Friday, June 19, 2015

The Apple Watch is barely two months old, but details are already starting to come out about what's planned for the next model. 9to5Macreports that Apple is currently planning to put a camera for video chatting on the top bezel of the Watch. It may also gain more independence from the iPhone by including a new wireless chip that would allow the Watch to use Wi-Fi to handle more advanced tasks. Apple is also said to be satisfied with the Watch's battery life and not focused on improving it for the next model. The report warns that Apple's current plans could be scrapped and saved for future models, depending on how development goes.

Video chatting sounds futuristic but frustrating

The addition of a video camera to the Watch is, arguably, a strange next step. While video chatting on a smartwatch certainly has a wonderfully futuristic vibe that could help to sell the new model, it could have significant downsides, including rapidly draining the Watch's battery, requiring an awkward arm position for an extended period of time, and only displaying the video on a very small screen. Of course, Apple also made the inclusion of front-facing smartphone cameras explode, so it's not worth counting this idea out based on the concept alone. Samsung has previously included a camera in a smartwatch, although it was oriented for taking photos.

Including more capable wireless abilities in the next Watch is certainly an important addition. The Watch is currently quite limited because it pretty much always needs to be paired to an iPhone over Bluetooth in order to work. It can currently do some functions over Wi-Fi, but it's largely meant as a backup — not as a way to use the Watch without a phone. It's not clear how much of that would change with an update to the Watch, but any alterations that let it grow a bit more independent are still meaningful and convenient steps forward.

Apple's customer research has apparently indicated that people are satisfied with the Watch's battery life, 9to5Mac reports. It's true that the Watch, typically, does make it through the day. But, much like the iPhone, if you actually decide to use the Watch in a significant way one day, there's a good chance that it'll run out quickly — and it's pretty rough having a dead Watch on your wrist. It's not entirely surprising then that Apple is trying to focus on new features while maintaining the Watch's existing battery life, but it would be nice to see improvement in that area in the future.

New high-end models could sit beneath the gold Editions

In addition to the new features, 9to5Mac reports that Apple is considering making a new high-end version of the Watch. It could be either an extension of the Apple Watch line or a new line that sits above the Apple Watch but well below the Edition. Apple reportedly wants to target people willing to spend more than $1,000, but not quite the $10,000 or so needed to buy a gold Edition. These new models could be the standard Apple Watch with new bands, or they could be part of a new line made with different materials, the report suggests.

There's been no real suggestion of when Apple will release the next version of the Watch, but it's likely that it won't be until next year. Apple typically updates its products on a one-year cycle, and the Watch is still only months old. It probably won't be ready for a refresh this fall, either, even when Apple releases watchOS 2, which brings with it support for native third-party apps. The updated software includes a number of other new features, including support for third-party complications, which could pretty quickly make the Watch a lot more useful.

Correction: This article previously stated that the Watch was incapable of updating apps like Weather over Wi-Fi. It can, so long as the network is already known through a paired iPhone.

The next Apple Watch could have a FaceTime camera

Researchers have built devices that harness changes in atmospheric humidity to generate small amounts of electricity, lift tiny weights, and even power a toy car. In the grand scheme of things, that captured energy is not free, but it’s pretty darn close. The study suggests that evaporation could be used to operate a variety of gadgets that don’t require a lot of power, scientists say.

“This is one of the first experiments to show that humidity can be a source of fuel,” says Albert Schenning, a materials scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands who wasn’t involved in the new study. The team’s designs, he says, “are very nice and very clever.”

All the gadgets rely on a simple phenomenon—the change in size of bacterial spores as they absorb moisture from the air and then release it, says team leader Ozgur Sahin, a biophysicist at Columbia University. Sahin and his colleagues used the living but dormant spores from Bacillus subtilis, a species of bacteria commonly found in soil and in the human gastrointestinal tract. Each spore typically swells and then shrinks up to 6% when moved from dry air to extremely humid air and then back again, Sahin says. The researchers harnessed that size-changing action by gluing thin layers of spores onto one side of curved sheets of polymer. When the spores swelled, that side of the polymer sheet lengthened—which in turn caused the curved sheet to somewhat straighten out. The stretching and contracting of these spore-coated polymer sheets are the driving force for the team’s devices.

A change in size of 6% may not sound that impressive. But when the researchers strung together a series of these polymer sheets, the “artificial muscles” they created quadrupled in length when relative humidity changed from below 30% to more than 80%, the team reports today in Nature Communications.  

The thicker the spore layer, the longer it would take for the muscles to react to changes in humidity. So, to make sure their artificial muscles were quick-acting, the researchers used spore layers that were extremely thin—no more than 3 micrometers thick, or about 5 spores deep on average, Sahin says. Tests showed that the devices could react to humidity changes within 3 seconds, he notes.

Tests also revealed that the spore-coated polymer strips could expand and shrink for more than 1 million cycles with little change in their range of motion. Other trials showed that the strips, when they shrank, could lift more than 50 times their own weight (video). But they did so much more slowly than an animal’s muscle would, so the power they generated—that is, their rate of energy production—was correspondingly low.

Nevertheless, the team harnessed changes in humidity to perform actual work. In one device, the back-and-forth motion driven by one artificial muscle suspended above a postage stamp–sized patch of water provided enough electrical power to light an LED. In another, the expansion of muscles on one side of a Ferris wheel–like device (where the air was humidified by evaporation from a wet paper towel) but not the other triggered an imbalance that caused the wheel to rotate (video). The team used the motion of a similar wheel to power a 100-gram toy car(video).

“These are fun demonstrations, but they prove the principle,” says Peter Fratzl, a materials scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, who was not involved with the work. Researchers are constantly looking for sources of energy, even if they’re small, he notes. “It makes sense to use these gradients [in humidity], because they’re everywhere and they’re free.”

The team’s results are a good conceptual starting point, says George Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard University. Such devices could, in theory, generate enough electricity to run a few transistors, he adds. “But it will still be a while before these things are in every child’s bathtub.”

Energy harnessed from humidity can power small devices

After years of fasting, the Buddha’s “legs were like bamboo sticks, his backbone was like a rope, his chest was like an incomplete roof of a house, his eyes sank right inside, like stones in a deep well,” according to one account. The Buddha didn’t get what he wanted from this extreme fasting—enlightenment—but a new study suggests that a diet that replicates some effects of milder deprivation may not only lower your weight but also confer other benefits. Researchers report that following the diet for just 5 days a month improves several measures of health, including reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Eating shortens life, and not just because overindulgence can lead to diseases such as diabetes. A diet that cuts food intake by up to 40%, known as calorie restriction, increases longevity in a variety of organisms and forestalls cancer, heart disease, and other late-life illnesses. Although some short-term studies suggest that calorie restriction provides metabolic benefits to people, nobody has confirmed that it also increases human life span. The closest researchers have come are two large, long-term studies of monkeys, and they conflict about whether meager rations increase longevity.

Even if calorie restriction could add years to our lives, almost no one can muster the willpower to eat so little day after day, year after year. An alternative that might be more, er, palatable is fasting, the temporary abstinence from food. Gerontological researcher Valter Longo of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and colleagues have shown that fasting eases side effects of chemotherapy such as fatigue and weakness, and animal studies suggest that it produces health advantages similar to calorie restriction.

But hard-core fasting, in which people drink only water for days at a time, may be no easier than calorie restriction. “I’ve done it, and it was excruciating,” Longo says. For the new study he and his colleagues devised a less grueling diet that might still trigger the benefits of fasting. For two 4-day periods each month, middle-aged mice dined on low-protein, low-calorie chow. The rest of the month, they could nosh as much as they wanted.

The mice outlived their peers by an average of 3 months, a substantial amount for the rodents, and they displayed numerous signs of better health. As the researchers report online today inCell Metabolism, the mice shed fat and were 45% less likely to fall victim to cancer. During their lean cuisine episodes, their level of blood sugar fell by 40% and the amount of insulin in the blood was 90% lower. And although brainpower usually declines with age, the mice retained more of their mental ability; they bested control animals in two kinds of memory tests, perhaps because they produced more new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory.

Longo and colleagues also uncovered evidence that the regimen boosted the animals’ capacity to restore and replenish their tissues. “That’s the most exciting” finding, Longo says. For instance, regeneration of the liver was quicker in the fasting animals, and the balance of different types of cells in their blood was more youthful. The numbers of certain stem cells also soared in the dieting rodents.

To determine whether occasional austerity might have the same impact on people, the researchers whipped up a menu of energy bars, soups, teas, and chips. One day’s fare furnishes between 725 and 1090 calories. “It’s not like eating ravioli, but it is better than going without,” Longo says. (The average adult man in America needs about 2000 to 3000 calories daily; people following calorie restriction may limit themselves to as few as 1200 calories.)

Much like the mice, the volunteers in the study followed the diet for 5 days straight and then returned to their usual dining habits for the rest of the month. In their paper, the researchers report the results for the first group of 19 subjects to try this “fasting mimicking” regimen and for 19 controls.

Only three rounds of alternating between the diet and normal eating appeared to improve the participants’ physical condition, reducing blood glucose, trimming abdominal fat, and cutting levels of a protein associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Longo and colleagues also detected a slight rise in the abundance of some stem cells in the blood, suggesting that the diet might promote regeneration in humans. “We think that what the fasting mimicking diet does is rejuvenate,” Longo says.

Other researchers say the results of the study are encouraging. “This single dietary change can counteract all these variables of aging, and I think that’s very impressive,” says molecular biologist Christopher Hine of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. The study shows that cutting calories all the time may not be necessary, adds biochemist James Mitchell, also of the Harvard School of Public Health. “Intermittent periods can have lasting effects.”

The new diet may also be more practical. “Calorie restriction has failed miserably in human trials” because it’s so hard to stick to, says gerontologist Rafael de Cabo of the U.S. National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Maryland, who leads one of the monkey studies of calorie restriction. A regimen like the researchers use “is achievable,” he says.

Longo and colleagues have already completed a larger clinical trial of the diet with more than 80 subjects. Fasting like the Buddha is dangerous, and even the fasting mimicking diet could be harmful for some people, such as diabetics, Longo notes. Researchers need to study how the regimen works, who might benefit, and who might be harmed by it, Mitchell notes. “There is a lot of information to figure out.”

Short-term fasting may improve health

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