Interesting tech for 20 September to 01 October 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 27 September 2010

  • PLANE STRAIN: Unlike birds, aircraft have no way to detect changes in their body while flying — sensors would add too much weight. A new plastic polymer mesh contains gold sensors to monitor temperature along the entire body of the aircraft, or map air pressure flowing around a wing. The almost invisible mesh can expand to more than 265 times its original size. Nice air net, that.
  • EYE DOWN: Underwater would be the last place I’d look for a telescope. But the Russian Neutrino Telescope lies 1km below Lake Baikal. What’s more it points towards the centre of the Earth, rather than out into space. It can only be serviced in winter when a metre of ice allows scientists to haul the device to the surface. Anchors aweigh; neutrinos ahoy.
  • 75 TONNE TV: The world’s largest high-definition video board is 61 metres wide, 24 metres tall, weighs 75,000 Kilos and uses more than 9 million LEDs. It’s being installed at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where NASCAR events are held. There will be some power bill supporting that.
  • FLAP AND FLY: The University of Toronto’s human-powered aircraft with flapping wings is called The Snowbird. It recently flew 145 metres at 25Kph for almost 20 seconds. At 32 metres, its wingspan is comparable to a Boeing 737. Don’t dream it, fly it.
  • A YOUNG FACE: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says gravity causes time to pass more slowly the closer you get to the ground. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado set up extremely accurate clocks in which an aluminum ion switches energy states over a quadrillion times per second. Tests showed a clear time difference between two clocks separated by only 50cm of height. So, your feet are slower than your brain.

Tech universe: Tuesday 28 September 2010

  • HEX DIGITS: Panasonic’s 16-fingered hair-washing robot scans the head in 3D, computes and remembers the correct pressure for shampooing and massaging. 3 motors on each arm control swing, press and massage motions. Intended for hospitals and health care facilities, it could be rather nice in the home too.
  • PANE FREE: The Windoro window cleaning robot, out of Korea, consists of 2 modules attracted together by neodymium magnets. Each module cleans one side of a window. Distance sensors, attitude adjustment, and obstacle detection help the robot navigate the window. Nice, but it doesn’t move itself from one pane to another.
  • MOUSE BAR: The Kiwi-made Able-X air mouse is a bilateral arm exerciser for people with neurological or muscular-skeletal impairments, such as those who’ve had a stroke. A short bar held with both hands, it controls specially made computer games. Even people who’ve never used computers can work with this. I guess they aren’t first person shooter games.
  • BRAIN SPOTTING: The new EVestG machine from Monash University, Australia, measures electrical signals between the brain and inner ear when the head moves. Distinctive patterns indicate neural disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. This could make early diagnosis quick and straightforward.
  • COLD HEARTED: If our core body temperature drops below 22C we quickly die. But human testing begins soon on a surgical procedure to remove warm blood, replace it with cold saline solution and drop the core temperature to 10C. This leaves no pulse, no blood pressure, no electrical waves in the brain. It’s a state of suspended animation that could allow more time to work on severe trauma patients such as those with gunshot wounds. Hmmm, drains blood, awakens to new life… We’ve heard that before.

Tech universe: Wednesday 29 September 2010

  • 8 SHOOTER: The iCub humanoid robot was given a toy bow and arrow and taught to shoot. Image recognition and learning algorithms allowed it to refine its targeting. The robot learned in only 8 shots how to hit a bullseye. So when do the Robot Olympics begin?
  • ATOM TRAP: Down at the University of Otago scientists shone a laser at colliding atoms of Rubidium 85. That allowed them to trap a single atom while other atoms escaped. That’s one atomic step closer to quantum computers.
  • BIKE LIGHT: The Spin Custom road bike weighs a whole 2.7Kg, and that includes gears, brakes, and so on. Every part is custom made, some from materials almost impossible to obtain. My laptop weighs only a smidgeon less than that.
  • SWING ALERT: Golfers: the SensoGlove uses four tiny sensors sewn into the glove to analyse your grip on the club. The computer in the glove reads and displays the pressure, showing which fingers are too tight, or sounding an alarm. That’s just the swing. Where are the sensors to follow the ball?
  • ECO METROPOLIS: Residents are moving in to Masdar, a new ecocity in the United Arab Emirates. Buildings are placed to maximise shade and airflow. Cars are banned — instead driverless electric vehicles travel through underground tunnels. A nearby a 54-acre photovoltaic field, incineration and water treatment plants service the city. The city will be constantly monitored and finetuned to maximise performance. An interesting destination for ecotourists.

Tech universe: Thursday 30 September 2010

  • SHAPE SHIFTER: Buying clothes online is always a problem: size M could refer to midget or mammoth or even medium. from Estonia have solved the problem with a shape-shifting mannequin. replicates 2,000 male body shapes while it tries on all the clothes from manufacturers who sign up. As it does so it creates a photo database. When a buyer enters their measurements calls up a photo that shows how each size would look on that shape. Get your tape measures ready.
  • RAINBOWED: A Raman spectroscope measures the intensity and wavelength of light scattered from molecules. Shine a laser onto the skin and the spectrum could reveal disease. This could be a useful non-invasive diagnostic tool, with results available in minutes. A stage on the path to a medical tricorder perhaps?
  • WORM ATTACK: The recently discovered Stuznet computer worm is the first that’s able to take control of critical industrial systems such as pumps, motors, alarms and valves. Such systems don’t use the software common in desktop computers. The worm could disrupt sewage plants or power stations, with dire effects. That’s supervillain stuff.
  • MUSIC IN MINIATURE: The Micronium from the University of Twente is a microscopic musical instrument that plays sounds we can hear if they are amplified. Several springs only a tenth of the thickness of a human hair, and between 0.5 and 1 mm long, are weighted with masses of a few dozen micrograms. Miniature combs pluck the strings to produce sound. There shouldn’t be any trouble fitting that instrument in checked luggage.
  • ZOOMING SOUND: Norwegian physicists have created a way to zoom in on sounds, much in the way we zoom in on images. They’ve combined directional microphones with software that identifies the source of a sound, then isolates a speaker’s voice. It can track a speaker who moves, or even identify and zoom in on other speakers from across a room. I can just see next season’s CSI scripts already, zooming in from blocks away on what the bad guys are saying.

Tech universe: Friday 01 October 2010

  • PLANICOPTER: Helicopters have blades, even when they have wings as well, like the Eurocopter X3 (X cubed) hybrid helicraft. It has two short aircraft wings with forward facing propellers, a rotor overhead, but no tail rotor. It will fly long distances at up to 220 Knots, around 400Kph — around twice as fast as current helicopters. There must be some interesting air flow interactions. (The video action begins around 5 minutes in, after a whole lot of blah blah blah.)
  • SPEED TRAINING: The Harmony is a new high-speed train in China that runs the 202 Km from Shanghai to Hangzhou. In recent trials the train reached 416 Kph, so the journey could take less than half an hour. Except for the stops along the way, of course.
  • WHERE R U?: GeoSMS is a new standard for adding GPS location data to SMS messages. Developed by a student at Australia’s RMIT University, it places location identifiers in the text. Smartphone apps could use the information by displaying a map, a compass, distance information or the like. Make sure it’s turned off before fibbing about where you are.
  • WHO R U?: India’s new national identity scheme for a billion people uses biometrics, including iris scans, photos and fingerprints. All Indians will be issued a 12-digit ID number that will be used for welfare, opening bank accounts and applying for passports. India says theirs will be the biggest such national database in the world. I bet Amazon’s database is bigger.
  • TOUCHING IMAGES: Nokia’s prototype N900 smartphone fools touch receptors in the skin into perceiving texture on the screen. This could mark out icons or give images texture, for example. Nokia added thin layers of indium tin oxide, a transparent conductor, and hafnium oxide, a transparent insulator, above the LCD. Holding the phone creates a closed circuit and the user’s finger is attracted towards the screen with varying strength, generating a textured effect. Let’s guess which industry will be first to provide textured cellphone images.

Bonus links

These items didn’t make the column, but I thought they were very cool.

  • Russia’s unusual Tunka-133 telescope is a structure of 133 large metal canisters, scattered over a massive, flat field in the Republic of Buryatia. (Watch the video.)