BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Money can't buy happiness. It also can't buy the latest and greatest cars and gizmos. Before high-tech toys hit the market, they begin life as a prototype, a workable mock-up of the eventual product. These creations are often the source of breathless fanboy blog leaks or, in the case of Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone 4, something an errant engineer can accidentally leave behind in a bar. In many cases, these are nearly complete and polished forebears of what's on the way to store shelves and dealer lots. Others are more exotic, more forward-thinking and not ready for prime time. Just as the fashions that prowl the catwalks of Paris are sometimes meant more for inspiration than to be wearable, the mock-ups of things to come are merely glimpses of what could be. The cars may not be road tested and the technologies may still be years away from being useful. Enjoy them from afar because, short of breaking the bank or breaking into R&D, there's no way to get your hands on these sneak peaks ahead of the shopping rabble. We took a look at 10 prototypes and concepts we'll just have to wait for. For now, anyway, your money is no good:
The Nissan Pivo 2M is a concept car that, like many others, is intended to pair a unique look with a lessened impact on the environment. Its solution is to replace the standard centralized motor with four smaller engines, each powering its own wheel -- a design that is practical as well as stylish. The car can rotate in a full circle and drive sideways, a boon to city dwellers who panic at the prospect of parallel parking into tight spaces. The interior, three-person cabin rotates and "by-wire" technology substitutes electronic signals for the conventional, kinetic mechanics of steering, braking and drivetrain systems. But wait, that's not all. Nissan ( NSANY) also boasts of its "Robotic Agent," a computerized car butler to help you with directions and car functions. We'll have to wait for an actual consumer version to find out if it can crack wise like KITT on the '80s TV series Knight Rider.
The cool kids might have to wait just a little longer until they can head to the local mall for the latest in cutting-edge body modifications. Researchers at the University of Illinois have created a computerized temporary tattoo of sorts that adheres to your skin, giving us carbon-based life forms a chance to go Borg. The patches are mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic, then laminated to the skin with water. Electronic components can be applied and even masked by a more traditional tattoo design. Among the applications -- aside from looking cool -- are "medical diagnostics, communications and human-machine interfaces," the researchers say. Among the components successfully mounted on the flexible patches are sensors, LEDs, transistors, radio frequency capacitors, wireless antennas and solar cells to power it. "We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer," said university electrical and computer engineering professor Todd Coleman In a statement issued by the school. "The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyber world in a very natural way that feels very comfortable." The researchers have also used the electronic patches to control a video game and are looking at ways to network multiple patches, as well as to add Wi-Fi capability.
It may not sound like the most jaw-dropping of ideas, but anyone who has ever battled an angry red battery meter on their smartphone will appreciate the Nokia ( NOK) Lokki project. The idea is to build a cellphone or smartphone powered entirely by the sun's rays. It may sound straightforward enough -- slap a few solar cells on -- but there are numerous reasons and limitations that have kept you from being able to buy this phone just yet. Nokia has devoted months of research into testing its ultimate prototype, so much so that it even has a dedicated blog to detailing the effort. Product testers put models through the rigors of use in Kenya, the Arctic Circle and with an adventurer sailing the Baltic sea. The conclusions as the global effort concluded in September were encouraging but not yet a slam-dunk. "Our study has shown that a basic phone can operate with solar power if the consumption is low and if it is exposed to sun for extended periods," Nokia says on the blog. "After a good harvesting day, an hour of talk or radio play was possible. However, this did require a full day's exposure to the sun. When the days were cloudy, the phone needed to be shut down in order to maintain some charge. Just carrying a phone attached to your body harvested between 10 and 20 minutes' talk time, but to provide continuous standby would probably require the phone to be better aimed at the sun." The news was less encouraging for smartphone users. "A smartphone is typically loaded with so many applications and so much hardware, the battery drains in a couple of days," the company says. "It would take days to charge a typical smartphone battery, during which time the smartphone couldn't be used. Consequently, a smartphone like the Nokia N9 needs a much larger solar panel than can fit on a phone. The only realistic solar charging solution for a smartphone is a larger external solar panel that would work similarly to a wall charger." So, for now, unless you have a connection to that product tester in the Arctic Circle, no Lokki for you.
The invisible phone
Satirical Web site The Onion once put an "Emperor's new clothes" spin on the iPhone by faux reporting on a new Apple product marketed as being so special that only its most loyal customers could actually see it. The era of the invisible smartphone may actually be drawing closer. Researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany -- a hotbed of futuristic tech concepts -- developed an interface that does away with the need for a keyboard, display or touchscreen. A tiny camera that attaches to the user's clothing captures physical gestures, interprets their actions and uses them to transmit data and information. The popularity of camera-enhanced controls in devices such as the Xbox Kinect, once itself a prototype by the code name Project Natal, could mean that we'll now have wild body spasms to complement the seeming craziness of those who look like they are talking to themselves because of Bluetooth headsets. Another trick up the sleeve of the folks at the Hasso Plattner Institute is a multi-user, table-sized computer for business collaboration. The gimmick here is that it uses cameras to identify and track each user's shoes, using footwear to keep tabs on team members and even let their fancy footwork engage various controls and features -- something it calls "multitoe."
If you try to look up the concept car known as the Ford ( F) MA, be prepared for Google to spit out page after page of Boston-area car dealerships. Eventually, however, you'll find one of the strangest cars you'll ever see (aside from the one a design firm pitched that was filled with shrubbery and fueled by photosynthesis). The Ford MA is made using aluminum and carbon fiber, lightweight materials not uncommon in car bodies. But there is also bamboo -- more than 200 pounds of it. Yes, this is a car that may not sell well in China lest a hungry panda starts munching on it. More artistic than practical (it did, after all, debut at a Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit in Los Angeles), Ford has spread no illusions that this car will be heading to a garage -- or greenhouse -- near you anytime soon. And, if it did, the idea would be that one could order the car online, have it shipped as a 500-piece kit and assembled as pinewood derby sort of family project. According to Ford, the car gets its name from the Asian philosophy of "the space between." "The philosophy refers to a kind of threshold where two concepts can exist in a mutually beneficial relationship," it says in a press release accompanying the car's unveiling in 2002. "As a car, the MA represents the same idea, occupying a space between emotional and rational, art and science." "The MA, with its architectural, minimalist appearance, poses what an automotive aesthetic might look like in the future," famed Ford designer J Mays says.
If you think Microsoft ( MSFT) Office is limited to spellcheck and the occasional intrusion of a talking paper clip, think again. While Apple gets the lion's share of good press when it comes to innovation, its competitor in Redmond, Wash., is hardly a slouch in that area. It has its own team of futurists churning out forward-thinking prototypes and conceptual looks at life, work and school in the future.
In 2009, Microsoft began showcasing an office of the future as part of its Office Labs project. It rethinks office conferencing by linking remote users in an interactive wall display. There's even a digital assistant (though, thankfully, it's not a holographic version of that much-maligned paper clip we mentioned). Other visions from the future, as seen through the eyes of the people who brought you Vista, are language-translating eyeglasses, digital hotel keys that can be sent to your smartphone, interactive advertisements that can be controlled and linked to via a smartphone or tablet (in whatever form those devices may take) and holographs that extend beyond your handheld devices for an immersive experience.
Making its debut at the 2011 International Motor Show in Geneva last March, this sleek and shiny car -- something Euro-Batman might drive -- drew international press coverage. Sbarro -- not to be confused with the floundering pizza and pasta staple of food courts -- is a Swiss company that specializes in high-end, high-performance replicas and concept cars. The TwoFort100 wasn't the only not-quite-ready-for-your-garage item the company had to offer at the show; its Evoluzione was a futuristic rethinking of a Lamborghini, built around an Audi engine and designed by a team of 25 students at its own school of design over 13 weeks.
If you are bored by the need to drive yourself around but can't afford a chauffeur, BMW may have a solution. Last month, the German carmaker announced it had made strides in engineering a car capable of driving itself -- "autonomously," as the company puts it. Using extremely precise digital mapping, radar and a slew of sensors, cameras and lasers, one needs to merely punch in their destination and let the car take over. When will you be able to get your hands on one of these magic cars? Not for a very long time, we think. BMW engineers -- who detail the project in the above promotional video -- say it could be a valuable, supplemental feature that helps prevent accidents, taking over should a driver have a heart attack, for example. But the many variables in city and rural driving -- among them pedestrians, detours and roadway obstructions -- present challenges that may require human intuition and reflexes that go beyond mere technology. There are also sure to be regulatory, legislative and policing matters to deal with. BMW's surprising competitor in the autonomous space: Google ( GOOG). The search engine giant actually beat the luxury carmaker to the asphalt with its own variation of a self-driving car, one that could someday be assisted by roadside QR codes and various adaptations of mobile technology.
Want to really one-up your Prius-driving pals? The Ye Zi, a partnership between General Motors ( GM) and the China's Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. is carbon neutral. As in, zero pollution -- it actually emits oxygen. It accomplishes that neat trick by having a series of photovoltaic units on its roof to harness solar energy, mini wind turbines on each wheel and a difficult-to-explain-in-layman's-terms technology that's best described as artificial photosynthesis. Alas, you may not be able to tool around town in the Ye Zi just yet. First, just take a look at it: It looks more like a go-kart than something that would pass U.S. safety regulations. And we also wonder if the folks at Nissan would have a beef: "Ye Zi" translates as "leaf."
GM has its own domestic effort under way that's similar to the Chinese Ye Zi. The similarly guttural sounding EN-V looks like an escape pod from a science fiction movie or perhaps a distant cousin of WALL-E. The initials stand for "Electric Networked Vehicle" and the squat, bulbous car has been making the rounds of auto shows as a concept car, billed as the "future of urban mobility." It can park itself and has sensors to detect road hazards and errant pedestrians. More of the good stuff: It is a zero-emissions vehicle, powered by lithium-ion batteries, and can recharge from a conventional wall outlet. It also touts "vehicle-to-vehicle communications," a feature GM says could "make it easier to find available parking spaces" and "reduce traffic congestion by automatically selecting the fastest route based on real-time traffic information." Work on the latest version of the concept car was announced in October. -- Written by Joe Mont in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont. >To submit a news tip, email: email@example.com.
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