TIME Music

Watch: Startup Bets on Millennials and House Parties to Save Classical Music


If you walk into a chamber concert organized by Groupmuse, you soon realize this is not your traditional classical performance. There’s clapping in-between movements of Mozart’s duo in G major, as well as whistling, drinking and sitting on the floor so close to the musicians that one risks getting jabbed with every note. But most importantly, there is a rare breed in the audience: engaged, iPhone-less millennials.

Groupmuse is a Boston-based startup that strives to attract new audiences for live classical music by re-imagining the traditional concert experience. Sam Bodkin, 24, started the venture in January of last year. Bodkin blames the stifling, severe traditional orchestral experience for turning millennials away from classical music concerts. He plans to make his business profitable by pairing musicians and hosts to create what he calls “chamber music house parties.”

“In what other form of music is the sincere instinct to express enthusiasm ever to be subdued?” Bodkin asked. “At Groupmuse we clap anytime we want to clap, even if it means in the middle of a movement.”

Groupmuse hopes to bridge the gap between audiences that are willing to pay for intimate, high-quality concerts with talented musicians who are looking for alternative performance opportunities at a time when orchestras face troubling demographic trends and graver financial worries. Donations are collected at each event and go directly to the musicians, who earn $150 to $500 on an average night. Groupmuse itself made about $25,000 over the course of the past year, Bodkin said, though it’s not currently making a profit.

Groupmuse fits within a long-standing tradition of entrepreneurial ventures hoping to find new formats to make classical music profitable, said Angela Myles Beeching, Director
 of the Center for Music Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan School of Music.

“Everyone is talking about how to make this traditional art form more relevant and ways to change traditional concert settings,” Beeching said. “The really smart thing about house concerts is that it takes away the business of renting venues and the middle management that comes with presenting any type of traditional concert. As a business model, it has a low overhead.”

Groupmuse represents an unprecedented opportunity to engage with a wider audience, said Julia Glenn, a 25-year-old doctoral student at the world-renowned Juilliard School and a regular performer at Groupmuse concerts.

“If something about the culture of classical music isn’t changed, the audience is at risk of drying out.” Glenn said. “The hope of Groupmuse and ventures like that is to give people the chance to get excited about the music, and give the music a chance of having a future.”

First-time Groupmuse attendee Garrett Kotecki said the event was described to him as “classical music for people who don’t want to wear a suit and tie.”

“I didn’t think it was boring at all, because they were right here in the room. It wasn’t a huge orchestra, far removed onstage,” Kotecki said. “I had never been this close to a viola and violin player. You can hear their fingers move, you can hear them breathe inhale and exhale in tempo with the music.”

Bodkin doesn’t want Groupmuse to replace conventional concert experiences at established symphony orchestras. Instead, he sees it as an entry point into the more traditional concert experience for a generation that he believes to be increasingly alienated from the genre.

“People should just go and get into the music and experience it on their own terms,” Bodkin said. “Then hopefully a lot of them will get really turned on by Beethoven, because, ‘Wow, this guy I heard about so much is actually pretty rocking,’ and then they go see the big show at Carnegie Hall.”

TIME Innovation

Smooth Moves: The History and Evolution of Honda’s ASIMO Robot


As the robotics realm continues to heat up, Honda’s ASIMO (short for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) is something of an old-timer.

It’s been around for 14 years, and has seen continual improvements – check out the above video for more of the backstory.

While some robots have a more menacing look – ahem, Atlas – ASIMO has always played the part of a cutesy, Jetsons-style robot meant, in Honda’s words, “to help those in society who need assistance.”

In that spirit, ASIMO is able to do things like opening and serving beverages. It knows sign language – both Japanese and English. It can avoid bumping into people in hallways. Stuff like that.

At the International Auto Show in New York last week, Honda showed off ASIMO’s latest improvements. The robot, once relatively rigid and… well, robotic, is now far more nimble, able to run, jump, climb stairs and kick soccer balls with more human-like dexterity.


TIME Technologizer

12 Things to Know About Project Ara, Google’s Amazing Modular Phone

Project Ara
Google's Project Ara phone, broken down into its component parts Google ATAP

It's wildly ambitious, it's designed not to fall apart if you drop it -- and it may not come to the U.S. anytime soon.

When Google announced Project Ara last October, its plan to make modular smartphones, it shared some photos and very little else. This week, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, the company is digging into the nitty gritty, by hosting the first Project Ara developer conference. It’s showing prototypes in public for the first time and explaining the technology to the hardware engineers it hopes will build stuff for the platform.

Back in February, I wrote the first in-depth look at Project Ara. It includes most of the key facts Google is discussing at the developer conference. (At least so far: It’s still in progress.) Here’s a recap of what makes Project Ara so ambitious, fascinating and — in some respects — odd.

1. It’s an infinitely customizable phone. Every feature — the screen, the cameras, the battery, stuff nobody has invented yet — comes in the form of a tile-shaped module. You slip these modules into a framework called an “Endo” to build a phone with the features of your choice. And modules are interchangeable, so you could decide to skip the rear camera and slide in a second battery, for instance.

2. It’s not going to be for you, at least at first. The concept sounds like it’s aimed at lovers of bleeding-edge gadgetry. But Google wants to offer Project Ara phones to folks who’d otherwise be unable to afford any smartphone. It plans to roll out the platform in developing nations first, and isn’t saying when it might reach the U.S.

3. The cheapest, most basic phone will be very cheap and very basic. With the target market in mind, Google aims to offer a $50 “grayphone” starter model — no wireless contract required. That version wouldn’t have frills such as one or more cameras. It wouldn’t even be capable of working on cellular networks — just Wi-Fi. But owners could upgrade their grayphones on the fly as their needs changed and budgets permitted.

4. Google is trying to do this fast and efficiently. Work began on Ara in earnest only a little over a year ago, and only a handful of Google employees are involved, along with outside collaborators as required. The company plans to have its first phone on the market in January 2015.

5. It’s inspired by the U.S. Department of Defense’s approach to innovation. Project Ara is part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, which models its small-team, tight-deadline approach on the Defense Department’s fabled Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which brought us the Internet and satellite navigation, among other things. Regina Dugan, who heads ATAP, is a former DARPA director; Paul Eremenko, who’s spearheading Ara, is also an alumnus.

6. Google thinks of it as Android for hardware. The company’s mobile operating system has done well because it’s essentially a joint effort between Google and the multitudes of software developers who have embraced it. The idea of Project Ara is to allow even tiny companies with inventive ideas to make modules and market them to phone owners — a big shift from the current situation, in which a few large manufacturers crank out one-size-fits-all phones designed to please the masses.

7. The phone isn’t as bulky as you’d expect. You can’t build a phone made out of multiple blocks and make it as skinny as the skinniest entirely-self-contained handsets. But Google’s prototype is 9.7mm thick, which is only half a skosh chunkier than the new HTC One M8. (The final shipping version may be slightly thicker.)

8. It won’t fall apart if you drop it. At least that’s the idea. The modules will use capacitive technology for electrical connections, and will lock in place using super-strong magnets (for modules on the back) and latches (for ones on the front). Google says an Ara phone should be as sturdy as a typical smartphone.

9. The project involves some 3D printing breakthroughs. Project Ara modules will be encased in covers that will be produced on demand using a new generation of 3D printers designed by 3D Systems. Consumers will be able to pick custom designs and snap new covers onto their old modules if they choose.

10. Google’s vision for how Project Ara phones will be marketed is pretty wacky. The company is designing portable stores, which it will be able to ship by sea to the first countries where Ara phones will be available. It’s also developing technology that will do things such as measure your pupil dilation and scan your social networks to help you choose an Ara phone that matches your personality.

11. The platform is going to require lots of enthusiasm from third parties. The only Google-branded part of the hardware will be the Endo. Everything else, like batteries, wireless subsystems, cameras and sensors will be produced by other companies, who will presumably only choose to get involved if they think they can make money. If only a handful of such companies buy the vision, it won’t work.

12. Being both excited and skeptical is a reasonable response. I’m glad Google is trying this: It involves both a big dream and multiple technological innovations, and it’s going to be awfully neat if it takes off.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the folks who are instinctively dubious — such as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber — are being unreasonable. Many things have to fall into place for Ara to evolve from a wild concept to a functioning product to something large numbers of people want. And if Google does indeed have a phone ready to sell in January of next year, it’s not the end of the journey, but the beginning.

I’m not placing any bets on its chances of success, but I can’t wait to see how the world — and especially the smartphone newbies who Google envisions would want this — will react.

TIME Innovation

How to Generate Solar Power Where the Sun Don’t Shine

A powerful arc lamp is used to simulate sunlight on a sample of photoswitchable molecules, driving structural changes at the molecular level. A portion of the light's energy is stored with each structural change. The progress of these changes can be tracked by monitoring the molecules' optical properties. MIT

Imagine a versatile, environmentally nil nano-battery that provided heat for cooking or keeping you warm when the sun wasn't shining.

Solar power, it goes without saying, requires solar radiation, which if you’re thinking like a solar traditionalist means a shining sun. But the key to upending that sort of conventional thinking about how we sip “free” energy from the massive thermonuclear fusion reactor seething at the center of our solar system — and, critically, store it when the sun ain’t shining — turns out to involve a little something at the crux of a slew of recent breakthroughs, including the hypothetical continuation of Moore’s (currently doomed) Law.

Meet carbon nanotubes: atom-thin layers of carbon rolled into incredibly tiny tubes — carbon being a chemical element that, among other things, allows us and all other forms of organic matter to exist.

According to MIT News, researchers at MIT and Harvard have fashioned carbon nanotubes capable of absorbing the sun’s radiation and storing it in chemical form, where it can then be tapped at will to generate heat on demand. Heat alone, that is, and probably not electricity, since converting the thermal energy to electricity would nullify efficiency gains. But imagine a versatile, environmentally nil sort of thermal nano-battery that you could use to provide heat for cooking or warming or anything else that might benefit from economically captured and ready-stored high temperature fuel.

According to the researchers, publishing in the journal Nature Chemistry, we need far better ways to store energy — it’s one of the precepts behind mainstreaming solar power. “Other than liquid fuels, existing energy-storage materials do not provide the requisite combination of high energy density, high stability, easy handling, transportability and low cost,” they write.

Their solution: take special types of molecules known as molecular switches, capable of being switched (and reversed) between various states — a process known as photoswitching — and expose them to sunlight. When you do so, they absorb the energy and shift to a kind of “tense” storage state, and they can remain in that state for a long time. Then, all you need to do is give them a jolt, causing them to “relax” and discharge the energy in the form of heat. And best of all: the transaction is emissions-free — you can use it continuously, and the materials are never consumed.

The working cycle of a solar thermal fuel is depicted in this illustration, using azobenzene as an example. When such a photoswitchable molecule absorbs a photon of light, it undergoes a structural rearrangement, capturing a portion of the photon’s energy as the energy difference between the two structural states. When the molecule is triggered to switch back to the lower-energy form, it releases that energy difference as heat. MIT

The trick in this case lays in getting the molecules packed tightly enough to make the idea tenable. When the researchers tried to link their molecular switches to carbon nanotubes, they found they couldn’t get them half as close as their computer simulations indicated they’d need to. But it seemed those simulations might be wrong: Even at less than half the requisite modeled density, the synthetic material was meeting their heat storage demands.

Digging deeper, they discovered what was really going on: The photoswitching molecules were attaching to the carbon nanotubes in a way that brought the molecules themselves together much more closely than surmised.

As usual, the laboratory version is just that — a laboratory model. According to Defense One, the MIT/Harvard team is currently looking into other types of photoswitching molecules and underlying layers (like the carbon nanotubes) in hopes of increasing the amount of chemically storable solar energy, as well as finding more viable ways to scale these storage mechanisms up.

TIME Technologizer

This Animated GIF of a 3D Bear Has a Secret

Spoiler: He's not as digital as he looks

I’ve become obsessed with the below animated GIF, which I discovered over at Amid Amidi’s Cartoon Brew. Stare at it, and you might be obsessed, too, at least for 30 seconds or so.

Bear Walking
Blue Zoo

It looks like something I might have seen as part of a 3D animation demonstration by a computer scientist when I attended the SIGGRAPH conference back in 1989. But here’s the remarkable thing: It isn’t computer animation. That bear may be made out of polygons, but he isn’t made out of bits. He’s a physical object–or, more precisely, 50 of them.

Two London-based companies, DBLG and Blue Zoo, created the animation, Bears on Stairs, which did begin with a computer-designed ursine protagonist. But rather than just rendering a bunch of frames, the companies printed out the sequence as 50 models. Then they photographed them as a stop-motion sequence, using the same basic technique studios such as Rankin/Bass used long before computers had anything to do with animation.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video:

As Amid points out, the idea of using 3D printing to meld computer and stop-motion animation isn’t new. Laika (the studio behind Coraline and the upcoming Boxtrolls) is already doing it. But normally, the goal is for it all to be so seamless that the viewer doesn’t know or care that computers were used. What’s clever about “Bears on Stairs” is that it evocatively flaunts its use of computers–so much so that almost anybody would assume that it was a purely digital production.

TIME Technologizer

This 1981 Computer Magazine Cover Explains Why We’re So Bad at Tech Predictions

BYTE cover
Robert Tinney's cover for the April 1981 issue of Byte magazine Internet Archive

Thirty-three years later, artist Robert Tinney's concept smartwatch is worth at least a thousand words

If you were passionate about personal computers between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the odds were high that you were a reader of Byte magazine. And if you read Byte, you were surely a fan of Robert Tinney, the artist whose cover paintings were one of the magazine’s signature features for years.

Tinney’s work was imaginative, technically superb (he is a master of the airbrush) and, sometimes, very funny. Byte lost a little bit of its soul when the publication started phasing out his work in favor of standard-issue photos of standard-issue computers.

While rummaging around the web last week looking for something else, I came across his cover for Byte‘s April 1981 issue at the Internet Archive. I immediately shared it on Twitter, where it got about as enthusiastic a response as anything I’ve ever tweeted. There it is at the top of this post, with the artist’s permission.

This is, obviously, an amusing image. The notion that a wrist computer might have a floppy-disk drive, a QWERTY keyboard and a tiny text-based interface was a good joke in 1981, and an even better one when seen through the lens of nostalgia. (If you’re tempted to assume that the image was actually a serious depiction of what a future wrist computer might look like–well, no. Inside the magazine, which only had a brief editiorial about future computers, the editors pointed out that it wasn’t a coincidence that it happened to be the April issue of Byte.)

But I also find this art–which Tinney still offers as a limited-edition print–to be quite profound, on multiple levels. Here’s why.

First, it reminds us that the smartwatch is not a new idea. Even in 1981, tech companies had been trying to build them for awhile: Tinney’s creation is a pseudo-logical extension of ideas expressed in real devices such as HP’s HP-01, a “personal information assistant” introduced in 1977. (Of course, people have been obssessed with the notion of strapping advanced communications gadgetry to their wrists since at least 1946, when Dick Tracy got his wrist radio.)

Here we are in the 21st century. The tech industry has lately made progress on this smartwatch idea, but it’s still not a problem that anyone’s completely solved, which is why it still isn’t part of everyday life. You could do a “Future Computers” cover today and put a concept smartwatch on it, just as Byte did in 1981.

The Pebble Steel smartwatch Pebble

Second, for all the ways technology has radically improved in the past 33 years, the current crop of smartwatches actually have a lot in common with Tinney’s concept. The industry is still struggling with questions of display technology, input and storage, and one of the best efforts so far, the Pebble Steel, even looks eerily like the Tinney watch, sans QWERTY.

But most of all, the Tinney watch is a wonderful visual explanation of why human beings–most of us, anyhow–aren’t very good at predicting the future of technology. We tend to think that new products will be a lot like the ones we know. We shoehorn existing concepts where they don’t belong. Oftentimes, we don’t dream big enough.

(One classic example: When it became clear that Apple was working on an “iPhone,” almost all the speculation involved something that was either a lot like an iPod, or a lot like other phones of the time. As far as I know, nobody expected anything remotely like the epoch-shifting device Apple released.)

Tinney’s painting is a gag, but it’s not that far removed from what a serious futurist might have predicted in 1981. It’s a PC of the era, downsized to fit the wrist.

Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of indulging in science fiction. Even though some of the earliest ancestors of modern interfaces existed in laboratories in places such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, I don’t know if it would have even occurred to anyone to envision them being built into a watch.

And today? Much of the thinking about smartwatches involves devices that look suspiciously like shrunken smartphones. That’s what we know. But I won’t be the least bit surprised if the first transcendently important wearable device of our era–the iPhone of its category–turns out to have only slightly more in common with a 2014 smartphone than it does with a 1981 computer.

Bonus material: Here’s a 1986 Robert Tinney interview by my friend Benj Edwards, illustrated with additional fabulous Byte covers.


This Is How You Resurrect America’s Dying Malls


The American mall of the future may look a lot like the kinds of public markets traditionally found in towns and cities in the developing world.

The recession and the rise of e-commerce have left many U.S. shopping malls nearly vacant or completely dead. A new mall hasn’t been built in the United States since 2006, and growth in brick-and-mortar shopping centers has slowed to a crawl. Business owners and mall managers are looking for ways to bring their properties back to life — and they increasingly they see Hispanics as a vital part of the solution.

One in every six Americans is Hispanic, up from one in sixteen in 1980. The Hispanic population in the U.S. today is over 52 million and counting. And with a buying power of $1.2 trillion, Hispanic consumers are fast becoming a valued prize to be won by American businesses.

But some question whether Hispanic consumers are really the answer. The children of immigrants are assimilating fast, breaking free of their parents’ old-world values. Many don’t want to shop in Hispanic malls or listen to mariachi music. Will Hispanics lose their economic clout as their children evaporate into the American cultural cloud, or will the Hispanic consumer become the new American consumer?

TIME Innovation

Atom-Photon ‘Switch’ Heralds Quantum Networking Advances

Scientists have developed a new method of trapping rubidium atoms in a lattice of light, which could help the development of quantum computing. Christine Daniloff / MIT

Researchers at MIT and Harvard have managed to "trap" individual atoms using a lattice of light, and it could be a major step in the direction of quantum computing networks.

Vetting quantum computing “breakthroughs” tends to be, as TIME’s Lev Grossman sagely notes, a bit like quantum computing itself: maybe yes, maybe no, or maybe yes and no simultaneously.

That notion of things existing in multiple states at once is called quantum superposition (the prefix “super” meant in its “above, over, beyond” sense), and it’s the foundation upon which quantum computing’s promise of insanely fast, classical computer-trouncing probability engines rests. It involves post-digital units of quantum information known as qubits, or quantum bits, which instead of existing in a digital on or off state, can be in superposition, or both states at the same time. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. Like anything else scrutinized at nanoscopic levels, it defies encapsulation.

Traditional digital computers convey the illusion of binary multitasking by switching rapidly between computational states. Chipmakers like Intel and AMD and IBM have been ratcheting up the stakes in that seesaw-dance for decades, to the point that today’s fastest supercomputer, the $2.4 billion Tianhe-2 located in China and employing Intel’s multicore “3D” processor technology, can crunch an unfathomable 33.86 petaflops, putting it somewhere in the vicinity of what researchers reportedly estimated just a few years ago would be necessary to simulate the human brain.

Quantum computers would be able to perform exponentially greater computational feats still by abandoning on-off calculative constraints as a matter of form — a kind of ultimate parallelism, if you’ll forgive that back-of-the-envelope reduction. Imagine cloning yourself for the sake of performing a task and thus being able to do more than one thing at once, then scale that way up in computational terms. True, practically implementable and sustainable quantum computing is probably where the rubber behind concepts like Ray Kurzweil’s singularity — our looming self-aware machine overlords — meets the road.

But given the challenges involved in getting even the most primitive sort of turtle-slow, experimental quantum computing device up and running — and you can read about some of those challenges here — it’s hard to know what you’re looking at when you see headlines about so-called quantum computing breakthroughs.

Take the latest laboratory advance with potential quantum computing ramifications from two of the foremost quantum-fiddling suspects — MIT and Harvard University — involving light, or more specifically a lattice of photons designed to ensnare atoms and create joint particle “switches” that could, in theory, facilitate quantum computing operations down the road.

Down the road would be the operative phrase here, since the discovery, just published in Nature, sounds more like a stepwise accomplishment in an unfurling cosmology of quantum computing components, some or all of which may (or may not) be instrumental in guiding hands toward fantasy future notions of smartphone- or watch-sized or physiology-embedded computers more powerful and versatile than our own gray matter.

According to MIT News, the MIT/Harvard solution involves pairing a rubidium atom (a metal) with a photon, allowing either particle to affect the quantum state of the other. Call it a “quantum optical switch,” because that’s what the authors of the Nature paper do:

By analogy to transistors in classical electronic circuits, quantum optical switches are important elements of quantum circuits and quantum networks. Operated at the fundamental limit where a single quantum of light or matter controls another field or material system, such a switch may enable applications such as long-distance quantum communication, distributed quantum information processing and metrology [the scientific study of measurement], and the exploration of novel quantum states of matter. Here, by strongly coupling a photon to a single atom trapped in the near field of a nanoscale photonic crystal cavity, we realize a system in which a single atom switches the phase of a photon and a single photon modifies the atom’s phase.

The researchers says that the techniques they’ve been able to experimentally demonstrate in this instance could “pave the way to integrated quantum nanophotonic networks involving multiple atomic nodes connected by guided light.”

“This is a major advance of this system,” MIT professor and paper co-author Vladan Vuletić told MIT News. “We have demonstrated basically an atom can switch the phase of a photon. And the photon can switch the phase of an atom.”

Vuletić envisions placing all sorts of atoms in this system to create devices “only a few hundred nanometers thick, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair” which would then exchange information.

“The idea is to combine different things that have different strengths and weaknesses in such a way to generate something new,” said Vuletić (again, speaking to MIT News), though he appends the following cautionary disclaimer, which could serve for all quantum computing advances at this point: “This is an advance in technology. Of course, whether this will be the technology remains to be seen.”

TIME Technologizer

Yes, Smartphones Are Plateauing — and That’s O.K.

JK Shin
Samsung president and CEO J.K. Shin announces the Galaxy S5 smartphone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2014 David Ramos / Getty Images

Eras of wild technological innovation are all very well. But so are periods of quiet refinement

After posting my reasonably favorable review of Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 smartphone last night, I started checking out some of the other early evaluations. The diversity of opinion is fascinating.

Nobody thinks that this phone is a massive embarrassment, or a landmark. But the reviews break down into two types: those by people who think the phone is half full, and those who think it’s half empty.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal‘s Geoffrey Fowler, whose piece accentuates the negative:

Samsung may market the Galaxy S5 as a significant upgrade, but it is best seen as a refinement. Smartphone technology may be reaching a plateau where core elements like the processor, screen and sensors no longer matter as much as the software that helps you use them. And that is an area where Samsung still trails.

I agree with everything Fowler says in those three sentences, but I still have a more favorable overall impression of the Galaxy S5 than he does, and I’m not bothered by the possibility that the whole category has plateaued.

Here’s why:

Plateaus are natural, and this one isn’t new. No product category gets better at a breakneck pace forever. In the case of smartphones, the period of wild innovation that began when Apple shipped the first iPhone in 2007 ended at least a couple of years ago. (At least I can’t think of any feature anybody’s introduced lately that’s the least bit transformative.)

They invite refinement. With technology, evolution is as important as revolution. When a company such as Samsung or Apple isn’t adding all-new capabilities, it can polish up those that a product already has. Samsung did that with features such as the Galaxy S5′s camera. And though Fowler is right that Samsung still has considerable catching up to do when it comes to software, I’d rather see it invest its energy in thoughtful usability tweaks than wacky stuff such as controlling your phone by waving your hand around.

You don’t want to upgrade your phone every year anyhow. Recode’s Walt Mossberg says that he wouldn’t recommend the S5 to anyone who already has a Galaxy S4 or a current iPhone. That’s a sensible stance, but it’s not a knock on the S5, particularly. For one thing, it’s rare that any tech product improves on its immediate predecessor by awe-inspiring leaps and bounds. For another, it makes no economic sense to buy a new smartphone every year, especially if you’ve committed to a two-year contract — so the most relevant question about a new model is whether it improves meaningfully on phones from two or three years ago. (The GS5 does.)

You never know what will happen next. Smartphones have plateaued before. A decade or so ago, in the heyday of the BlackBerry and Palm Treo, the category was improving only incrementally, and it wasn’t clear what would change that dynamic. Then the first iPhone arrived, and it was suddenly obvious that radical improvement on the status quo was possible.

I’m lousy at predictions, so any guesses I hazard to make about future smartphones such as the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6 are likely to be utterly wrong. But if those phones turn out to be just a little bit better than the models they replace, it won’t be surprising, or a sign that the industry is broken. Even though Apple and Samsung will never, ever use the word “plateau” when describing new products they’d like you to buy.

TIME Innovation

StoreDot: Another Promising, Far-Off Answer to Smartphone Battery Problems

"Nanodot" technology could charge your phone in 30 seconds, but is years away from the mass market.


Every so often, we hear about new technology that’s supposed to save smartphone battery life. But most of these advances are still in the lab stage, unfit for public demonstration.

StoreDot is a little different. The Tel Aviv-based startup isn’t claiming to increase smartphone battery life, but instead says it can charge a dying phone in less than a minute. And for the skeptics, StoreDot demonstrated the technology on a Samsung Galaxy S4 on Monday during Microsoft’s Think Next symposium.

Keep in mind that StoreDot’s real advances are in the battery, not the charger. StoreDot is using a new battery chemistry that features “nanodots” derived from bio-organic material. These nanodots are used in both the electrode, which stores the battery’s energy, and the electrolyte, which transfers energy between the battery’s anode and cathode ends. StoreDot says the electrical properties of these nanodots allow the electrode to charge much faster, while still discharging at a rate similar to conventional lithium-ion batteries. And because the technology is based on naturally occurring organic compounds, it’s supposedly cheap to produce.

Although the demo is impressive, it will face some hurdles on the road to commercialization. In the current demo, StoreDot’s battery is physically larger than the one inside Samsung’s Galaxy S4, but its capacity is smaller. So while it can charge much faster, it won’t last as long on a charge. StoreDot says it’s working on the capacity issue and hopes to reach its goal of matching conventional batteries within a year. The charger is much larger as well–though StoreDot says it’s working on reducing the size–and it’ll be roughly twice as expensive as a normal charger. Finally, the phone itself needs to be modified to accommodate a high current during charging, but again, StoreDot says it’s hoping that users could eventually drop the battery into existing phones.

There’s also the issue of raising money and mass-producing a product. StoreDot says it has a “large Asian smartphone manufacturer” as a strategic investor, and the company has recently raised $6 million according to The Next Web. Still, StoreDot isn’t planning to begin mass production until late 2016. As I’ve written before, the testing phase for the safety and longevity of new battery technology can take a long time, and that’s a big reason so many solutions are still years away.

In other words, StoreDot is yet another company facing big challenges as it tries to revolutionize smartphone batteries. But it has a working demo and a timeline for commercialization, and that’s got to be worth something.

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