Interesting tech for 20 to 24 September 2010

I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Here are the links from last week.

While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.

Tech universe: Monday 20 September 2010

  • SHIRT SPRAY: Don’t forget to spray on your shirt in the morning. Imperial College London mixed small fibres with polymers and a solvent. Spray the mixture on as liquid clothing. It then hardens into a garment you can remove, wash and wear again. Careful how you peel it off.
  • MICRO BUZZ: Micro air vehicles may be as tiny as the tip of your finger. Harvard University is developing these insect-size robotic flying machines to monitor and explore hazardous environments such as collapsed buildings, caves and chemical spills. Biggest threat: birds.
  • SOCK IT TO ME: Intel’s contextually aware computers will learn about their users and share the information with other devices. Imagine socks that learn how you walk, for example. They’re still just a concept though. Fortunately.
  • BEDTIME STORY STICK: Franklin’s AnyBook Reader is a ‘wand’ that stores up to 60 hours of voice recording. Someone reads aloud a page from a book and adds a special sticker to the page. A kid taps the sticker with the device and hears the right recording. Wait till the copyright lawyers hear about this!
  • CREDIT 2.0: A Dynamics credit card includes a computer and lithium-polymer battery. Press a button to switch between 2 accounts on a MultiAccount card. Or use a keypad on the Hidden card to hide and reveal digits from the account number. Both write information to the magnetic strip. Don’t fat finger that keypad.

Tech universe: Tuesday 21 September 2010

  • LIGHT TRAFFIC: Researchers from Dresden and Zurich hope traffic will flow better with smart networked traffic lights. Sensors monitor activity and the lights work out how best to manage the traffic. In models the smart lights reduced waiting time 10 to 30%. I know a few intersections where smart lights would reduce road rage.
  • WARMER: An infrared laser from the University of Michigan is the size of a DVD player. Mounted on aircraft, it makes the whole plane or helicopter look ‘warm’ to enemy heat-seeking missiles and so confuses them. That may give the pilot time for evasive manoeuvres. Doesn’t it just make a bigger target?
  • IN THE HOUSE: University of California created a backpack that collects indoor 3D mapping data while the wearer walks around. The backpack uses cameras, lasers range finders and inertial measurement units, and operates without GPS. So there, Google Maps.
  • IN YOUR SHOES: Honda’s walking exoskeletons help support body weight and may be particularly useful for the elderly, people with disabilities and physical labourers. Sensors in the attached shoes feed information to the motors. These shoes are made for walking.
  • LOOK NOW: Did you miss that magic moment because you didn’t have your camera? Attach a $200 Looxcie to your ear and you’ll never miss another. It’s a video camera that records everything you see. When something memorable happens press a button to keep the recording and send it straight to YouTube. Look at this: my dog / cat / kid was so cute! Repeat.

Tech universe: Wednesday 22 September 2010

  • BIKES UNCHAINED: The Hungarian Stringbike doesn’t have a chain. Instead the pedals drive eccentric discs that move steel wires connected to freewheel cable drums on the rear wheel. Pulleys allow for changes of speed. No chain, no oil, no muss.
  • SEEING EYE CARS: The NeuFlow supercomputer system out of Yale runs more than 100 billion operations per second, but uses fewer watts than a cell phone. Its complex vision algorithms and large neural networks let it recognise images. The size of a wallet, it could be embedded in cars to allow them to drive themselves. They’ll need Optical Character Recognition to handle the road signs though.
  • SNAP FLICK: The 5 billionth photo was posted to Flickr recently. 1 billion photos per year are added to Flickr, but Facebook claims its users upload 2.5 billion photos per month. At least on Flickr you know which photos are private.
  • SWEET SOCKS: AgResearch scientists developed a fabric that has anti-static, anti-bacterial and anti-odour properties. The fabric’s made of wool and doesn’t need to be washed so often. Feet everywhere will be grateful.
  • RED SHIFT: The Chinese space programme has plans for the Moon Venus, and Mars. They intend to launch a space laboratory in 2011, and land a probe on Venus by 2015. Missions with and without astronauts are being planned. There’s enough space for everyone.

Tech universe: Thursday 23 September 2010

  • HEAVY PHOTOS: If you have US$32,000 to spend on camera equipment consider the 80 megapixel medium format digital camera backs from Leaf. The camera back has a Dynamic Range of 12 f-stops, and TIFF files weigh in at 480MB each. Now factor in the high powered computer you’ll need to handle the images.
  • FRESH AIR: Workers in the Westarkade tower in Frankfurt can open the windows, but that creates some terrible cross-draughts. To compensate, sensors measure temperature, pressure, and sunlight to control vertical ventilation flaps in the tower’s outer skin. With geothermal heat exchangers, and other heat capture mechanisms, the tower should use only a third of the energy of similar buildings in the US. Breathe deep of the clean air.
  • STICKY FEET: Gecko feet inspired a new method of printing electronics on to clothes, plastic, leather and various other tricky surfaces. A polymer stamp has pyramid-shaped tips on the bottom. The tips collapse under pressure which increases their surface area to pick up the electronics. Then when pressure’s removed they snap back into shape and release the item. That’s similar to how a gecko’s foot sticks to walls. Are there possibilities there for creating silent velcro?
  • LIGHT THE WAY: Scientists from Harvard University and the Institute of Laser Physics in Novosibirsk shone polarized light through a cloud of rubidium-87 atoms. This created a small, highly sensitive compass able to measure magnetic fields very accurately. Such accuracy is needed for discovering oil, detecting earthquakes and for navigation if the GPS system fails. What did people do before they had clouds of rubidium-87 atoms and a laser?
  • SHOOT THE MOON: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre’s Laser Ranging Facility fired a laser 28 times per second at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter orbiting the moon. When the focused light bounced back to Earth they could calculate the LRO’s exact position. That helps ensure the accuracy of maps the LRO generates. It didn’t even need rubidium-87.

Tech universe: Friday 24 September 2010

  • MODEL T.25: The British T.25 City Car is so small you could park 3 cars in one parallel parking space or 2 side by side in a garage. It seats 3 and travels at up to 145 Kph. It’s made of upcycled plastic and tubular steel, using flexible and inexpensive manufacturing techniques, based on Formula 1 ideas. How do you share out the parking fees?
  • COLD POWER: Vaccines must be kept cold and that’s impossible in some countries. The University of Pennsylvania’s idea could save lives. 75% of the world’s rural inhabitants get cellphone signals — from towers powered by diesel generators, solar or wind. So how about using their surplus power for cooling vaccines and treating water? Efficiency could save lives.
  • LIFE BIKE: In rural Africa ambulances are rare. The Zambulance is a bicycle fitted with a trailer that has a mattress, privacy curtain and intravenous hangers. After 12 months in one Ugandan community the number of women who died in childbirth dropped from 30 to zero, thanks to the Zambulance. High tech or low, it’s the effect that counts.
  • TEAR GAS PEN: See the fountain pen that shoots tear gas pellets and the shaving brush with a secret compartment. The first 40 years of Britain’s MI6 spy agency has been written up in a new 800 page book. Yes, spy rings were real. Video at:
  • FISHING TOGS: The Norwegian Safe@Sea project is integrating high tech into the clothes that fishers wear. Features may include surface treatments so blood and guts wash off more easily, a wireless system to stop a vessel and trigger an alarm if the fisher goes overboard, and clothes that repair themselves to stay watertight. Self-repairing clothes sounds great.