Tech Universe Digest for 02 to 06 May 2011

What’s new? The Wheels Go Round; Dinner Tablets; Virtual Cookies; Paper Planes; Google Security. Boot Scoot; Laser Spark; Virus Power; Acrobatic Robot; Hole In One. Pavement Park; Eye Beam; A Nose For Cancer; Mouse Studies; Never On The Sabbath. Prosthetics Badge; Moving Tests; Nano TV; Micro Heat; Come Home Grandpa. Eyes On The Balls; Diy Power; Undersea Scoot; Hedgehog Backpackers; Alpha Bike.

Tech Universe: Monday 02 May 2011

  • THE WHEELS GO ROUND: The Protean Drive system puts electric drives right in the wheels of your car. That means an electric vehicle can lose some weight. The electric drive wheels can also easily be added to a petrol or diesel car, creating a hybrid. Protean’s F-150 car uses 4 in-wheel motors. It can travel at 160 Kph and has a range of 160 Km. That’s a cunning way to create a hybrid.
  • DINNER TABLETS: E la Carte is a smart idea for when you’re eating out. At some restaurants in the US you may find an E la Carte tablet on your table, displaying a menu, with photos and information about what you can order. Rather than waiting for a waiter to help you, just choose items and add special requests directly on the tablet. It reports how long you’ll wait and offer games to help fill in time. Swipe your credit card through the integrated card reader to pay when you’re finished. Sounds like a great idea for low-cost and mid-level eateries.
  • VIRTUAL COOKIES: At the University of Tokyo researchers are creating a virtual reality system that works with smell and sight. When test subjects ate a plain cookie but saw and smelled a flavoured cookie, they consistently reported their cookie had that same flavour. People have long said that our perception of taste is mainly determined by sight and smell. I guess this proves it.
  • PAPER PLANES: Graphene paper, developed at the University of Technology in Sydney, is a processed form of raw graphite. It’s as thin as a sheet of paper, 6 times lighter and 6 times lower density than steel, but twice as hard and 10 times as tensile. What’s more it’s eco-friendly. Graphene paper could be used for planes and other vehicles, with huge savings in weight, fuel use and costs. A real breakthrough like this is very exciting.
  • GOOGLE SECURITY: Google has data centres all over the planet to handle the huge flow of information they’re involved with. In a short video they show off some of the ways they protect the data centres and their precious cargo. Measures include stringent checks on anyone attempting to enter, biometric recognition and total destruction of any drives taken out of service. It’s definitely not just search any more.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 03 May 2011

  • BOOT SCOOT: Park your car in a handy spot and then pull an electric scooter out of the boot and head in to your meeting. That’s what the Chinese concept Geely McCar lets you do. The 2-door 4-seater car is ultra compact. A folding 3-wheeled electric scooter docks in the rear, receiving a charge as you drive along the road. The scooter should have a skateboard in its luggage space for where the electric 3-wheeler can’t go.
  • LASER SPARK: Spark plugs have been around for a good long while. A spark jumps the gap between terminals and ignites the fuel to run a combustion engine. A team from Romania and Japan has created a laser-powered spark plug, increasing efficiency and reducing pollution. The lasers are made of ceramic powders pressed into spark-plug sized cylinders. It’s still all about burning fossil fuels though.
  • VIRUS POWER: The MIT Biomolecular Materials Group has found a new use for viruses — the biological kind. Viruses can make batteries and solar cells more efficient. Biotech at work.
  • ACROBATIC ROBOT: The GoQBot from Tufts University has a 10 cm long flexible silicone body. Embedded shape-memory alloy coils act as muscles so the robot inches along like a caterpillar. If necessary though the robot can be heated, causing it to curl into a disc and roll itself forward at more than 200 rpm. Having 2 modes of motion allows it to slowly access tiny spaces but cover more open ground at speed. Great jumping caterpillars!
  • HOLE IN ONE: If you need a big tunnel you might want to call on Herrenknecht AG’s Earth Pressure Balance Shield. The cutterhead requires 12,000 kilowatts to run, and the machine itself weighs 4,300 tonnes. It’s 15.5 metres in diameter, and 122 metres long. It balances removing soil and moving forward to make sure soft ground overhead stays in place. No sneaky prison escapes with this.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 04 May 2011

  • PAVEMENT PARK: The QTvan is the world’s smallest caravan, and you can tow it with a mobility scooter. It’s 2 metres long by 0.75 of a metre wide and holds a full-sized single bed, cooking facilities and TV. Optional solar panels, satellite dish and external luggage rack are also available. Get together with friends and ride in convoy.
  • EYE BEAM: Engineers from the University of Michigan are developing a tiny solar powered sensor to be implanted inside the eye. It will monitor pressure to warn of glaucoma and wirelessly send data once a day to an external receiver. Before long the glint in an eye may be a health monitor. Not so romantic, after all.
  • A NOSE FOR CANCER: The earlier we can detect cancer the better our chances of dealing with it. A team at the Israel Institute of Technology have built a Nanoscale Artificial NOSE to detect molecules in breath that can mean a person has head, neck or lung cancer. 5 gold nanoparticle sensors detect molecules then software analyses them for distinctive patterns. Accuracy has been good in testing so far. This’ll be ripe for the home testing market.
  • MOUSE STUDIES: Love it or hate it, or both, the mouse transformed how we work with computers. The first trackball was enormous, including an actual bowling ball. But that was all a military secret. In the meantime designs have changed a lot, now even reading gestures and thought patterns. Wireless good, thought-driven better.
  • NEVER ON THE SABBATH: A new cellphone from an Israeli company has no camera, no text messages, Internet access, Facebook or email. Calls made on the Sabbath are charged at a higher rate than on other days. Ringtones are drawn from Hassidic folk music. The phone is intended for ultra-Orthodox Jews whose religious beliefs are incompatible with more ordinary cellphones. A phone is a phone is a phone.

Tech Universe: Thursday 05 May 2011

  • PROSTHETICS BADGE: A group of 11 year old girl scouts in the US invented and created a prosthetic device for a 3-year-old girl born without fingers on her right hand. Their design features a platform that straps to the arm and a device to hold a pencil or other tools. The child was able to write for the first time. Writing at 3, inventing prosthetics at 11. What are today’s kids coming to?
  • MOVING TESTS: Johns Hopkins University has won a DARPA contract to develop and test the Modular Prosthetic Limb with people. The prothetic arm has 22 degrees of motion and can move each finger independently. It’s almost a dextrous as a natural arm and can respond to the wearer’s thoughts. A micro-array is implanted in the brain and used to send signals to the arm. In the last few years macaque monkeys were able to control a robotic arm to feed themselves. Now its the turn of quadriplegic humans to experiment. Monkey do, human do.
  • NANO TV: Is there anything carbon nanotubes can’t do? Researchers at the University of Florida are using a porous layer of carbon nanotubes to provide current to individual diodes in OLED displays. 98% of the device emits light. Black is created not by blocking light, but by not powering the relevant diodes. TVs and computer displays could use less energy while still providing brilliant, sharp images. Less waste, less cost. It’s a win all around.
  • MICRO HEAT: Imagine a thermoelectric heat pump only 1 cubic millimeter in size. Now cluster thousands of them and you could heat your house. Engineers from Norway have created these tiny devices and expect them to be on the market within the next few years. The new heat pumps could be placed where they’re needed and can conform to any size or shape of space. That sounds like a breakthrough.
  • COME HOME GRANDPA: The Laipac S-911 bracelet is a specialised GPS tracking device intended for use with people who have cognitive disorders. It tracks the wearer’s location in real-time and is able to alert a caregiver via SMS, email or phone if the wearer goes outside a defined area. The device also allows the caregiver to speak directly to the wearer. Help, my wrist is talking to me!

Tech Universe: Friday 06 May 2011

  • EYES ON THE BALLS: Rollin’ Justin can catch 2 balls at once and then make coffee. It’s actually a robot. Catching balls requires high levels of optical recognition, path prediction and positioning ability, while making coffee needs a gentle touch. Makes you realise what we take for granted as humans.
  • DIY POWER: If you fancy a bit of tinkering make your own solar powered USB charger. A soldering iron and a few low-cost parts could save you enough for a few extra apps on the phone you’ll charge. Instructables has photos and guidance on how to put it all together. Now, where’s the sun gone?
  • UNDERSEA SCOOT: The AquaStar2 is an electric scooter for 2 people. You won’t see it around town though as it’s designed for underwater travel. One electric motor handles vertical movement, while the other drives forward at up to 6 Kph. Breathing apparatus is built in to the scooter, with an integrated ‘helmet’ so riders can breathe, look around and even enjoy a soft drink. 2 tanks of air last for around 1 hour, while the battery lasts for around 2 hours. Driving underwater with your head in a bubble of air — I guess some people will love it.
  • HEDGEHOG BACKPACKERS: Researchers from Otago University fitted a number of hedgehogs in the Godley Valley with GPS ‘backpacks’. They recorded hedgehog positions every 5 minutes for 5 days in an attempt to understand the animals habits. Results show the hedgehogs don’t really go far. Well, if I was forced to wear a backpack all the time I might not go far either.
  • ALPHA BIKE: When 5 students at the University of Pennsylvania had a year and a budget to design and build a bike they came up with the carbon fibre Alpha. There’s no chain — the drivetrain is fully internal — but there is an electronically controlled clutch. Onboard electronics let you download stats via an SD card. Almost every aspect of the bike uses a new design. It’s a shame it’s not for sale.

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.