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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Check out the invisibility cloak
DOT.LIFE - Where tech meets life, every Monday
By Maggie Shiels
In San Francisco

Flying cars, transparent cloaks, technology which can read minds and games played by brain waves - the stuff of fiction, surely? Not so, these seemingly far-fetched inventions - and more - are now reality.

See through the cloak to the van behind
What lies beneath the cloak
For a vision of what the future holds, thousands of nay-sayers and believers alike have got an up close and personal glimpse at NextFest, an expo in San Francisco organised by the technology magazine, Wired.

"This is a city that is always looking at what is next," says editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. "We have brought the most innovative minds and extraordinary technologies from around the world and here is what's next. These are the things that will change the way we live and work and play in the future."

The 110 exhibitors were chosen from 2,500 research and development projects underway at universities and corporations worldwide.

Some showcase new thinking; others take an existing concept and turn it on its head, such as Brainball, a computer game in which being ferociously competitive is not on.

Playing Brainball
R-e-l-a-x to win at Brainball
Co-inventor Thomas Broome, of Sweden's Interactive Institute, says it's an anti-game.

"The more relaxed you are, the more you can get unconnected to your state of winning and wanting that you actually win this game. Brainball measures your alpha waves and the person who is the most relaxed can push the ball to the other side and win."

Among the game's fans are the musician Brian Eno, yoga gurus and children with attention deficit disorders.

Back to the future

The loudest "oohs" and "aahs" are prompted by a gleaming car that wouldn't look out of place on a lavish Hollywood film set.

Paul Moller in the levitating car
Skycar's inventor behind the wheel
The levitating Skycar is the brainchild of Paul Moller, who has spent $200 million trying to get his invention airborne. The car needs 35 feet to take off, but thanks to its 770hp engine can climb at 6,400 feet a minute and reach speeds of 365mph.

"The head of NASA says that in 10 years, 25% of the American population will have access to the Skycar. And he also says that in 25 years 90% of people will be using them," Mr Moller told BBC News Online.

But would-be customers will need a chunk of change to hit the skyway. The initial cost is estimated to be about $500,000 - but with fuel consumption of 20 miles to the gallon, it's almost eco-friendly compared to gas-guzzling four-wheel drives.

For those keen to look as futuristic as their mode of transport, Nextfest showcases fabrics which the wearer can change by downloading patterns from the web, and outfits which monitor health and wellbeing.

The biometric bodysuit and smart military kit
Modelling the smart garments
"The era of wearable electronics for fashion and health is here," says Frederic Zenhausern, of the University of Arizona's Applied NanoBioscience Centre, who works with the Science Fashion Lab on such concepts.

On the catwalk, a model struts past in a biometric bodysuit which monitors vital signs and dispenses medicine, followed by a Gulf War veteran in a camouflage uniform kitted out with pathogen detectors, a micro-fuel cell and a GPS locator so his superiors can track his whereabouts.

On the battlefield, an invisibility cloak could be just the ticket. Straight out of a Harry Potter adventure, the cloak is covered with tiny light-reflective beads. It appears to be transparent as it's fitted with cameras which project what is in front of the wearer onto the back of the cloak, and vice versa.

The material can also cover objects, says Naoki Kawakami, of the University of Tokyo. "It could be used to help pilots see through the floor of the cockpit at a runway below, or for drivers trying to see through a fender to park a car."

Read minds to detect crime

Also showcased is brain fingerprinting, which aims to help those solving crimes or interrogating terror suspects. It reads minds by measuring brain waves and the responses that someone has to trigger words or images of a specific event.

Its inventor is neuroscientist Dr Lawrence Farwell, of the Brain Fingerprinting Lab, who has worked with the CIA and FBI.

Asimo dances in Japan
The robot has proved to be a hit
"We need something that is humane, not harmful to the people who are being tested, which gives accurate and scientific results. Brain fingerprinting provides a very scientific solution to a very difficult problem, and that is determining who is a terrorist and who is not, who has committed a specific crime and who hasn't."

Another hit is Asimo, a humanoid robot which can walk, turn, climb up and down stairs - and even dance. Its maker, Honda, believes it will be a boon to the bed-ridden, infirm, elderly, blind and disabled.

Spokesman Jeffrey Smith says making the robot mimic human movement is deliberate. "Asimo was designed to be cute and friendly-looking because we believe that the robot's design may be key to human acceptance in society."

Judging by the enthusiastic response to the inventions on show, this acceptance will not be hard to come by.

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