The week in gadgets: self-building blocks, indestructible data and an Amazon smartphone

21 Oct 2013

A look at gadget happenings, as robotic scientists make building blocks that can put themselves together, a Dutch researcher develops data storage to survive the apocalypse, Amazon is rumoured to be working with HTC on a range of smartphones, images of LG’s curved smartphone appear online, and Dell introduces three new computers to its Inspiron range.

Self-assembling building blocks

A team at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed small cube-shaped robots that can self-assemble and self-reconfigure.

Research scientist John Romanishin first proposed this robotic system design in 2011, but his robotics professor Daniela Rus didn’t believe it could be done. Two years on, and Romanishin, Rus and Kyle Gilpin, a post-doctoral researcher at CSAIL, have made it happen with M-Blocks.

Inside each of these modular robots is a flywheel capable of completing up to 20,000 revolutions per minute. When this brakes, its angular momentum is imparted onto the block, causing it to move – even jump.


By achieving motion through one actuator, M-Blocks require fewer parts, keeping its design simple and robust with no exterior moving parts or latches. Each cube face is fitted with magnets so that the structures the blocks form when fitted together will hold tight.

Romanishin, Rus and Gilpin will present a paper describing their robots at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Tokyo, Japan in November.

Data storage for the end of the world

Jeroen de Vries, a researcher at the University of Twente MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology in The Netherlands has developed an optical storage system that’s built to outlive humanity.

This disc contains a QR code etched into tungsten (used for its ability to survive extreme temperatures) and covered in silicon nitride, and each pixel of the code is actually another QR code.

Experimenting with the disc, de Vries demonstrated how it can withstand extremely hot temperatures by frying, barbecuing and torching it. Apparently, it can withstand an hour in an oven at more than 200°C , which would represent more than 1m years at normal temperatures.


Amazon and HTC working on a smartphone

Amazon is rumoured to be teaming up with HTC on its long-rumoured smartphone range. Sources told the Financial Times there are three devices in the works, with the first likely to arrive next year.

Rumours of an Amazon smartphone began last year when it was reported that the Kindle-maker was testing devices in Asia, and one of its planned handsets may even include a 3D display.

In helping Amazon break into the smartphone market, HTC could see itself ousted from the Open Handset Alliance, which allows it to use the Android operating system for free and create Google-certified products that can come preloaded with Google Play and other apps. An Amazon handset will likely use a forked version of Android, such as what is used on its Kindle Fire tablets, with apps delivered through the Amazon Appstore.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that both companies have been discussing these smartphones since June and that they will only be available to users of Amazon Prime, Amazon’s streaming and downloading platform.

LG’s G Flex images leak online

LG’s flexible OLED display went into mass production this month and now press images of the alleged ‘G Flex’ have leaked online.

LG G Flex leaked press image

While Samsung claims the Galaxy Round provides a better fit for your hand, LG’s selling point for the G Flex is a better fit to your face, thanks to a vertically concave shape. It also claims that this curve makes the smartphone even tougher and the display unbreakable.

The 6-inch smartphone is expected to launch in November.

Dell’s new Inspiron range

Dell added two new laptops and an all-in-one desktop model to its range this past week.

The new Inspiron 7000-series laptops feature a forged aluminium design and diamond-cut bevelled edges. The displays can be fitted with 10-finger capacitive touchscreens and edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass NBT. Backlit keyboards come as standard and configuration options include Intel fourth-generation Haswell Core i5 and i7 processors, as well as SSD to speed up boot times and applications loading.

The 15.6-inch model measures less than 1 inch thick and can be equipped with a full-HD 300 nit touch display. The 17-inch version is just over 1 inch thick and comes with an optical drive and touchscreen as standard.

Dell claims its new desktop all-in-one is the thinnest of its size. The Inspiron 23 features a 23-inch full-HD display and 10-finger capacitive touchscreen atop a fully articulating stand. The Windows 8 computer can tilt, hold at an angle or lay flat as needed.

Dell Inspiron 23

Availability and pricing for the Inspiron 23 are yet to be confirmed, while the Inspiron 15 7000 and 17 7000 are available now from €649 or €949, respectively.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.