Interesting tech for 13 to 16 December 2010

What’s new? Energetic Virus Forest; Turn Right Now; Crack Down; 27 League Bullets; Drink! Drink! Robo Food; Read Marge Read; Smart Crime Shoppers; Cutting Edge Camera; Pushy Light. Wheel Of Speeding; Discount Drivers; Dreaming Drivers; Blood Buddy; At The Edge Of Beyond. Tower Of Salt; The Outerwebs; Radio Gig; Sprintbot; Virtual Plummet.

Tech universe: Monday 13 December 2010

  • ENERGETIC VIRUS FOREST: The Tobacco Mosaic Virus can do something rather surprising: make Lithium Ion batteries last up to 10 times longer. University of Maryland scientists bound a nickel coated ‘forest’ of the virus to the metallic surface of a battery electrode increasing its surface area and the energy capacity of the battery. Yup, viruses multiply.
  • TURN RIGHT NOW: If you’ve ever shouted at your in-car GPS, you’ll know that computers are immune to tone of voice. Two Oregon teenagers created a computer algorithm that figures out the emotional state of a speaker. It logs the frequencies and energies in a voice and matches 57 different audio features to a database for comparison. The creators claim 90% accuracy discriminating between happy and sad voices. Just wait till your computer’s spinning beachball can speak: “I sense you’re feeling angry and frustrated.” Yes, that’ll be very calming.
  • CRACK DOWN: Arizona State University gave a piece of plastic a nervous system, by embedding a fibre optic network carrying infrared light from a one-watt laser. If the fibre develops a crack lost light heats up the shape memory polymer around the crack. The plastic becomes tougher and prevents the crack from spreading. Then the polymer regains its original shape and strength. This technique could help prevent catastrophic failure in wind turbines, satellites, aircraft and Mars Rovers. Or in other words: pain and inflammation in plastic.
  • 27 LEAGUE BULLETS: A bullet literally explodes from a gun, as a detonation propels the slug out of the barrel. On the other hand, a railgun accelerates a projectile along rails with an electromagnetic current. The US Navy broke world records recently with projectiles from a railgun travelling up to 2.3Km per second, transferring 33 megajoules of energy. The railgun’s current range is 160Km, around the distance from Palmerston North to Wellington. It’s the aim that really counts.
  • DRINK! DRINK!: The i-dration smart water bottle takes its cue from a smartphone. Sensors in the bottle monitor external temperature, drinking frequency and quantity, then send this data via Bluetooth to a user’s smartphone. The user enters data beforehand such as height, age and weight, while the phone monitors exercise levels via its inbuilt accelerometer and gyroscope. An app analyses all the data and signals the bottle to flash a blue light if the user needs to drink more. And the flipside could be a glass for alcoholic beverages that warns when to stop drinking.

Tech universe: Tuesday 14 December 2010

  • ROBO FOOD: The Dalu Rebot Restaurant in China has 2 robot receptionists and a staff of 6 robo-waiters. The humans are consigned to the kitchen. Robots move around tracks in the floor serving drinks and food to the tables. There’s even a robot greeter at the door. Welcome, overlords, etc.
  • READ MARGE READ: Marge the British robot is an avid reader. The New York Times and BBC Online are two of her favourites. Her Optical Character Recognition software, spell-checker and dictionary allow her to find text in the environment and learn from it, even in poor lighting. Once she can read a menu she’ll be able to go to Dalu Rebot and feel right at home.
  • SMART CRIME SHOPPERS: If you spot a suspicious or criminal activity in progress in Dallas grab your iWatchDallas smartphone app and send photos and text anonymously straight to the police. Or use the older methods of SMS or a phonecall. The system behind the app allows you to be updated on progress too. Watch the autocorrect though folks.
  • CUTTING EDGE CAMERA: Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark are firing infrared photons through a multilayered crystal of potassium titanium oxide phosphate and into a regular digital camera. The crystal converts the infrared into visible light the camera can record. Since tumours reflect a telltale pattern of infrared light, the technique could show surgeons whether they’ve completely removed a tumour during an operation. Every tiny advance is a good one.
  • PUSHY LIGHT: Solar sails, arcing elegantly through space, are being pushed by light, but steering’s a problem. Researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York are adding steering. Since light bends when it moves from one medium to another they’re exploring ways to make the sails change shape and transparency, and therefore direction. Then spacecraft could tack and turn just like sailing ships. Makes you wonder what an alien spacecraft could do with a decent spotlight.

Tech universe: Wednesday 15 December 2010

Voyager 1 spacecraft - image from NASA:

Voyager 1 spacecraft – image from NASA:

  • WHEEL OF SPEEDING: Constant exhortations to reduce our speed on the roads just don’t seem to do the job, but we’ll slow down to win money. Speed cameras photograph motorists and send fines to those who exceed the limit. But anyone obeying the law is entered in a lottery to win the fines. In a test in Stockholm average speeds dropped by 20%. That’s a more positive spin on that creepy TV ad about, uh, something we do wrong on the roads.
  • DISCOUNT DRIVERS: Some New York drivers are taking part in a Snapshot programme. Their insurance company issues a small device that plugs into the car’s on-board diagnostic port. For 6 months the device tracks when and how the user drives, and behaviours such as sudden stops. With no GPS, the device monitors only behaviour and not location. Safe and careful drivers receive discounts of up to 30%. Or perhaps 100% if the car was only driven to church on Sundays?
  • DREAMING DRIVERS: The ‘Road Train’ concept has a lead vehicle, driven by a professional such as a bus or truck driver, electronically tethered to several following vehicles. The lead vehicle controls the following vehicles whose drivers read books, watch DVDs or daydream while they travel. When they need to go their own way they take back control of their vehicle and pull out of the convoy. This idea could increase aerodynamic efficiency, while reducing fuel use and congestion. And possibly road rage.
  • BLOOD BUDDY: Battery-operated, remote-controlled mannequins that bleed and breathe are helping US military medics train for duty on the battlefield. The latest mannequins are anatomically correct and have life-like skin so medics can practice stopping bleeding and inserting intravenous drips. A Pentagon study claims 1,000 lives have been saved so far by the training program. They could be useful for training people not to drive drunk too.
  • AT THE EDGE OF BEYOND: The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in 1977 and later visited Jupiter and Saturn. Now 17 billion Km from the sun, the craft is travelling at 60,000 kph and is about to leave the solar system behind for vast interstellar space. Going where no one has gone before: so enterprising.

Tech universe: Thursday 16 December 2010

  • TOWER OF SALT: The 19-megawatt Gemasolar tower near Seville, Spain, uses sodium and potassium nitrate salts to make electricity. Heliostats around the tower focus sunlight to heat a collector to around 550C. The collector liquefies the salts which then power a steam turbine through a heat exchanger. Liquid salt, FTW.
  • THE OUTERWEBS: It’s a big place, Australia, with enormous challenges in bringing Internet to remote locations. The National Broadband Network hopes a new fibre optic network will connect 93% of Australia to high speed Internet. As for the Outback, they believe that TV antennae and unused low-frequency analog television spectrum could do the trick. Turn off that telly and tune in to the Internet.
  • RADIO GIG: Think laser for Wi-Fi: the Plasma Silicon Antenna makes 60 gigahertz Wi-Fi possible. The new antenna uses thousands of selectively activated diodes on a silicon chip to reflect, focus and steer high-frequency radio waves. This Ultrafast Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Gig, allows speeds up to 7 gigabits per second. What comes after Ultra?
  • SPRINTBOT: The Athlete robot runs like a human. Well, 4 or 5 steps anyway until it falls over. Each leg has 7 sets of artificial muscles that correspond to muscles in the human body. The robot’s feet bounce off the ground to move it forward, while touch sensors and an inertial measurement unit help it stay upright. That’s 5 small steps for a robot.
  • VIRTUAL PLUMMET: This is the kind of skydiving I could do: no planes involved. As part of Google’s Demo Slam one group hung blue sheets, painted with clouds around the sides of a square, put mats on the floor and added a projector above. Then they projected zooming Google Earth images on the floor and took to the ‘skies’ hanging from wires above the projection. Friends used wind machines and fire extinguishers to provide realistic effects. Looks like excellent fun.

Coming up in KnowIT next week: my favourite items from 2010.

Notes: 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. Above 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.