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It's getting better all the time...
Vinay Gupta, 21 Oct 04

A new generation of consumer electronic devices integrates digital age technologies into traditionally analog systems, producing devices which are massive improvements on the analog systems they replace. The digital revolution is moving outside of computers and cell phones and into items as simple as a flashlight.

Exhibit A: The Underwater Kinetics 4AA ELED. Which is a mouthfull for what is, in essence, a fancy flashlight.

So what's worldchanging about a fancy flashlight? Three things:

  1. The flashlight uses a Luxeon 1 Watt LED - an incredibly bright, efficient LED. A single Luxeon can deliver more light than a 4D cell Maglite, although this one is about only 50% brighter than a 2AA cell Maglite. It will essentially never burn out.
  2. The flashlight is voltage regulated. A tiny power conversion chip compensates for tired batteries, giving you constant brightness right up until just before your batteries die. It's like a tiny transformer.
    Result? Eleven hours, let me say that again, eleven hours of consistently bright, white light from four AA batteries.
  3. The flashlight is twenty dollars online.

Ok, you say, so what? I'm not a boyscout, why does this matter to me? What's important about a fancy flashlight, even if it is only twenty bucks?

The ELED is an example of a discontinuous improvement in a simple consumer-level product based on adoption of incredibly sophisticated new technologies. In the course of twenty years, a twenty dollar flashlight has gone from a lifespan of three hours and dim-but-usable yellow light, to blindingly white light for four times that length of time, based on intelligent power regulation and super-sophisticated LED bulbs. Lighting of this kind was simply not available until a few years ago, at any price point.

At the current level of development, this is still a first world novelty. But if we look another twenty years into the future the "flashlight" is no longer a flashlight, but a science-fiction like lighting device which has properties we can't even guess at, but might include adaptive response to lighting needs, on-the-fly recharge from sunlight or other power sources, and so on. You can't really appreciate how unlike a conventional flashlight one of these things is until you play with one and the light goes on... and on... and on.... and you never worry about bulbs burning out, or dropping it, or getting it wet. Pushed further, as our technologies always are, we start seeing genuinely novel objects within the existing cognitive framework of existing categories. The "Future Flashlight" will still be called a flashlight. But it won't work like one, not at all.

Let's look at another example: Exhibit B, the Panasonic SA-XR45 Digital Amplifier. It's a consumer level amplifier intended for home theater systems.

What makes it special? It's the first cheap ($300) amplifier to feature digial amplification. The production of the signal which drives your speakers is done in power-handling VLSI chips, rather than a bunch of componentized transistors and capacitors.

So what? Why does it matter how the amplification is done? Well, here's a clue: you can't buy an XR45 in America any more. Panasonic sold out. There are simply none left.

Why? Because on listening tests, a new-technology $300 dollar home theater amp regularly beats out thousand dollar two channel audiophile amplifiers.

Now, to really understand that, you have to understand a little about audiophile culture: as a breed, audiophiles hate and fear new technology, viewing each generation as worse than the one before. That's often because new technologies start out unpolished and take time to mature, and also because they often simply are worse (CDs, for example, are said to contain about 40% of the data found on an LP record).

So to have the first generation of a new product recieve this kind of attention is nearly unheard of. For it to be cheap adds insult to injury. But they have flown off the shelves, and a cottage industry has grown up around rebuilding the analog electronics in the power supply to improve the sound quality just-a-little-more so you can still buy an expensive, custom version if that suits your aesthetics.

Things are beginning to change. Both flashlights and amplifiers used to be dumb analog systems. It's no longer true, and even the very early steps in adding intelligence and new power handling technologies are resulting in amazing results.

This is a huge trend to watch: one can look at Hybrid cars as an other example of this trend - replace the analog with digital systems with power handling capabilities - and amazing things result.

We've moving towards a world in which there are no switches, no circuits which are simply open or closed, and into a world in which every power handling system, be it lighting, audio or automotive, incorporates brains which regulate and control. It's been coming for a long time... it's here

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Went to MIT for a presentation on solar in Africa and it turns out that solar electricity is, so far, not a good match. The greatest bang would be some kind of new stove that would be more efficient and produce less or no indoor air pollution. Chimneys were mentioned as a great technological leap forward.

Kate Steel, the presenter, mentioned a couple of groups that were working on solar lanterns, ITDG and Ignite Innovations, but they couldn't get the price point down to Third World affordable. Perhaps the ELED flashlight is the answer.

I wonder if these new intelligent devices are also hardened against electro-magnetic pulse but then I live in the USA where the Vice President is promising terrorist nukes in our cities.

Posted by: gmoke on 21 Oct 04

ummm ... disagree about solar being not a good match for Africa. Solar as used in the US isn't a good match (it's not great even here in the US,) but to get electic light into a school in the remote bush of Mali enables many people to learn who otherwise cannot, because of having to work when it's day, and being unable to study in the dark.

There's simply no feasible way to produce light for studying apart from solar, and it's life-changing!

(Anyone able to help with sponsoring rural Malian school PV please contact me: anadem at gmail.)

Posted by: alan on 21 Oct 04

An easy way to make light enough to study is basic tech from the 1700s.

Attach a weight( dirt in bin will do fine) to a rope that turns a crank that then turns some gears that connect to a little generator. Boom there you go enough energy to light a few tiny cheap leds stuck on a wire and clipped onto the book.

The entire thing could prolly be built for a buck and run for hours at a time.

Posted by: wintermane on 22 Oct 04

Wintermane, does that work? Are there any systems, even at a prototype level, which use a descending weight to power electrical lights?

Posted by: Vinay on 22 Oct 04

Well the question isnt if it works its how much energy do you get out of a given weight dropping a given distance. I dont remember the level of power we generated using micro generators and clock mechanisms but I would have to assume given a good enough generator and a heavy enough weight you could make a watt hour of power fairly easy and that should be enough to power a book light for 1-2 hours before you need to rewind the engine. Failing that and wanting to make it compacter and maybe even cheaper you could just use a hand grip squeeze powered generator using a super capacitor as the charge bank.. those already run cheap radios and can prolly be ordered fairly cheap in bulk.

Posted by: wintermane on 22 Oct 04

Good luck with your PV project. Yes, solar light is a good thing, especially in a school. I support the work of such people as Enersol who have been doing just that for over 20 years now in Central America.

But a safe, efficient, and low emission stove design would probably have a more general and immediate effect on existing populations

Here are my more detailed notes from the presentation which should help to clarify the discussion

Kate Steel ( spoke about solar electricity in Africa at MIT this week. The notes from an earlier presentation on sustainable energy in developing countries, with a focus on South Africa is available online at .

As one example, she said more rural people in Kenya get electricity from PV than the grid but there's no coordination between the grid and the distribution of PV. She is endeavoring to do a systems analysis of the problem. Furthermore, there is no linkage between PV and existing rural businesses: grain milling, restaurants, brewery/bars, snack shops/kiosks, satellite TVs, and mobile phones. The only business that can conceivably be all or predominantly solar is the mobile phone business. There are no warranties or insurance in rural Africa so development experiments can't afford to fail. ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group) and Ignite Innovations are two groups that have developed solar PV lanterns for rural use but the price point is still too high, over $100 per.

Urbanization may diminish the need for rural electricity in the near future; in any case, the greater problem is the indoor pollution and biomass use from even the newer, more efficient stoves. Mali will exhaust all its biomass in 60 years at present rate. 70% of all the energy used in Africa is biomass. The crucial problem is less reading light and a radio/TV/computer than a safe, efficient, and non-polluting stove. If we can do that, some space heating (or a hearth) would be nice.

I asked about solar stoves but Ms Steel said that they weren't being adopted. It would take no other, ready alternative in order for them to be generally used. LPG is the next step up from wood, charcoal, and dried dung. Electric stoves is what the people want in part because that is what they perceive the developed countries as using.

Posted by: gmoke on 22 Oct 04

With the efficiency of LED and cold cathode fluorescent lights, counterweight machines and bicycle generators are solid options as well as solar and battery switching in cars and trucks.

Oddly enough, one of the most intriguing solar cooker ideas I've seen is the parabolic trough that used oil as a heat transfer fluid rather than water so that it could operate at higher temperatures without worrying about steam and tracked the sun with a clock motor and a counterweight. The astronomer Charles Greeley Abbot built it in the early 1900s for use at Mt Palomar Observatory. He was able to bake bread in his solar oven and, if memory serves, was able to maintain temperatures of about 450 F.

I've also always liked the idea of the old hotbox, an insulated box into which you can put your cooking pot filled with a meal and a hot stone or some other non-combusting heat source. Close the box and let it sit for a day, a low-tech crockpot.

Posted by: gmoke on 22 Oct 04

I have a Princeton Tec headlamp with this LED. It's awesome. Kind of bluish but very even light due to the side-emitting led and a good reflector.

Posted by: Eric on 29 Oct 04



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