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A throwable building-mapping sphere from Bounce Imaging was recently chosen by PopSci for a 2013 Invention Award. The "throwable, expendable, baseball-size probe," in PopSci's words, "has a shock-absorbing shell embedded with six cameras, plus clusters of near-infrared LEDs to light up dark rooms (for the cameras)."
To deploy the Explorer, an emergency worker links it to a smartphone or tablet and chucks the ball into danger. It immediately begins taking photos and testing for methane, carbon monoxide, and dangerously high temperatures. A microprocessor inside the ball then stiches the photos together and converts the raw data for transmission over Wi-Fi. Just seconds after the toss, a wrap-around panorama—complete with environmental warnings—appears on the synced device.The usefulness of this as a tool for cave mapping, or even as a new piece of kit for semi-autonomous, non-destructive archaeological investigations, seems both obvious and worth tracking in the future.
Unsurprisingly, however, the MIT Technology Review points out that the "ball-sized device could be particularly useful for the military," as it is lightweight, extremely portable, and, because of its low cost, it "could be abandoned, if necessary." Teams of soldiers, arriving at a building or city of which no accurate maps or floorplans exist, could thus toss these little baseball-like devices into the darkness ahead and achieve tactical awareness within seconds–unless, of course, WiFi-hijacking counter-measures send back deliberately incorrect plans and layouts to the unsuspecting soldiers.
Warfare, here, would become a weird sort of architectural sorcery, casting spatial spells on one another, broadcasting ghosts and mirages to the screens of an approaching enemy.
Bounce Imaging's research is interesting to put into the context of another building-mapping project currently underway at MIT: Maurice Fallon's "automatic building mapping" project—
—which functions by way of a wearable LiDAR pack, sort of like a forward-scanning Iron Man chest piece, that allows for real-time mapping of a structure's internal layout.
As you can see in the above video, though, the design aesthetic of the scanning pack is, at least right now, workaday and extremely pragmatic; I would thus love to see what students from, for example, the Design Interactions department at London's Royal College of Art could do with it, putting together a shell or housing unit for the scanner itself. Take a look at the recently all-over-the-internet project called Eidos, by which RCA students promise to "sharpen your senses" through a set of beautifully-made wearable devices.
[Image: Part of the Eidos system by RCA students Tim Bouckley, Millie Clive-Smith, Mi Eun Kim, and Yuta Sugawara].
But I'll leave this for now, as a forthcoming interview soon to be published over at Venue, with Georgia Tech roboticist Henrik Christensen, picks up many of these threads with great interest.