX (Memory Protection Extensions) and Intel ADX (Multi-Precision Add-Carry Instruction Extensions) are also expected with Skylake.

Core M (top) vs. Haswell. Broadwell-Y is a much, much smaller package — ideal for tablets.

New GPU enhancements: While integrated graphics remains unacceptable for a majority of gamers, steady improvement in this area has become the norm, even from Intel. Skylake will retain the maximum 128MB EDRAM L4 cache, but should incorporate additional GPU-side performance improvements. DirectX 12 should be supported on this GPU family, and we’ll see more desktop chips debuting with some version of the L4 cache.

Skylake will also support DDR4, though WCCFTech thinks this will be SKU-specific, with some chips staying on DDR3 through the end of 2015. There’s also rumor of a new “UniDIMM” form factor, that could bring interoperability with DDR3 or DDR4 in the same board. Desktop Skylake chips will still top out at four cores + HyperThreading; if you want more than eight threads you’ll need to move to the E-variant of the platform. Intel may also push its “no cables” idea for the platform (we were dubious on that score but are willing to be convinced).

Exactly how much raw performance Skylake will offer remains to be seen. Haswell looked fabulous on paper, but in non-AVX optimized code the actual real-world performance gain was around 7%, clock-for-clock, over Ivy Bridge. Devil’s Canyon pulled away from the older Ivy Bridge parts, but it did that the old fashioned way — with clock speed.

Whether Intel will attempt to clock Skylake more aggressively is an open question at this point. The first SKUs won’t be unlocked, so desktop enthusiasts may choose to wait for the Skylake-K variant, coming in 2016.

Intel’s tablet future…
Tablet and mobile

The other major component of Intel’s roadmap is its tablet and cellular business. In 2014, the company set a target of shipping 40 million total Atom SoCs, and was willing to take a bath on cost to get there. By the end of the year, Intel will have racked up $3 billion or more in total losses — but it’ll likely make its 40-million-SoCs goal.

In 2015, Intel wants to move towards a cost structure that allows it to make money. The launch of SoFIA, the TSMC-built, 3G-capable, budget cellular platform is seen as critical to that goal. Intel’s Rockchip collaboration will ship in 2015 as well, and the company hopes to extend that partnership over the long term.

Intel wants to ramp its baseband products extremely quickly, shifting from SoFIA 3G with dual-core Atom processors at the end of this year to quad-core Atom and 3G by the middle of 2015, and quad-core Atom+LTE sampling by the end of 2015. Presumably these dates refer to product samples rather than vendor introductions; it’s not uncommon for vendor launches to lag chipset production by 6-9 months. That suggests we could see LTE-based Atom products in market by the early part of 2016. Intel will shift SoFIA production back to its own fabs and a 14nm process node at some point in 2016, which implies a late 2016/early 2017 introduction for those products.

In tablets, Intel will continue to lean on the combination of its separate XMM 7260 modem and the Bay Trail/Moorefield combination until the back half of the year, when its 14nm die-shrink of Atom (codenamed Airmont) will be paired with a refreshed, purportedly Broadwell-based GPU.

Then Goldmont (refreshed Atom architecture) debuts in 2016, followed by a unified SoFIA device that will combine the tablet and smartphone markets with a single, addressable product that can match both.

Putting it all together

Intel’s roadmap continues to reflect a company in transition. While it may be on much firmer footing than its erstwhile competitor, AMD, it has to make fundamental changes to its cost structure if it wants to compete with ARM products and still make money. The SoFIA project is a short-term plan to change that. Meanwhile, making Broadwell potentially compatible with already existing motherboards could win Intel some small kudos from the enthusiast community, while it looks to Skylake to deliver the performance gains the HPC and workstation markets still require.

Most of Intel’s key challenges will be in the mobile and tablet markets throughout the next two years. The desktop refresh cycles remain interesting, but the lack of serious competition through at least 2016 means that this space should be fairly quiet. Intel needs to continue to deliver on its promises of decreased mobile power consumption — and if early reviews are anything to go by, it may need to have some conversations with OEMs about proper positioning for Core M products.

If you’re on the fence about upgrading to Devil’s Canyon now or waiting for Skylake in 2015, I don’t necessarily expect it to make much difference. Waiting may buy you a chip that’s 5-10% faster in specific metrics, but the days of meteoric gains from shipping code in conventional software are long gone. There’s no 14nm magic on the horizon that’s expected to deliver the kind of clock speed gains Intel would need to pull off a 15-25% year-on-year scaling, and absent stronger competition, the company is under relatively little pressure to push the performance envelope in its core markets.

Samsung announces new PCIe 3.0 SSD, breaking 2GBps performance barrier

Samsung launched its new SM951 today, the first M.2 SSD with full support for both PCI-Express 3.0 and the M.2 standard. We’ve discussed M.2 previously — it’s the newest SSD interconnect and it ties storage directly to the PCI-Express bus via the NVMe standard rather than running the communication through the much slower SATA interface.

Samsung announces new PCIe 3.0 SSD, breaking 2GBps performance barrier

Currently, only a handful of motherboards offer M.2 slot and the ones that do are limited to just two lanes of PCIe 2.0 connectivity. The SM951, in contrast, is expected to hit a read speed of 2.15GB/s and write performance of up to 1.55GB/s. That’s far faster than PCI-Express 2.0’s typical 1.6GB/s read and 1.35GB/s write, and roughly 4x faster than the top performance you’ll see from a conventional SATA drive.

This slide, shown back in July, is actually outdated as far as performance is concerned, but accurately illustrates expected power consumption. Samsung claims it can drive 450MB/s of read performance and 250MB/s wite performance per watt of power consumption. That means full power will draw somewhere between 4-5W — too much power for mobile systems, certainly, but not much for desktops or servers.

Some of you may remember back to 2009, when Samsung released a marketing video to highlight the potential performance of its SSDs. Back then, the company built an enormous 24-drive RAID 0 that reached a peak sequential performance of just over 2GB/s. Five years later, Samsung’s single PCI-Express 3.0-based drive is hitting those types of numbers in just one card.

Whether or not PCI-Express 3.0 takes off as an M.2 interface standard is going to be an interesting question. There’s no reason that Intel and AMD couldn’t support it, but manufacturers would need to divert the relatively limited number of PCIe 3.0 lanes away from graphics hardware and over to the interconnect. Given that most gamers prioritize 3D performance over anything else, that’s going to be an intrinsically tough sell. Until Intel and AMD add additional lanes, even customers willing to shuck out for a 1TB drive wouldn’t see that kind of performance without a secondary controller card and a dedicated PCIe 3.0 slot.

For now, this is an industrial drive aimed at major enterprise and business applications, as well as fields like high frequency trading, but it’s not unreasonable to think we could see PCIe 3.0 versions of M.2 in the next few years, particularly since NAND flash is going to be the dominant form of high speed storage for the next 4-5 years.

Wireless power system charges devices up to 20 feet away

A plethora of firms are racing to develop a feasible method for delivering power wirelessly, but thus far the best we’ve managed are short-range standards like Qi and PMA. A company called Energous is on hand at CES with a demo of its new wireless power system known amusingly as WattUp. It uses a mix of Bluetooth and RF to combine the convenience of wireless power with the security of a wireless network. If it all pans out, WattUp could juice up your phone from up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) away.

Wireless power system charges devices up to 20 feet away

The heart of WattUp is a hub that’s basically a powerful RF transmitter station. Devices that want to receive power from the hub announce their presence via Bluetooth 4.0. WattUp then uses that connection to direct the wireless power signal to the device. It operates in the same unlicensed spectrum as WiFi, which makes me wonder about possible interference in busy wireless environments. Assuming the connection holds, though, the WattUp signal is absorbed and converted to DC power in the phone or tablet by a receiver chip.

Whenever you’re sending an electromagnetic signal through the air, you have to worry about signal drop-off as dictated by the inverse square law. The gist is that signal strength decreases at a rate equal to the square of the distance. For example, a device twice as far away from a source only gets one-quarter of the energy. Some experiments in long-range wireless power have simply brute forced their way through this problem to the point that they actually heat up the air around the transmitter. WattUp combats this problem with a type of beam-forming technology. That Bluetooth connection is used to focus a tight cone of electromagnetic waves on the target, and it can even track the device and recalibrate as needed. A standard Qi wireless charger is about 90% efficient, but Energous claims it can hit 70% at much greater distances.

Wireless power system charges devices up to 20 feet away

Energous also has proprietary technology that can hand off the task of providing power between multiple hubs, just like your phone can transfer from one cell tower to the next to maintain a connection. The intention is to build a WattUp transmitter that is tied into the state of your devices. So when you get home, the system begins charging your phone. When it detects that the phone is full, but maybe your tablet is getting low from an evening of couch computing, it switches automatically to recharging that one. It could also connect to wearable devices or anything else if they have a receiver.

WattUp also takes into account one of the drawbacks of wireless power you don’t usually think about: security. If you’ve got a wireless power base station that can blast energy 20 feet away (improved from 15 feet last year), there could be a lot of devices in range, not all of which are yours. You can secure your wireless network against outside access, so why not your wireless power network? The Bluetooth tether that is used to direct beam-forming can also authenticate devices. WattUp can operate in protected mode where only authorized devices can connect, or in public access mode where anyone with the hardware can soak up some electrons (controlled via an app).

The company hopes to license the technology to device makers soon. The hardware required on the phone side is cheap, so it might gain some traction. However, the energy routers will probably be a substantial investment, especially considering most homes would need more than one.

Jide’s Remix ultra-tablet puts Android on a Microsoft Surface clone

Are you one of those people who has admired Microsoft’s Surface hardware but bemoaned its operating system? Now you can do something about it. Chinese startup Jide has produced an eerily Surface-like tablet that runs a heavily modified version of Android 4.4, called Remix OS.

Jide’s Remix ultra-tablet puts Android on a Microsoft Surface clone

The “Remix ultra-tablet”, as the team of former Google engineers call their first product, is an 11.6-inch, 1080p multi-touch-enabled tablet, and looks nearly identical to a Surface 2. It even features both a magnetic power connector and a magnetic keyboard connector for a full-size, but thin, keyboard that is similar to Microsoft’s Type cover. The company’s goal is to produce a product that is both a great tablet and completely usable as a laptop. Fans of Windows 8 may point out that Microsoft thinks it has done that already, but for Android users — especially now that Microsoft is rolling out Office for Android — the Remix tablet might be just the thing. I went hands-on with one at CES to test out the company’s claims.

Jide’s Remix ultra-tablet puts Android on a Microsoft Surface clone

Remix OS goes beyond standard Android

First and foremost, the tablet provides a great Android experience. The Tegra 4 processor is enough to keep it moving along nicely with productivity applications — even when using Remix’s ability to open several windows at once. The company had loaded the demo tablet with the preview versions of Microsoft’s Office applications, which worked just as smoothly as they do on my Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition.

Jide has also extended Android by adding a taskbar, a phone mode for running older applications in a window, and a multiple window system. It has also added an intuitive file manager (no more hunting under /storage/emulated/0 for files) and some right-click menus for better mouse support.

The Remix ultra-tablet has a lot in common with the Surface 2

As far as the weight and build quality, the Remix is quite beefy at 860 grams — a little thicker and heavier than the lightest comparable iPads or even Android models. This additional bulk was added by Jide for a few reasons. First, the device has an integrated USB OTG port in addition to the typical microSD slot. Second, according to marketing manager Jason Zheng, there are two pieces of metal running the length of the tablet to make it stiffer and harder to damage. He backed up his claim, by letting me photograph him standing on it!

The tablet can also be used to recharge your smartphones — up to three at once. Like the Surface 2, the Remix tablet has a dual position kickstand (nice, although not as sweet as the one in the Surface Pro 3 that can be positioned in just about any location).

The Remix tablet is priced very competitively with the Surface 2, at $450 — including keyboard — when it ships, which is expected to be this spring.

New aluminum air battery could blow past lithium-ion, runs on water

As battery technologies go, the world has a love-hate relationship with lithium-ion. On the one hand, breakthroughs in Li-ion designs and construction are responsible for the Tesla Model S, new installations, green energy research, and the modern smartphone. On the other hand, lithium-ion limitations are the reason why most EVs have a range of 40-60 miles, the Model S costs upwards of $80,000, and why your smartphone can’t last all day on a single charge. For all its promise and capability, lithium-ion has limited long-term utility — which is why a new announcement from Fuji Pigment is so interesting. The company is claiming that its new aluminum-air batteries can run for up to two weeks and be refilled with normal water.

New aluminum air battery could blow past lithium-ion, runs on water

How an aluminum-air battery works

First, some basics. The problem with battery technology isn’t whether or not we can build better batteries — as the chart below shows, we can build batteries that blow traditional lithium-ion out of the water. Keep in mind that the chart below is exponential, meaning that fuel cell technology has 10 times the energy density of a typical cobalt-Li ion battery.

The various “Metal-Air” batteries, including zinc-air, aluminum-air, and lithium-air, have some of the highest energy densities its possible to build. The difficulties with aluminum-air construction, in particular, has been rapid degradation of the anode and, in early models of Al-Air, the release of hydrogen gas.

Fuji Pigment’s new announcement makes repeated reference to the work of Ryohei Mori, and while the referenced papers aren’t available for free, the abstracts are online. The studies in question are all aimed at enhancing the performance of Al-air batteries while extending their useful lifetimes — typically, Al-air solutions begin to degrade immediately after the first charge cycle. According to Mori’s work, creating a secondary aluminum-air battery adjacent to the primary buffered the accumulation of byproducts that normally prevent the battery from working properly over the long term.

New aluminum air battery could blow past lithium-ion, runs on water

The “rechargability” of Al-air batteries requires some explanation. Al-air batteries are primary cells, which means they can’t be recharged via conventional means. As the aluminum anode is consumed by contact with oxygen, hydrated aluminum forms as a byproduct. That material can be recycled and used to create a new aluminum anode, which is why the batteries are referred to as rechargeable. Periodically, the aluminum anode will have to be replaced — it’s not clear how often the Fuji Pigment battery would need servicing of this sort.

Could Al-air be the next big thing?

New battery technologies and announcements are a dime a dozen, but there’s reason to think that a workable Al-air technology could deploy within the next 2-5 years. Multiple manufacturers are working on commercializing designs (Alcoa partnered with Phinergy in 2013 with plans for a 2017 debut), and aluminum is abundant and relatively cheap. Al-air batteries have actually been used in specialized military applications for years, which is important — it means there’s some pre-existing expertise and known characteristics that can be leveraged to create additional capacity.

That said, there are question, too. The hydrated aluminum oxide solution produced during the battery’s normal operation would need to be recycled in some fashion, it’s not clear that fresh water is as effective an aqueous solution as saltwater (meaning there might be specific need for one particular kind of solution). The final price is also unknown, though previous estimations had put the cost of an Al-air system at roughly $1.1 per kg of aluminum anode. This was not given in precise terms relative to the cost of gasoline (and the weight of the aluminum anode in these batteries is unknown), but the team that performed that analysis noted that proper recycling would put Al-air in the same cost range as conventional internal combustion engines.

Fuji Pigment has stated that it intends to commercialize this technology as early as this year, which means we could see test demonstrations and proof of concepts by 2016. Whether auto manufacturers will jump for the technology remains to be seen — car companies tend to be conservative and Tesla has already thrown its weight behind the further use of lithium-ion technology.

The first metamaterial superconductor: One step closer to futuristic physics-defying contraptions

In the realms of electronics, magnetism, and quantum mechanics, superconductivity has an almost mythical status. Some materials, when cooled to a critical temperature, electrical resistance instantly drops to zero and magnetic fields are completely ejected. Superconducting magnets are already used in MRI machines and particle accelerators like CERN’s LHC, and are being considered for advanced maglev trains. Zero electrical resistance means that a current can flow around a superconducting coil indefinitely without any applied voltage — a feature that could completely revolutionize power distribution, power storage, electric motors, computers, and more.

The first metamaterial superconductor: One step closer to futuristic physics-defying contraptions

The problem is, the hottest superconductor yet discovered still needs to be cooled to around -140 Celsius  and cryogenic cooling just isn’t feasible for everyday use. Now, however, some US researchers may have unearthed the secret of room-temperature superconductors: Building your own metamaterial superconductor from scratch.

The first metamaterial superconductor: One step closer to futuristic physics-defying contraptions

As we’ve covered before, metamaterials are human-made materials that have alien, not-seen-in-nature properties. The most common example is negative refraction: In nature, every known material has a positive refractive index while metamaterials can bend light in the opposite direction. These materials have led to some interesting applications, such as invisibility cloaks. Now, researchers at Towson University, the University of Maryland, and the Naval Research Laboratory have done the same thing with superconductors: They’ve tweaked a compound in the lab, metamaterial-style, to raise its critical temperature. This empirical, deliberate approach is very different from usual superconductor research, which is mostly bested on educated guesswork.

The first metamaterial superconductor: One step closer to futuristic physics-defying contraptions

In theory, this is a very big step towards creating one of the most powerful, valuable, and elusive materials in the world: a room-temperature superconductor. While superconductors are already used extensively in science and medicine, the fact that they need to be kept at cryogenic temperatures makes them very expensive and unwieldy. A lot of work is being done into so-called “high-temperature superconductivity,” but the best anyone has managed is a critical temperature of -140C — HgBa2Ca2Cu3Ox in case you were wondering.

In practice, the researchers still have a long way to go: Their metamaterial-like approach was able to raise the critical temperature of tin by 0.15 Kelvin. Still, in the realm of quantum mechanics where almost nothing is known about why or how superconductivity exists in the first place, it’s big news. We especially know very little about high-temperature superconductors – we think the “layers” of these complex compounds act like the electron equivalent of optical waveguides, steering electrons through the material with zero resistance. This new research might help us understand these high-temperature superconductors a little better, and maybe also to tweak them to move the critical temperature ever closer to room temperature.

If we can eventually master superconductors — and there’s every reason to believe that we can — then we can expect many facets of life to change very rapidly. Superconducting power lines could save billions of dollars in transmission losses — or allow for the building of world-spanning super grids. We could replace every transport system with cheap, super-fast maglev trains. It might even allow for cloaking devices… and I assure you, that’s just the beginning!

Google, spotting a gap in the VR market, pushes Cardboard on the Play Store

Remember that neat little cardboard contraption that turns your Android smartphone into a pair of do-it-yourself virtual reality goggles? Well, it seems that Google isn’t content to let that cheeky little idea die. Instead, the folks at Mountain View are doubling down on this adorable low-cost VR solution, and dedicating an entire section of the Play Store to Google Cardboard.

Google, spotting a gap in the VR market, pushes Cardboard on the Play Store

In this little corner of Google’s app store, 24 virtual reality apps are currently available, and most of them are free. Undoubtedly, the most interesting among them is Google’s own app simply dubbed Cardboard. Watch YouTube videos on a virtual big screen, view the entire globe with Google Earth, and take a tour of Versailles all while sitting in your living room in a pair of sweats.

Google, spotting a gap in the VR market, pushes Cardboard on the Play Store

It looks a bit like a… bear… when you flatten Cardboard into icon form

These demos aren’t much more than clever time-wasters, but considering how young modern VR solutions are, a little novelty is nothing to sneeze at. After all, virtual reality still seems like science fiction to most of us, and it’ll take a while for that new-tech-smell to wear off. For now, let’s just enjoy these quirky apps for what they are.

If you want to give these awesome goggles a try, you have two options to choose from. Either download the instructions, and make your very own VR solution from scratch, or simply purchase a pre-made set from a number of third-party manufacturers. Shove in your phone, download the Cardboard app, and you’re ready to rock.

Google, spotting a gap in the VR market, pushes Cardboard on the Play Store

Want to make a VR app of your very own? You can do that too! Simply head over to the Google Cardboard developer site, and download the SDK. If you’re already comfortable making Android apps, then you’re well on your way to making something cool for other cardboard enthusiasts. In fact, if you make something particularly useful or clever, you just might find your app featured alongside other VR hits such as Paul McCartney and The Hobbit VR Experience.

Despite the fact that the big-name headsets like the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus aren’t even on shelves yet, interest continues to spread well beyond gaming. Everything from tourism pitches to virtual concerts are being developed with these headsets in mind, and that’s only going to grow when the first generation of modern headsets makes its way into the hands of the eager public. But for now, Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR will have to suffice.