April Fools? Nope. Real Life Sci-Fi Coming to a Classroom Near You

In tech circles, April Fools’ Day 2013 may best be remembered for the Play-Doh 3-D printer that didn’t actually exist. But are such imaginings really that far off? Check out these very real technological wonders.

Did you get excited when you first heard that an iPad-connected Play-Doh 3-D printer was available for the low, low price of $49.99? Were you disappointed when you realized it was a clever April Fools’ trick thought up by ThinkGeek? We were.

April Fools_RL_Credit_ThinkGeekBut considering how 3-D printing really works, it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibilities. In fact, the HYREL 3D printer really can print with Play-Doh and other gooey materials like chocolate or epoxy. Technology moves so fast that the line between what’s real and what’s not is increasingly difficult to follow.

Here are a number of other technological wonders that might be difficult to tell apart from April Fools’ Day pranks. Some are already being used by learners, some have enormous potential we probably can’t even tapped into yet, and some are just freakishly amazing.

As different as all these inventions are, they all took some seriously imaginative thinking — something a dynamic, hands-on learning ecosystem like one we are creating here in Pittsburgh can help nurture.

After all, today’s kids are tomorrow’s inventors. What they’ll come up with is sure to amaze us in ways we can’t even imagine.

First up, two junior doctors at St. George’s University have used large-scale holograms  of kidneys and other body parts in their medical school lectures. The illusions of the 3-D, floating objects were created with LED projectors from three directions. (It makes high school junior Daniel Nemroff’s short film depicting a high school chemistry class of the future a lot less far off.)

Straight out of a science fiction movie is Motorola’s edible password pill, which contains a tiny chip loaded with your password information. Once swallowed, it’s powered by the acids in your stomach and emits an EKG-like signal, unlocking phones or computers and basically turning you into your body into a walking, talking authentication system.

Physics teacher Andrew Vanden Heuvel brought his Google Glass to CERN in Switzerland, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and took his students along on a virtual field trip. While he was underground next to the particle accelerator in Geneva, students in Michigan got to call out questions in real time.

It’s one thing for students to see through a teacher’s eyes, but Google Glass also allows a school technology coordinator Margaret Powers to see through students’ eyes as they work on projects. Their work is documented on Powers’ blog, 365 Days of Glass.

A few years ago, Facebook spending $2 billion on a company that makes a virtual reality headset really would have been an April Fools’ joke. But  this month’s purchase was very real, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his post on the acquisition, even mentioned “studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world” or “ sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures” simply by wearing goggles as future possibilities.

As Jeff Dunn at Edudemic points out, educational uses of virtual reality are already here. For example, MIT’s Teacher Education Program and Education Arcade have already developed an augmented reality game that requires players to figure out the root of a toxic spill by interviewing virtual characters and conducting experiments. The outdoor game is played with GPS and handheld computers—taking game-based learning to an entirely different level.

beach2-1024x687Meanwhile, engineers at MIT developed a vest called Sensory Fiction that enables its wearers to feel what fictional characters in a book are experiencing. The vest replicates what the protagonist is feeling by altering the user’s heart rate, constricting areas with air pressure bags, and causing temperature changes.

Shifting from sensing to smelling, the oPhone, which sends scented text messages, is in development and may be available this fall. Created by Harvard University professor David Edwards and his students at Le Laboratoire in Paris, the phone lets one user type a message and “attach” a scent, which then comes through on the receiver’s phone.

“Clearly, [there’s] a big difference between me saying to you the word ‘croissant,’ or even showing you a picture of a croissant, and you smelling a croissant,” Edwards told NPR.

The 3Doodler, a 3-D printing pen, can turn letters, numbers or doodles into physical objects. It’s still in the pre-order phase, but MAKE magazine has already explored its potential uses — read this interview with 3Doodler co-creator Max Bogue.

There are some die-hard 3-D printing fans out there—us included. But would you want to be tattooed by a machine? A handful of French students hacked a MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer and replaced the extruder of the printer with a tattoo pen, making it capable of drawing designs on skin. As Mitch Hensley at 3D Print notes, they had no problem finding volunteers.

Speaking of intelligent robots, a Lego robot just beat the previous robotic world record for solving Rubik’s Cube. The time: 3.2 seconds. Jason Dorrier at Singularity Hub explains how a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone camera can detect the cube’s color configuration, and an app tells the robot’s arms how to move.

Solving a Rubik’s Cube not useful enough? This robot can stack 450 pancakes in a minute, this one leads kids in an exercise class by dancing to “Gangnam Style,” and this one is actually pretty good at ping pong.

No, not April Fools’ jokes. Just life in 2014.

Published April 01, 2014