Interesting tech for 26 to 29 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: Tuesday 26 October 2010

  • AUGMENTED GLASSES: The not yet released 20 gram AR Walker glasses come from Olympus and Japan’s NTT Docomo. A cellphone detects motion and direction, then software supplies relevant information through the glasses directly into the wearer’s peripheral vision. The glasses should be specially useful for tourists. Who won’t stand out at all.
  • MARS WATCH: Curiosity is a Mars Rover being built at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ready to land on Mars in August 2012. It has 6 wheels, weighs 900 kilos, and will include a laser to vaporise rocks, a spectrometer and a telescope. Now a live cam lets you watch construction, and a chat facility lets you discuss progress with the technicians. I hope there’s a journey cam too. Curiosity Cam:
  • PRINT A SCENT: Japanese researchers used an off-the-shelf printer to ‘print’ 4 different aromas. Aroma generation could be used to remind people with Alzheimers to eat. The biggest problem is the lack of standard components to create smells — there’s no RGB as for print. Wait till supermarkets start using this.
  • THE NEW TOUGH: Kevlar? That’s so 80s. The new tough is an organic material out of Israel. It’s transparent, easy to manipulate and manufacture, and similar to beta-amyloid proteins. The new synthetic proteins include amino acids coated with a protective layer to create microscopic spheres, from about 30 nanometers to two micrometers. Now the material just needs a catchy name.
  • SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF: Sweat on your fingers can cause slight corrosion on something like a bullet. This can allow forensics to pull fingerprints even when a surface has been wiped clean. That finding has led to a handheld device, run off a 9-volt battery, that can detect corrosion on machine parts. If it’s quicker, cheaper and safer we all win.

Tech universe: Wednesday 27 October 2010

  • ONYA BIKE: The Front End Loader is a 3-wheeled electric bicycle specially designed to carry heavy loads: up to 90 kilos at up to 30 Kph. A special steering assembly and tilting wheels improve cornering without spilling the load. The bikes are intended to replace short local car trips. Are they allowed to use the bike lanes? The bikes:
  • TO EACH THEIR OWN MAP: Map World is China’s own online satellite mapping service. Within the borders of China maps of rural areas resolve to 2.5 metres, while 300 cities enjoy 0.6m resolution. Updates are expected every 6 months. Do you ever feel like you’re being watched?
  • BYE BYE TANGLES: Who knew the Walkman cassette player was still being manufactured! Well, not any more as Sony have finally just stopped production. More than 200 million Walkmans were sold since 1979. Hmmm, cassette tapes … I think I last used one this decade, or maybe it was in the 90s.
  • RHINO ALARM: More than 200 rhinos have been slaughtered in South Africa this year, so game wardens are testing out embedded GPS units. They insert a GPS chip and alarms connected to satellite and cellphone systems into the animal’s horn. If the rhino behaves in unusual ways, such as sleeping for too long, the alarm alerts a warden to investigate. Once the poachers know about the chips I imagine they’ll start dehorning the rhinos.
  • DOWN TO THE DOG: The US Military have spent around $17 billion in the last 6 years to find the best way to detect Improvised Explosive Devices — roadside bombs. And they’ve come up with loads of sensors and gadgets, including surveillance aircraft, robots, ground-penetrating radar and multispectral sensors. In their latest report they’ve revealed their most efficient sensor: a dog’s nose. Dogs and their well-trained handlers can detect 80% of IEDs. We still can’t outsmart Nature.

Tech universe: Thursday 28 October 2010

  • ROBOCUP: Robots work so hard, so why not let them have some fun? The robot football world cup, RoboCup, attracts teams from more than 40 countries. These competitions spur researchers to develop movement, communication and visual processing system skills in their robots. Who’s developing the robot football crowds for skills in cheering, bottle throwing and fighting?
  • TUWRONG: A Turing test discriminates artificial intelligence from human. In this year’s Loebner Prize competition one judge was so confused by a chatbot named Suzette that gave angry and bored responses that she was judged to be a human. Uh oh, bored and angry marks out humans?
  • SMALL SCALE: Need a new microscope? How about the subpixel resolving optofluidic microscope? A sample is channeled across a $1.50 digital camera light-sensor that has pixels 3.2 microns on each side. The sensor makes a movie at 20x magnification. Researchers are aiming for 40x, to diagnose malaria with a cellphone. That would be a hit with travellers.
  • AIRHEAD: Chuck out your bicycle helmet and replace it with a Swedish Hovding Chieftain airbag. It’s worn as a collar — it weighs less than 700 grams — and inflates instantly in a crash. There’s even a black box inside the bag. Accelerometers and gyro-meters send a signal to a small helium canister if abnormal movement is detected. Except, what about the worldwide concern about helium running out?
  • KINDLE RISING: In the 30 days to 25 October 2010 customers purchased more Kindle books than hard or soft cover print books for the top 10, 25, 100, and 1,000 bestselling books on Which just goes to show that people who read are smart.

Tech universe: Friday 29 October 2010

  • BAG HAND: When it comes to gripping objects, robots don’t do too well. It’s hard to construct a robotic hand with fingers and an opposable thumb. A new approach replaces the hand with a rubber membrane bag. The bag wraps round an object, the air inside is removed and the grains of sand, glass beads, or ground coffee beans inside it lock together to hold the object in place. It’s in the bag.
  • LIGHT MARK: French scientists have found a way to store optical data so it can be hidden from conventional view. Different wavelengths of light change the properties of polymers, allowing data to be written or read. A specific imaging technique, called second-harmonic generation must be used to read the data. This technique could mark items as genuine and deter counterfeiters. High-tech invisible ink.
  • GROWING GREEN: Australian and Chinese scientists are growing a special strain of Giant Napier Grass to clean up toxic waste, and then making electricity from the biomass. The roots of the plants extract minerals and metals from contaminated soils, cleaning them up. They don’t say if they recover the minerals extracted by the grass. Sometimes plants are the best tech for the job.
  • MALIBU EMILY: Emily’s a lifesaving robot. The Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard powers through rough surf 12 times as fast as a human to bring aid to swimmers in distress. Sensors map water currents and detect people in the water. The foam core can support up to 5 people. Propulsion is by a water impeller, similar to a jet ski. Not so much a robot as remote-controlled though.
  • TANKTOP: Military laptops have to withstand rain, explosions and even fungus. Your regular off-the-shelf laptop just isn’t good enough for that, even if it calls itself tough. VT Miltope, suppliers to the US military, are introducing a new line of bomb-proof computers this week. The specs are pretty decent, but I bet the price isn’t. Video of an older model:

Bonus links

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

  • BURST TEXT: Researchers found that 50% of SMS users send 90% of their messages to just one person, usually in bursts.
  • SOCIAL CLIMBER: So you climbed some 13 metre climbing wall. Good for you! The Excalibur climbing wall in The Netherlands is 37 metres tall, with an overhang of 11 metres.