We’ve already heard about experimental edible coatings made from silk, pectin and chitosan that increase the shelf life of fresh fruit and vegetables. Now, however, a coating made from waste plant material is being used on avocados sold in US supermarkets.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sent an all-company memo Friday afternoon alerting employees that he’s fired chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland for using the N-word as a descriptive term on two occasions.
According to The Wrap, the memo detailed two separate incidents a few days apart in which Friedland had used the racially insensitive word in the context of discussing racial insensitivity–both incidents of which were said to be hurtful to employees who were present. “I’ve made a decision to let [Frieldand] go,” Hastings wrote in the memo. “Jonathan contributed greatly in many areas, but his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity, and is not in line with our values as a company.”
Frieldand was said to be in charge of publicity for Netflix’s original content.
Fast Company has reached out to Netflix for comment and will update this story with its response.
The animal kingdom is getting its very own social network, but instead of vacation pics and baby announcements, it will be filled with data that could help conservationists save species from extinction.
Wildbook is open-source software built to keep track of wildlife. Researchers can upload images taken from the field, but a significant source of data comes from scraping sites like Flickr and YouTube for pictures and videos that people post from trips like whale watching tours and safaris. Using deep learning, Wildbook’s platform spots the same individual in different images, letting conservationists track creatures through their lifetime as well as gain a better idea of population sizes.
Other data can be added—like the animal’s sex, age, where it was location photographed, what other individual was nearby, or even the weather—that fills out what is known about an individual and its preferences. Each animal gets its own profile to track sightings.
The team behind Wildbook, the nonprofit Wild Me, currently builds a new site for each species but is working on the project’s next iteration—a massive database with as many different kinds of animals as possible. Individual Wildbooks have helped researchers better understand what’s going on with specific species. But give machine learning algorithms enough data and it could uncover previously unknown insights about what makes animals thrive or die. These discoveries will supercharge conservation efforts and benefit populations across the world.
“The vision is one Wildbook to rule them all,” says Tanya Berger-Wolf, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the cofounders of Wildbook.
But an algorithm was just the start. Since there was nothing out there like it, the team also had to build a data management system to host and share the information that conservationists, who aren’t all computer scientists, could use. This herculean effort became Wildbook.
Wildbook now relies on updated, AI-powered pattern recognition software to tell animals apart. It works a lot like the face recognition software on sites like Facebook, which has algorithms that compare points of the face to determine who it’s looking at. But since not all photos being taken of these creatures, especially marine ones, will prominently showcase a face, Wildbook applies its pattern recognition tool to other body parts. The researchers pick characteristics, like the stripes of a zebra, or the ridges on a whale’s tail, that commonly show up in images and are features that are distinct enough from animal to animal for machines to tell apart.
After years of development—and assistance from faculty and students at Princeton, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Illinois-Chicago—Wildbook’s system can now be tweaked to work for a lot of different creatures. There are currently 12 Wildbooks for 30 different species—like giraffes, polar bears, and seals—with a backlog of more than 200 requests from marine biologists, ecologists, and others studying wildlife.
Being able to track individuals is essential for population counts and movement patterns, which in turn helps guide efforts like setting aside land, controlling predators, or even getting animals on the endangered species lists. Berger-Wolf says the system helps reveal social structures, breeding trends, and responses to environmental pressures like habit loss and climate change.
The biggest pressure on wildlife, of course, is us. The world is currently going through what scientists call the “sixth extinction.” While other extinctions were due to events like a major asteroid impact, this one is caused by people. Technology like AI could help make people a part of the solution, not just the problem.
An early proof of concept came from the Wildbook for Grevy’s zebras, one of the most endangered animals in Kenya. It showed that there were fewer juvenile zebras in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy than what was necessary to sustain a stable future population. Knowing that the nearby predators were doing well and snacking on young zebras at a high rate, the park’s managers put the lions on birth control.
Whale sharks also have had their population estimates improved. The world’s biggest fish have a migration that can go for 5,000 miles, which has made it tricky to get an accurate count. Their confirmed population went from a couple of hundred individuals to 8,500 with over 40,000 sightings. The paper that announced the new estimate had 36 authors from institutions and universities from Australia to the United Arab Emirates to Mexico.
“Not one researcher, not one institution, not one group can have all that information,” Berger-Wolf says.
While insights like those have helped, Berger-Wolf says they really need a “planetary-scale project” where conservationists can ask interdisciplinary questions like what species is where, how they change, where they travel, and how other populations are doing in comparison.
Wild Me, which is based in Portland, Oregon, has so far survived with a few developers on a small budget cobbled together with grants, taking donations and charging a fee for extra help on setting up Wildbooks. But a new, giant database will require a lot more work and computing power. That’s where AI for Earth, a project within Microsoft dedicated to solving global environmental challenges with a $50 million war chest to spend, comes in. AI for Earth is providing Microsoft cloud services, funding, and machine learning expertise for this new mega-database.
“If you’re going to scale an application like Wildbook, you need to bring into one place,” says Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist.
A tool that Wild Me wants to build out is an AI agent that can automatically check YouTube daily for videos titled or tagged with certain words like “Whale shark.” The agent can tell whether the video actually has relevant footage and use Microsoft Translator to read the video description for any information about the sighting. If the poster didn’t share any details, the AI can post a question asking for specifics.
Wild Me is also working on a Twitter bot called Tweet-A-Whale that could let people on whale watching tours send a photo and have the species identified, all while recording information about the sighting. Both these tools automate the task of gathering data, freeing up researchers to do other work.
Microsoft will make these and any other machine learning tools developed accessible to the broader conservation community with the goal of putting AI to work for the natural world. And the need for more tools is becoming urgent. Big data is getting bigger in conservation, with motion-sensor cameras and drones becoming cheaper and easier to deploy. Apps like iNaturalist and eBird let anyone upload images of biodiversity or birds, respectively, that scientists can use in research. It’s more data than scientists have ever had access to before, and they need new ways to parse it all.
Hurdles To Growth
Even with its new backer, Wildbook’s model has its drawbacks. The biggest? It’s reliance on the public for data. People on safari are only going to share some photos and videos, and old or mangy-looking creatures might not make the cut. Photogenic shots, like ones with the sun in the background creating striking shadows, aren’t always the easiest for the system to analyze. Some safaris might return to the same places again and again, increasing the likelihood of an unchanging cast of animals being photographed.
Bringing in other data from sources like drones could help alleviate the problem, but even as that technology is getting cheaper, it still costs money that not all groups can afford. For the time being as more people get access to smartphones with cameras and an internet connection, researchers can count on free photos and video. This situation creates a bias in the data that has to be taken into account by conservationists.
“Individual observations aren’t great but we make up for it with volume,” says Tom Dietterich, a computer science professor at Oregon State University.
There are other obstacles. The software works best on animals with patterned skin and doesn’t work at all for some creatures. Elephants, which could certainly use the help, currently can’t be identified by the algorithm with their uniformly gray skin, although Berger-Wolf says that they are looking into whether ears are unique enough for machines to differentiate. Some data might have to be kept private for animals that are at risk of poaching.
Still, the insights that could be gleaned from big data and artificial intelligence could be put to work in a way that current methods can’t match.
“All of these citizen science projects can operate at a scale beyond what professional ecologists could do,” Dietterich says.
The company is a leading member of the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which has just announced the publication of a new Digital Key specification–that is, a standardized tech solution that would allow car owners to download a digital copy of their car key to their smartphone and use that in place of a physical key. The CCC describes its new Digital Key spec as follows:
The solution will be car and smart device agnostic. It will enable consumers to conveniently lock/unlock the vehicle and start the engine along with other interesting features. The solution will also enable provisioning and sharing of keys with properties associated with them. The Digital Key specification will be built on existing standard technologies such as Global Platform, GSMA, Bluetooth, and NFC.
Besides Apple, a number of other tech and car companies are part of the CCC, including Audi, BMW, General Motors, Hyundai, LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Volkswagen.
Chinese smartphone company Oppo is a decent alternative for those looking to move away from the Apple/Samsung-dominated market. To make its newest device stand out from a crowd, Oppo’s 2018 flagship phone, the Find X, packs slide-out 3D cameras that hide inside the body when not in use, and backs it up with decent specs and an edge-to-edge screen.
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The bioeconomy has great growth potential. In the European Union, the bioeconomy employs 18 million people (8.2% of total labor force) and generated $2.6 trillion of turnover in 2015. The Indian bioeconomy is poised to grow from $42 billion today to $100 billion by 2025. Growing at 15% annually since 2011, the Chinese bioeconomy is expected to be worth $1.5 trillion in 2022. All this sounds very promising.
But before we transform our agricultural and industrial systems, we must transform ourselves as human beings. To preserve nature, we must first change our inner nature. If we build the bioeconomy with the same mind-set that built our existing economic system–characterized by resource-hungry mass production and individualistic mass consumption–we will end up producing, consuming, and doing the wrong things faster, better, cheaper, and more “sustainably.”
The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s, while the average family size shrunk by half during that same period. Moving to a new house that is 3D-printed with wood-based materials and is solar-powered might be good for the environment (as long as it does not further increase resource consumption per capita). But it won’t combat widespread loneliness and social isolation in America, where nearly half of all adults feel lonely today, a rate that has more than doubled since the 1980s.
Chronic diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) are now epidemic in the developing world–accounting for 53% of deaths–due to unhealthy lifestyles. Obesity is now killing three times more people than malnutrition. Drinking and eating processed foods and beverages neatly packaged and bottled in biodegradable plastic won’t solve this serious healthcare issue.
Replacing toxic nylon and polyester in our clothes with biomaterials won’t help us overcome our addiction to cheap and fast fashion, which lead Americans to throw away 14 million tons of clothes each year, a 100% increase in the past two decades. Better recycling technologies won’t fix this addiction: They will only make it worse.
Professor John Schramski, a systems ecologist at the University of Georgia, views Earth as a once-charged battery that stores chemical energy built up by our planet over 4.5 billion years of evolution. With great concern, Schramski notes: “In just the last few centuries–an evolutionary blink of an eye–human energy use to fuel the rise of civilization and the modern industrial-technological-informational society has discharged the earth-space battery.” With such rapid depletion, Earth is irrevocably moving to a state where it would become inhospitable for humanity. For the sake of nature–and our own survival as human species–Schramski believes we must change our lifestyles and slow down.
The bioeconomy on its own can’t protect and preserve nature unless all of us–growth-hungry producers and voracious consumers–rein in our wild insatiable inner nature. We just can’t pursue infinite growth in a finite planet.
To transform our inner nature, it’s not enough we shift our mind-set; we must shift our consciousness. We must come out of our unconscious mode of existence and become more conscious in how we produce, consume, work, relate, and live. Only then will we be able to collectively build what I call a conscious bioeconomy.
What do I mean by conscious? The Indian yoga tradition uses the seven chakras–energy centers located in our subtle body–to describe our levels of consciousness. These seven chakras and their associated energies influence and shape our worldview, motivation, and behavior in a particular way.
In many parts of the world, we live in capitalistic societies that favor winner-takes-all competition and extol the virtues of individualistic consumerism, which is satisfied by resource-intensive and heavily polluting mass-production. In this context, we operate unconsciously driven mainly by the energies of our three lower chakras–fear (“I want to survive”), desire (“I want more”), and power (“I want it all”)–that are all about self-preservation. Driven by a perpetual sense of scarcity and insecurity, we lead self-centered unsatisfactory lives shaped by our wants rather than our needs.
To become conscious, we need to unlock our four upper chakras, so we can harness the constructive energies of compassion, ingenuity, wisdom, and unity (“I am one with everything and everyone”) to transcend the survival mode and selfish desires and co-create with others an inclusive, healthy, and caring bioeconomy. Here are ways we can do that:
For example, in rural India, Husk Power Systems has installed mini-grids, powered by locally sourced agricultural waste like rice husks and corn cobs. Each mini-grid serves 300 customers and offers uninterrupted, clean energy to even the poorest villagers who can buy it on a pay-as-you-go basis with their cell phone.
The Rockefeller Foundation has launched Smart Power India to set up mini-grids like Husk’s in 1,000 Indian villages. These will power job training centers and small medium businesses that can train and employ poor women and youth and unleash grassroots entrepreneurship, potentially impacting 1 million lives.
The German minister of education and research Anja Karliczek says: “The bioeconomy will not sell itself. It will not simply fall into our laps, nor can it be decreed from above. It is a societal transition process, which will need time.” But we can’t afford to wait. We must speed up the transition to a bioeconomy by actively involving citizens in its creation.
In addition to funding big R&D projects in biotech, governments must also invest in bottom-up citizen science platforms. These will empower inventive “Maker citizens” to use their collective ingenuity and DIY tools to co-build an inclusive bioeconomy of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Schools and colleges can turn their students into young inventors by giving them access to open science labs like La Paillasse and low-cost R&D tools such as Stanford professor Manu Prakash’s $1 microscope and a 20¢ paper centrifuge. Students from rich and poor countries could team up to co-create eco-friendly solutions for climate change.
We have so far identified fewer than 15% of the 8.7 million species on Earth. Sadly, we may never learn much about the remaining 86% of the species, as half of them could go extinct by 2050. Conversion of natural ecosystems (grasslands, forests, wetlands) into agricultural land, deforestation, overpopulation, rapid urban development, and pollution are all accelerating biodiversity loss.
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Modern humans emerged only 200,000 years ago. We must humbly, and quickly, learn from the natural world’s great resilience and vast wisdom to find innovative ways for nearly 10 billion people on Earth to produce, consume, and live sustainably by 2050.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a biodiversity scientist and former president of Mauritius, believes that Africa’s incredible variety of plant species have powerful medicinal properties and hold the key to the future of food for whole humanity. We need to cherish, study, and maintain this rich biodiversity as our very survival depends on it.
We can no longer view nature as something “out there,” to be either exploited or protected. We must consciously realize we are nature, and nature is us. Our perspective and actions must embody this integral awareness that nature and we are essentially One. In particular, profit-driven corporations, which have long maintained an antagonistic “business vs. nature” relationship with the environment, must learn to think, feel, and act like nature. Firms need to evolve into what I call “business as nature.”
Specifically, businesses must unlearn their selfish and competitive instincts and demonstrate generosity and cooperation–two inspiring qualities that Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at University of British Columbia, has found in nature. Firms can emulate Interface, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturer, which is building a “factory as a forest.” This plant offers freely to local communities many ecosystem services–carbon sequestration, clean air and water, and nutrient cycling–that the local ecosystem it replaces used to provide.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Our gluttonous socioeconomic systems are depleting natural resources and polluting our atmosphere and oceans so rapidly that, by the end of this century, the Earth will cease to be hospitable for the human species.
If we want to survive and thrive, we need a radical shift in consciousness. We must learn to value quality of life over quantity in life. We must help each other enhance our material, emotional, and spiritual well-being and reach our full potential. Let’s use our compassion, ingenuity, wisdom, and sense of unity with nature to co-create a conscious bioeconomy.
Navi Radjou is a fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. He is the coauthor of Jugaad Innovation(2012), From Smart to Wise(2013), andFrugal Innovation (2015). His next book, Conscious Society: Reinventing How We Consume, Work, Relate and Live, will be published in 2019.
J.E.B Stuart Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, will be renamed Barack Obama Elementary, reports WRIC. The name change follows a six to one vote in favor by the Richmond Public School Board on Monday. J.E.B Stuart was a Confederate general during the Civil War. School board members say they want to change the name of the school to better promote inclusion within the community. In the lead-up to the vote, there were three contenders for the name of the school: Northside, Wishtree, and, the ultimate winner, Barack Obama.
Moments after slipping on a backpack stuffed with the innards of a gaming computer, and a helmet with a virtual reality display set inside, I completely forget about the technology driving what I see and feel.
Two friends and I are in an elevator and, in the virtual world, are wearing Star Wars stormtrooper suits. We have a request from a droid on a platform above us to pull on a handle that will start the elevator moving. I reach out and see my virtual hand grab a metal bar, as my real-world hand feels and grasps a metal bar along the wall. Pulling it down with a clunk, the platform starts to move.
This is when I realize the VR experience I am in now is vastly different than anything I have done before—even though, as a technology analyst, I’ve spent plenty of time with VR gear dating back to the first Oculus Rift prototype. During the 30 minutes I spend with Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the potential of virtual and augmented reality is solidified in my mind. Built by a company called The Void and part of the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, this is the future of theme parks and location-based entertainment.
The Void builds and operates VR experiences at various locales across the globe, including the one I bought a ticket for at the Disney Springs shopping area outside the Walt Disney World theme park. It currently operates two shows, the Star Wars-themed one I played through (live at four locations) and another based on Ghostbusters (live at five locations). More locations and attractions —including one with a horror theme—are on the way.
Playing through a scenario at The Void is quite different than any other VR experience you will likely have encountered. Rather than standing in place or even inside a single room and being tracked via your headset and VR-specific gaming controllers, The Void uses a more complex system that gives you more freedom. When you put on the helmet and pull down the visor with screens in place, you can see and control individual fingers, giving a “thumbs up” to your partners without the need for simulating it through a controller. The helmet integrates headphones and mic for player-to-player communication.
Inside the complex, you move between rooms via hallways. Though painted a dark gray in the real world, in the virtual one behind your helmet you see the inside of a maintenance shaft or balcony overlooking a volcanic lava field. Want to reach out and touch the walls or grab the rail in front you? You can do that, because it’s physically there.
You don’t start with a blaster rifle, but about halfway through your mission, you find a gun rack full of them. You only need to reach out and grab one; you are now holding a physical, weighted Star Wars weapon, and your character is holding one in the virtual space.
As you move from room to room, The Void uses physical effects to improve immersion. When your hovercraft flies by the volcanic runoff, a wave of hot air rises from beneath you, tinging your nostrils and causing a bit of perspiration on your hands. Your shoes sink a bit into a pillow-like surface when walking over a portion of path that is melted (in the virtual world) because of that heat.
When I stepped out of the 20 minutes or so of VR action, I couldn’t help but smile. It felt like the future of entertainment, and it worked amazingly well. It wasn’t perfect (sometimes my hand might pass through a virtual wall or surface when it shouldn’t have, for example) but the fun and exhilaration that I felt overshadowed any negatives. Also important for VR: I felt no instances of queasiness or discomfort.
After my session, I stuck around the lobby to talk with the next five groups that exited. Not one person exited without an ear-to-ear smile; most said it was by far the coolest thing they had done during their vacation. Even when I asked about the price—a 20-minute run through the attraction will cost you over $35—not one person said they thought that was too much, and many said the company was undercharging. You don’t hear that often when visiting theme parks in 2018.
The secret’s in the tech
The Void keeps much of the technology that powers its Star Wars and Ghostbusters experiences close to the vest. Staff on site weren’t willing to talk about the cameras, tracking, or hardware, though there are Oculus logos scattered in the building, indicating that Facebook’s VR arm is involved in the effort. Launch information from The Void in 2016 tells us that the “backtop” computer powering the in-visor display is using off-the-shelf PC hardware like a GeForce GTX 980 graphics card from Nvidia. (It’s possible the underlying graphics architecture has been upgraded in that 18- to 24-month window.)
One staffer told me that other than the virtual reality headset itself, all the other technologies, rendering capability, and person tracking were “built in-house.” There are dozens of cameras positioned above the rooms in the facility, all tracking infrared indicators on the players’ helmets and shoulders, giving the system the ability to interpret relative location (to within a millimeter, I’m told) and storyline progression. On-helmet cameras track hand and finger movement, using technology developed by Leap Motion.
The Void is an independent company, and one onsite employee I spoke with expressed concern over the creative freedom that might be lost if that status were to change. Both Ghostbusters and Star Wars are licensed properties that Sony and Disney allowed to be built into these VR experiences as tests and trials for more to come. (The Void collaborated with Disney’s ILMxLab on the Star Wars attraction.)
Now that this experiment has paid off to such impressive effect, there is little doubt in my mind that Disney should and will buy The Void, which was a 2017 participant in the Disney Accelerator, a program that includes resources, mentorship, and a financial investment. With the array of opportunity provided by various Disney-owned properties—from princesses to superheroes—there is no shortage of potential content for The Void to mine, at Disney’s theme parks and beyond.
What The Void has built today is the cutting edge of VR, but there are fundamental traits that can and will change the tide for theme parts and on-location entertainment in both the near future and long term. It is important to remember that the modern age of VR only began in early 2016 with the launch of the Oculus Rift. And what The Void is showing today opened in late 2016, with minimal changes taking place between then and now. The upward march of processing capability and VR/AR technology provides a road map of advancements that every smart entertainment company is already tracking.
The value of a company like The Void for Disney isn’t simply to duplicate the existing Star Wars and Ghostbusters experiences for other franchises, but instead to provide the infrastructure for more dramatic changes coming to theme parks. Should Disney take the plunge and invest fully, there are two scenarios I see playing out.
The future of theme parks
In the next one to three years, additional development should provide the ability to expand the physical size and scope of these gaming scenarios from their current eight- to 10-room scale to something larger, more in the one- to three-acre range. (In a statement, Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer and cofounder of The Void, said in theory the current system could be expanded to a stage “many, many times bigger” than what currently exists.) Expanding the concurrent player count from four to dozens will create more opportunities for competitive and cooperative play styles. Players will still need to shoulder the weight of a backpack-based PC to power the visuals; thus, time-limited scenarios will still be a requirement.
Imagine participating in Marvel’s Infinity Wars with a group of 20-30 players, as the superheroes fly overhead. Or in Star Wars, scaling the snow banks on Hoth as the ground assault from the Empire creeps closer to the Rebel base. These possibilities are only a modest step forward from where we are today.
The more substantial future that is 10 years out is still based on VR and AR capability, but moves the scale from acres to entire parks. Imagine the Magic Kingdom being modified in augmented reality in real-time, unique for each visitor. As you walk down Main Street, your kids can see Mickey in a second-story window waving to them. As you walk in front of the castle, there’s a princess ball taking place with all the movie favorites. Outside your resort hotel, you can watch a pirate battle between opposing factions take place on Bay Lake.
This opportunity will require a significant jump forward in technological development. Instead of bulky helmets, we’ll be wearing standard frame glasses that look similar to the sunglasses or prescription lenses you wear today, with embedded screens for overlaying digital content. Rather than being forced to wear a bulky backpack with PC hardware, new wireless technologies including 5G and millimeter-wave will allow for low latency transmission of content to those glasses from stations and computing environments scattered around the grounds of the park.
Along the way, the companies involved in creating technology for these experiences will need to reduce weight, extend battery life, and manage costs. This is a substantial leap over the current generation of technology on the market, but it’s a question of when, not if. The results could roll out as a premium feature for those park attendees willing to upgrade at first, scaling to mass audiences as costs and complexities come down.
For Disney, The Void can help jump-start this inevitable future of park-going experiences. Taking the next step to buy the technology is an easy decision. Moving it from shopping centers directly into the theme parks, with additional franchises and scenarios, will give more consumers the chance to try it, helping the company to perfect it.
Anyone who runs through Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire at The Void (or the Ghostbusters alternative) will clearly see the future of amusement and theme parks in front of them. The first company to understand and implement this widely will have a significant edge in next the 20 years of park development. Disney has its foot in the door with its current partnership, but Universal, its theme-park arch rival, will be right behind. I can’t wait to see how this technology evolves, and how future trips with my family will amaze.
Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, consulting and advising leaders in mobile, graphics, processors, and platforms. He has more than 18 years of experience evaluating and analyzing hardware and technology, including CPUs, graphics, memory systems, storage, displays, and their integration into consumer devices. Shrout has worked with nearly every major technology giant, and their product-management teams include Intel, Qualcomm, AMD, Nvidia, Samsung, Asus, Oculus, and Microsoft.
It was just back in April that we heard about how scientists had made concrete stronger and more eco-friendly by adding graphene to it. Now, researchers at Britain’s Lancaster University are reporting that they’ve achieved even better results using less-expensive “nano platelets” derived from root vegetable fibers.