10 Everyday Technologies You Don't Realize You Use

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It's not so difficult to recognize much of the technology we use on a daily basis: computers, cell phones, microwave ovens, refrigerators and convection ovens that cook food evenly. But do we really know exactly how our everyday technology is working for us? And what about the stealth technologies we're merrily using without even realizing it?

In the next few pages, we'll be looking at complicated and also very, very simple technologies that surround us. We'll discuss some uses for the technology that might surprise you, and we'll also cover how the technology works in ways you might not expect.

You'll learn how a simple act we might repeat everyday on the Internet is actually improving a different (and common) technology. We'll go over why you can turn your phone horizontally and not see a sideways picture. And, perhaps most importantly, you'll recognize the importance of an underappreciated little technology called the spring.

Let's bounce to the next page to get started.

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Springs
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You might laugh, but springs surround us. And they're not just supporting our beds, either: Springs are an integral part of really complicated technology and basic products we use constantly. So let's go through a few things you couldn't do without springs.

For one, you couldn't drive to work. Springs are used in your car's suspension system so that when you get in, hit a bump or carry a heavy load, you aren't bottoming out. You might not have been able to safely heat up your lunch in a microwave, either; snap-action switches are used in the door. These micro-switches (a popular name for them, trademarked by Honeywell) are made up of a plunger that harnesses the stored-up energy in a spring to snap, causing a movement. These switches are especially useful because they can be controlled by temperature or position.

Your thermostat, for instance, might employ a snap-action switch to turn the furnace on or off. When the temperature reaches a certain point (and our friend the spring is wound tightly), the plunger snaps, making the mechanism turn on or off. Your microwave uses it when you open the door as your pizza rolls are cooking; the snap-action switch uses our little spring to automatically cut power to the microwave so you aren't given a radiation dose.

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Lasers
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So they're not the James Bond-type devices that are used to cut people in half, and they're (very unfortunately) not light sabers. But you better believe that lasers are a ubiquitous part of daily life that you might not even realize you stumble upon.

First off, there are some more obvious ones -- laser scanners at the grocery store, for instance. Few of us actually realize that there are lasers making our DVDs play. Indeed, our DVDs are lined with microscopic bumps that will send information to a transmitter, which will then turn it into audio and visual form. But what reads these bumps, you ask?

That's right: lasers. The DVD player is outfitted with a laser that moves at a constant rate, reading the bumps of the DVD so you can enjoy watching your marathon session of "Deadliest Catch" from the couch. If you're going old school and listening to your old Backstreet Boys CD collection, you're also using lasers to read those. It may not be the most sophisticated or edgy use of a laser, but it is one you're using every day without thinking about it.

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RFID
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Unfortunately, a commute is part of many people's everyday experiences. Whiling away the hours listening to Top 40 Hits in traffic is bad enough, but some of us even have to pay for the privilege. Toll bridges and roads can make a bad commute miserable.

But an E-ZPass or an automatic tolling chip lets you fly through tolls without stopping and contorting yourself into strange positions in an attempt to get at the change on your floor. Many people don't recognize the technology they're using; it's called RFID (radio frequency identification). RFID works by using a small computer chip -- in this case, on your toll pass affixed to your car or license plate -- to communicate and hold information. Using radio frequency, an electronic reader that can see your pass or plate collects the information in your chip: your vehicle's registration, address and maybe even an account that you've set up to automatically pay your toll fees. Unlike UPC codes, RFID codes can also send out information, as well as store it.

You can learn a lot more about RFID here, but the technology is growing. Right now, you might be using RFID tags to check out books from the library if you live in Seattle or New Orleans.

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Accelerometers
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Being a 21st-century lady or man, you have no doubt texted today. You did it blithely and happily, perhaps only vaguely aware of the technology involved (something about ... networks? The Cloud?).

Let's focus on one technology you might've used during your texting that you probably thought nothing of. It happened when you, unsatisfied with the vertical tyranny of your smartphone screen, turned your phone to a horizontal position. Easy as pie. Suddenly, your screen oriented horizontally, giving you the wide lines you needed to fully express to your brother how great the new Batman movie is. That simple act requires a technology we use all the time without knowing it: an accelerometer.

An accelerometer measures the accelerating movement of an object. It can measure speed and motion, and thus is able to tell the angle at which an instrument is being held. Sensors in the accelerometer "talk" to the small computer in your phone and ask it nicely to please make the visual output look wide instead of long. This technology is also used in your Wii remote, so thank your accelerometer after your next virtual tennis game.

Next up, a close relative to the accelerometer that you would be in trouble without.

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Gyroscopes
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Gyroscopes are like the less-flashy, workhorse cousin of accelerometers. They can be a bit tricky to define (check out a detailed explanation of the technology here), but for our purposes, let's simplify it by saying that a gyroscope is a wheel that rotates around an axis that has the ability to move. Because of Newton's first law of motion -- an object moving in a straight line will continue moving unless acted on by a force -- the axis will stay inert as the wheel's spinning rotations cancel out a force from one point or another. Thus, the wheel keeps spinning, and the axis keeps stabilizing.

While an accelerometer measures a change in velocity and can sense a change in orientation, a gyroscope is actually maintaining (or simply measuring) orientation. Because of their magical stabilizing abilities, gyroscopes are used in a number of devices that keep a large object steady (for instance, keeping a boat from rolling).

Ever wonder how an airplane's autopilot works? The gyroscope in the plane can keep a plane on a steady course by measuring the orientation of the plane relative to the scope. Add an accelerometer in -- which can tell us where the plane is going and its speed -- and you've got yourself an unmanned aircraft. (Gyroscopes are also used in drones and the like for the same purpose.) And don't forget your wireless mouse, which steadies your jerky hand motions by using a stabilizing gyroscope.

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Radio
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Did you know you use radio waves to listen to Katy Perry on your AM/FM? Of course you do. It seems like one of those simple, quaint technologies that even our grandparents understand, right? It's unlikely, though, that your grandparents can explain cell phones, television broadcasts, GPS or virtually any wireless technology. So let's just see how radio does more than let you listen to sports talk radio in your car.

While we don't have the space to get into exactly how all radios work (but you can check out a lot more information here), just know that radios need a transmitter, a receiver and an antenna to translate, receive and transmit information. That simple technology is added on to and made more complicated to get something like your cell phone to work.

The biggest one you probably use is your WiFi system. Your computer's wireless adapter is sending out radio waves. Antennas transmit the waves to your router, which is physically hooked to the Internet (Ethernet). The process, of course, goes two ways.

Did you know your cable is also using radio? Indeed, although your cable is physically hooked into an antenna, you're still receiving radio signals -- only it's not radio signals sent over the air but through the fiber-optic cable installed into your cable box.

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Optical Character Recognition
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It seems strange that we live in a world where, a few times a week, we're required to enter a series of letters or numbers to prove we're human. But CAPTCHA -- which, no joke, stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart -- is indeed a part of our lives. It's the blurry set (or sets) of numbers and letters that you have to retype to verify that you aren't an automaton. And CAPTCHA uses optical character recognition (OCR) in super stealthy ways.

OCR is a technology that, among other things, is commonly used to convert images of text into editable text. This is important for things like e-books or archived newspapers that are scanned. You want to be able to sort and search the text, and you can't do that unless you've turned the images of characters into coded text characters.

But OCR isn't foolproof, and Google has cleverly appropriated CAPTCHAs to help when OCR can't make out a character or word. When you're answering a CAPTCHA and you see two words, the computer is only authenticating one of them. The other is one that OCR couldn't read when Google was translating an image into text. When you type in the word you see, Google is putting you to work, translating the word OCR couldn't. If enough people type the same word in, it's assumed to be correct. The confirmed word is used in the previously unreadable space, and you've just helped OCR technology get that much better.

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Electromagnetism
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Unless you're from a very remote part of the world, you're probably not surprised that magnets are helping your gym schedule stay attached to the refrigerator. But you're also using electromagnetic fields -- those magnetic fields caused by electric charges -- in all sorts of ways you probably didn't expect.

One would be that touchscreen phone you like so much. Notice that you don't have to press hard to type the letters of your text message in? That's because it has a capacitive touchscreen. While a resistance touchscreen means you press two charged layers together to let the computer know where your finger is, a capacitive screen stores an electrical charge in it and uses you -- yes, your very self --to transfer some of the charge. When that particular spot has a decrease in charge (from your greedy electromagnetic field, sucking it all up), your phone's computer recognizes it. And that's where it knows your finger is. It doesn't require the press of the resistance because your electromagnetic field can transfer with the lightest touch of your finger -- or any other conductor, for that matter.

Thank goodness your touch proves you're human, because in the next section we'll see all the ways robots are hoping to take your place in the world.

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Robots!
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It's true. We're actually using robots for all sorts of things in our daily lives without giving our artificially intelligent friends so much as a thank-you.

To be fair, it might be because we're looking for C3PO. But robots aren't necessarily humanoid. As pointed out in How Robots Work, robots just need to have mechanized parts that respond like human parts. Even though they don't have an actual brain, they have a processor or computer that gives their motor an idea of how to move the robot's parts. Put like that, you can see how robots are sneaking into our lives more easily than you might have thought.

One big way is in the manufactured products we use (i.e., everything), especially if that product is made in Japan. In 2007, a Japanese government plan called for a million robots to be installed in factory assembly lines by 2025. It was a figure that seemed possible, considering that about 400,000 Japanese robots were already punching their time cards in 2005 [source: Tabuchi and Kambayashi]. Globally, robots are also heavily used in the automobile industry and have been since the 1960s. Yes, if you have a car, you can thank a robot for installing -- or even helping to manufacture -- some of its components. Robots are moving heavy objects, welding and even spray painting manufactured products.

Let's look at one more stealth application we're constantly using.

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Radar
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Although we hear the word "radar" a lot in everyday life -- when the weather anchor says that the Doppler radar indicates it's going to rain, for instance -- it might seem relegated to pretty specialized roles.

Radar uses electromagnetic waves to measure distance and detect velocity and location, and it turns out we have to measure and detect those things a lot. The airline industry is using radar, of course, to identify aircraft or warn of an approaching hazard. But did you know the military is also using radar to detect landmines in former war-torn countries? Or that they're also starting to employ radar to identify bombs and suicide bombers? Using a radar gun, waves are shot to and bounced back off a person. There's a large database of "normal" signals given off by people; if there's an "abnormal" reading from the radar, alarms go off and that backpack is going to be searched.

Ok, that stuff is cool but you're probably not using it. But if you eat fish, chances are you're reaping the benefits of radar (and it's sound wave cousin, sonar). Industrial and even recreational fishing boats use radar to detect schools of fish, saving them time and money searching for the big catch. Radar is also being used around you if you're in an earthquake or volcano zone. Geologists rely on it to detect changes in the Earth's layers, which could provide an early warning system for a natural disaster.