We love it when tech goes small — not just “it fits in the palm of my hand!” small, but really tiny. We’re talking about computers that could blow away in the breeze, web servers the size of matchsticks, and smartphones that can fit on your keychain. And that’s just the beginning!
- IBM’s CPU that’s smaller than a grain of salt
- A tiny fingernail sensor to detect sunburn
- The nanocar that with tiny operating wheels
- The ultra-small PocketSprite game system
- A drone that can fit on the tip of your finger
- The smallest radios (that will ever exist)
- The world’s tiniest violin is actually invisible
- The smallest mobile phone ever produced
- The tiniest satellite is the creation of a brilliant teen
- The smallest sensor in the world never needs a battery
- The smallest web server in the world is just a dot
- The miniature models of last century’s greatest technology
Everyone is racing to make the world’s smallest computer, but IBM is currently ahead of the game, having produced a functional CPU that’s smaller than a grain of salt. IBM unveiled the creation at Think 2018, reporting that each computer costs a mere 10 cents to produce.
This isn’t just about showing off, either. IBM’s device is even compatible with blockchain technology, one of the primary goals of the project. This means the same tech that protects cryptocurrency can help protect data on this grain-sized CPU, which also offers as much computing power as a modern CPU from the ’90s. And given how cheap production is, it’s entirely possible that such a chip could become a replacement for RFID tags, which are used for tracking products and packages. It’s an easy win for IBM — and the world.
CES 2018 introduced us to scores of amazing gadgets, but one of the tiniest was the UV Sense, a wearable sensor that is designed to stick to your thumbnail. From there, it’s all about sunlight; the sensor runs on solar energy while measuring any UV radiation it encounters.
The goal, of course, is to measure sun exposure in an organic way for people, so they can understand when they are in danger of a sunburn and related skin cancer issues. The UV Sense measures how much UV radiation has been accumulated over time and reports it via a dedicated smartphone app, so the tech is well-fitted for protective health solutions.
And if you’re concerned about whether you should use the UV Sense at the beach or by the pool, don’t worry about it. The tech is waterproof.
When we say that someone built a nanocar, we’re not joking. Chemistry professor Ben L. Feringa led the project to develop a true nanocar about the size of a complex molecule: Now there were nanocars around before that, but they were just models that scientists had to pull around with their tiny scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). This version, however, has four wheels created with specific molecular bonds that are reactive to electrons.
Scientists can use their STMs to fire electrons at this nanocar, and the wheels will react, moving their atoms around to create locomotion. In other words, it’s an operational molecular car. Feringa was one of three scientists who recently won Nobel prizes for their work in nanotechnology: He hopes the principles of the nanocar can eventually be used to create self-propelled nanomachines that can be used to accomplish useful tasks.
The ambitious PocketSprite is a crowdfunded gaming system roughly modeled after the Game Boy, but also around the size of the key fob for your car. This tiny mobile game device includes everything you need to play a video game, including storage, RAM, sound, Wi-Fi connectivity, a battery, and classic controls that include a D-pad, an A and B button, and Start/Select…all on a device that’s about two inches high.
Obviously, that makes it a little challenging to play, which is part of the thrill. PocketSprite is compatible with emulators from Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Sega Game Gear and Sega Master System, so you can even play your favorite oldies on it. The creator of PocketSprite, Jeroen Domburg, hopes that people will also build plenty of their own indie games on the platform, and create a little mini-market: It’s definitely a better waste of time than a fidget spinner.
How small can we make flying machines? This is another area we see a lot of competition (including some infamous failures), but no one has gone quite as small as Aerix, with the Aeirus quadcopter. This little, fully functional drone can rest easily on your finger, but still works: In fact, its recharging base is actually in the middle of the gamer-friendly control you use to move it around via a 2.4GHz connection.
Charging takes around 15 minutes and gives you around five minutes of flight time, enough to fool around a bit – fortunately, thanks to 6-axis stabilization, your short flight is likely to be smooth. There are also some fun LED lights for firefly-like night flights (although outdoor use isn’t exactly recommended).
How small do you think the tiniest functioning radio is? Remember, we’ve seen computers the size of a grain of salt and drones that can balance on the tip of your finger: The smallest radio goes way beyond that. Thanks to work from a team of scientists at Berkeley, the tiniest fully-functional radio is only the size of a single carbon nanotube!
How does that work? Well, the nanotube is positioned between two ultra small electrodes that together can act as receiver, tuner, amplifier, and everything else that a radio needs: The flexible electric nature of the carbon nanotube allows it to switch between all of these roles as needed. The microscopic version can even tune into a radio signal and play it through an external speaker.
This radio has been around for more than a decade now: Even tinier versions now exist using the same principles in things like pink diamonds, albeit in a more limited form. These small radios have various medical applications, but much of their potential is still unused.
Thanks to the wonders of science, “playing the world’s tiniest violin” is no longer just a sarcastic turn of phrase, but actually possible… thanks to a little something called Project Soli. Project Soli was a Google endeavor focused on creating a computer chip that used radar to detect movements. Project Soli had a number of experimental uses, including the ability to turn very small movements into sound–and you can see where this is going.
The folks over at Design I/O took Soli and used it to create a small sensor block, about the size of sticky-note pad. It detects itty-bitty movements with your fingers, such as rubbing your thumb and finger together in the sad violin motion. This will translate to real violin noises, which means that the world’s tiniest violin is in fact invisible, and that you’ve actually be playing it all along (although it might take some practice to get good at it).
Why would you want to make a smartphone that’s so small you can barely use it? According to the creators, it was merely the challenge of seeing if they could do it. The mobile phone is called the Zanco Tiny T1, and it’s about the size of that game system we looked at earlier, the perfect size for a key fob – and just big enough to read the screen and type on the tiny keypad.
It works, too…mostly. It can hold 300 phone numbers and 50 text messages, and comes with a nano-SIM that you can program for any available network. The phone is, of course, 2G, but it doesn’t exactly need a lot of data for simple calls and texts. The battery lasts for around 180 minutes of talk time, which is quite impressive for a phone of this size.
While the whole thing is primarily an engineering experiment, the Kickstarter offers a few ideas about what you could do with a phone like this. For example, you could give one to your young kids who aren’t quite ready for a real smartphone but still need a way to call if necessary…just make sure that they keep it charged.
Look how tiny that satellite is! You could lose it in a backpack! But it’s a very real satellite developed by 18-year old Rifath Sharook and his science team. India has even launched the satellite via a NASA rocket, where the cute little cube spent around 125 minutes in space before detaching as planned and falling into the ocean.
All the equipment onboard the satellite was designed to pick up basic readings, which it appeared to do successfully. The circuit boards were protected by a 3D printed carbon fiber polymer, and inner tech included a nano Geiger counter to measure radiation in space. So, what were you doing when you were 18?
Thank Fujitsu for this super small sensor, only around 82 millimeters long and 24 millimeters wide. The company calls it the smallest sensor device in the world, which is a bit of stretch, but it certainly seems to be the smallest independent sensor anyone has manufactured. It uses wireless transmission technology to sense things like temperature and humidity, then send the data onto larger devices for collection.
Most impressive of all, this little guy doesn’t need a battery and never runs out of power when properly positioned. That’s because it runs on solar power, and a basic solar cell is enough to keep the sensor running indefinitely. Combine this with the ability to transfer information as far as 7km via a wireless signal, and you can see why the device might be a big deal. One of the most promising applications is in environmental science and project maintenance, where dozens of these sensors can be spread out across a wide area where electricity and even people struggle to reach. Then they can collect valuable monitoring data for years!
There are two very impressive things about this server. First, it was only the size of a match head. Second, it was made way back in 1999, when traditional servers were anything but compact and mobile! The story began with a graduate hobby at the University of Massachusetts, where Hariharasubrahmanian Shrikumar (he went by Shri) designed and created the server with the smallest microcontroller chip available at that time. It wasn’t even part of a school project – he simply did it on his own time.
In only a few months of operation, the tiny server managed to link up about 45,000 web pages for 6,000 users, which is really impressive for a machine that measured ¼ of an inch at its widest. Granted, web servers were less complicated back then, and didn’t to transmit as much complicated content (plus, internet users were more patient). The server only had 256 bytes of memory and a basic serial port connection to work with. However, it laid the foundation for the Internet of Things and other major advances destined to arrive in the coming years.
Remember, we’ve been making miniature models of technology ever since technology existed. One museum – the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum of Carlsbad, CA – exists to collect these tiny marvels before they are forgotten. A visit will provide unique views of mini engines, mini weaponry, tiny cars, teeny planes, ultra-small versions of factory equipment, and much more…and it all works!
The obsession with creating tiny version of the newest technology wasn’t just about having fun, either. Like today, many of these creations show a desire to show off or compete: Manufacturers used to hold contests for young engineers to design small working models of their cars or machine tools. Those who won got recognition, and a potential job working for the company in the future.
So while creating machines with nanoparticles is excellent and impressive, it’s also good to remember that this particular niche of the technology world has existed for a long time, and building small versions of fighter planes or automobiles was, in its way, just as impressive.