July 2014

Date:23 June 2014 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s called Area 31, and there are no aliens

Helicopters are not what they used to be. Our cover story this month describes PM’s visit to a secret facility on the edge of the Florida Everglades, where aerospace engineers are devising a radical new rotorcraft that promises to change military operations and civilian skies forever. It’s called Area 31, and it’s the home of Sikorsky Aircraft’s compound coaxial helicopter, the S-97 Raider – just one of a slew of formidably capable machines that are faster, more manoeuvrable and better equipped than any rotorcraft in the sky today. “Dawn of the ultra chopper” starts on page 46.

Lamenting our inability to separate truth from fiction, we present a thought-provoking piece titled “Lies and liars: can you catch them?” As writer David Tenenbaum says, it’s awfully hard to catch a liar or even to know if someone is telling the truth: “The best estimate, based on hundreds of studies, is that people can spot a liar 54 per cent of the time – a ratio that is perilously close to pure chance.”

By way of example, Tenenbaum cites a couple of “white” lies that most of us have probably told at some time or another, such as “I have read the terms of service” and “I’ll work on that ASAP”. Remember that British couple who ripped off their insurers by pretending that the husband had died in a canoeing mishap? They were tried for fraud and went to jail. Remember Jeffrey Archer, millionaire novelist and member of the House of Lords? He, too, went to jail after being convicted of perjury. Closer to home, we await the court’s verdict in the case of Oscar Pistorius…

Then it’s time for an update on the remarkable story of Palmer Luckey and the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that caused a sensation. You probably recall this young man from last year, when he was judged a winner in the annual Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards (USA). He pitched up for the glittering awards ceremony wearing jeans, a wrinkled shirt and flip-flops. It wasn’t calculated coolness, by the way: he was just being himself – and he was, after all, just 19 years old.

A few months ago, Oculus VR, the company he founded with a group of financial backers in the American summer of 2012, was sold to Facebook for around R20 billion. Interestingly, Oculus Rift fans immediately turned on Luckey, accusing him of “selling out” to a corporate giant. Even his Kickstarter supporters were unhappy.

They were being unfair, and here’s why: the Oculus Rift needs big money to realise its full potential, and Facebook has lots of that. This VR headset and its successors will not only transform the multi-billion rand gaming industry, but will change the way we interact with our world – the way we learn, the way we relax, the way we escape. Virtual reality headsets are already being used to treat post-traumatic disorders and to help cure phobias; many other applications remain to be explored.

As I write this, I’m preparing to leave for the annual World Science Festival in New York. Co-founded by renowned physicist and author Brian Greene (he’s also professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University) and Emmy Award-winning journalist Tracy Day, this amazing event brings together thousands of people of all ages in a week-long celebration of science. I fully intend to bring back good ideas for PM’s FutureTech 2014 conference in Cape Town on 10 October. Watch this space – and look out for our “Altered Realities” programme updates online at www.popularmechanics.co.za/futuretech

Are you an inventor?
Popular Mechanics is looking for genuinely fresh ideas in its annual Inventor of the Year competition for 2014 – and substantial cash prizes are up for grabs. For entry forms and the “rules of engagement”, please visit www.popularmechanics.co.za/futuretech

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)