Tech Universe Digest for 16 to 20 May 2011

Tech Universe: Monday 16 May 2011

  • CANYON BY JETPACK: The Grand Canyon’s pretty spectacular, any way you look at it, but Yves Rossy got a close up view when he flew across it with a jetpack the other day. Launched from a helicopter, he flew for 8 minutes at around 300 Kph, before using a parachute to land. That would be quite a ride.
  • 3D FUSION: EADS, a British aerospace company, are developing new 3D printing techniques for creating small parts for planes. They can create metal hinges, for example, that are as strong as conventional parts, but weigh half as much. They print them by using lasers to heat metal powders to form solid shapes. Stronger, cheaper and faster: a great goal.
  • JUMPING ELECTRONS: About one third of the solar energy that arrives on Earth is infrared, but solar panels can’t collect that wavelength. A new technique embeds nano-sized antennae made of gold and titanium, and coated with tin oxide into solar panels. When infrared radiation hits the panel it creates a hot electron that jumps to the silicon and creates a current. What else aren’t they catching yet?
  • INSIDER VIEW: Google’s Street View is very handy, but, well, it only shows what’s on the street. Google Business Photos will extend street view inside businesses, including in 7 centres in New Zealand. Businesses can request that one of Google’s professional photographers take shots to be included with Google Places. Make sure to do the spring cleaning first.
  • ANOTHER SIDE TO TRANSISTORS: Intel is to start using its 3D Tri-Gate transistors in the Ivy Bridge chip. They’re 3D because of a silicon fin that rises up vertically from the silicon substrate, allowing for more gates. The Tri-Gate transistors operate at lower voltage and are more energy efficient, while performing better than older model transistors. They’re very suitable for handheld devices. It’s all a matter of how you hold the gate.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 17 May 2011

  • KEY KIDS: The Jumboard computer keyboard is plastic, large and has only 4 huge and brightly-coloured buttons. It fits above a regular keyboard and interacts with the Jumboard website which has games for kids aged 1 to 4. The games are designed for learning and for fun. What, nothing for the under-ones?
  • TRAINS THAT FLY: We’ve seen flying cars, so how about a flying train? The Japanese are experimenting with a robotic prototype of a free flying ground-effect vehicle. It flies just above the ground at up to 200 Kph, contained in a U shaped concrete channel. Inventive.
  • BIG WIND: The huge V164-7.0 wind turbine from Vestas Wind Systems is designed specifically for offshore locations. The rotor is 164 metres long; its annual output is 30,000 megawatt-hours — enough for nearly 2,800 households. These giants are intended for the North Sea. I’m sure the South Seas could use some too.
  • 0 CARAT DIAMONDS: Diamond aerogel is only 40 times as dense as air. It’s made by heating and compressing carbon aerogel. The transparent aerogel is tough, biocompatible and can be moulded like plastic. It could coat structures in the human body, or be overlaid onto glass and plastic for use in spacecraft. Light as air yet hard as diamonds.
  • OIL CHANGE: Bicycles usually use cables for shifting gears on a derailleur. An A-GE design from Acros handles it with hydraulics instead. When a rider pushes on the shifter paddle attached to the handlebars pistons push mineral oil through two tiny hoses and the derailleur shifts. Resistance is the same for every shift, and the whole setup is lighter than a standard cable system. Easier gear changes have to be good.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 18 May 2011

  • BIG RIG FOR RACERS: Charlotte Motor Speedway in the USA is now sporting the world’s largest HD TV. The 720P Panasonic TV is 61 metres wide and 24 metres tall. 158 panels and 9 million LED lamps make up its face. Even the folks on the ISS can probably watch the race on that one.
  • SOFTWARE PIRATES: The US Navy is crowdsourcing with a new online game: MMOWGLI. The Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet offers a scenario featuring pirates. Players choose between two techniques for handling the situation and other players vote on the choices. People with good ideas go on to the next round. Go North and don’t forget to pick up the cutlass.
  • ANSWER THE CALL: Texsys is a company in Christchurch whose software allows surveys to be completed by sequential SMS messages. One recent survey gathered data from residents using Portaloos. Posters in the Portaloos asked people to initiate the survey via text message. Then questions are sent until the survey’s done. Next research project: are survey answers affected by toileting habits?
  • OFFLINE RESISTERS: 9 million people in the UK have never used the Internet, but the Race Online 2012 is aiming to change that. More than 100,000 volunteers will help people with the very basics of the Internet — enthusing and inspiring them. 7.3 of the 9 million are aged over 55. The quickest sell? How to keep in touch with family and friends.
  • GAME, STROKE AND MATCH: The Biomedical Sensor Glove from Canada’s McGill University monitors movements of the wrist, palm and index finger of the wearer. The glove is more accurate and significantly less expensive than existing similar gloves. The glove sends a 3D model of movements to a screen and also sends the data to a physician. The glove allows doctors to monitor how people who’ve had a stroke are doing with their recovery by tracking as they play video games. It’s more fun than blood tests and exercises, anyway.

Tech Universe: Thursday 19 May 2011

  • HOME BOT: Armar-III is learning how to load a dishwasher, how to recognise objects such as books and how to talk with humans. Armar is a humanoid robot at the University of Karlsruhe. It uses Proprioceptive Learning which engages all of its sensors to detect and classify objects. Cameras look at colour, shape and size, while tactile sensors measure features such as softness and microphones pick up sounds. Household helper robots need all these skills and more. Start writing up the job descriptions and contracts.
  • IN THE BLOCK WHERE YOU LIVE: We all know that streets run along the ground. Not the vertical street to be built in Melbourne, Australia though. The 35 story building will have gardens on every 6th floor, with 5 high-rise communal gardens. Structural supports will hold the weight of the soil, windows will reflect heat and even the sides of the building will collect rainwater. The building will be completed by 2014, and will house shops, apartments and offices. So the trick will be to get work at a firm whose offices are in your apartment building. Fill a city with these streets and we’ll need flying taxis too.
  • LEND YOUR EYES: VizWiz is an iPhone app that gets humans to quickly answer questions for blind people. The blind person takes a photo of something — perhaps cans of cooking ingredients — and records an audio question only a human could answer, such as “Which one is the Coconut Milk?”. The questions are routed through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service and a useful response comes within a minute or so. Humans still excel at intelligence.
  • OUT OF THE GAIT: At Georgia Tech Research Institute in the USA researchers are using radar to detect whether or not an individual has concussion. The radar is able to determine the velocity of a person’s foot kicks, head and torso movements. Software analyses the pattern of movements in the gait and indicate when the walker may be impaired by alcohol or concussion. This could be of great value on a sports or battlefield. Or between the bar and the carpark.
  • DID YOU MEAN SHOPPING?: Ford and Google are getting together to make cars smarter. The car will make an encrypted copy of your driving routes and habits then tap into Google’s Prediction API to guess at and optimise your future trips. It may choose a suitable route, adjust the powertrain and improve fuel efficiency. Still just a theory, it is an actual project. Doing for driving what Google’s spelling correction has done for search.

Tech Universe: Friday 20 May 2011

  • PASSWORD IRIS: The EyeLock from the Hoyos Group may save you from having to remember and type complex passwords to access your favourite secure websites. It’s a portable iris-scanning device for consumers that sits in a base connected via USB to your computer. Use the software to set up which sites you wish to access then look into the scanner. It takes an image of your iris. To access the secure sites later just look into the scanner again. Every day, little by little, the future edges into the present.
  • SPACE FEATHERS: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has an interesting way to re-enter from space: it rotates the tail section upwards to a 65 degree angle. This is called ‘feathering’ and creates drag to help slow the craft. Before landing the tail section is moved back into its normal flight position. High drag and low weight of the craft mean that the skin temperature during re-entry stays very low, so heat shields aren’t needed. Icarus didn’t have so much luck with high feathers.
  • UNDERWATER SPACE: Before NASA astronauts can go into space they have to go underwater for a few weeks. The Aquarius underwater lab near Florida, used for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, is where crew train and equipment is tested because it’s a lot like being in space. The NEEMO 15 crew will practice for exploring Near-Earth Asteroids with activities like shovelling soil samples, anchoring to objects, and moving about. And presumably, avoiding fish.
  • PRIZE TRICORDERS: The X Prize Foundation and Qualcomm are putting up a $10 million prize for a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians. The Tricorder X Prize want to enable consumers in any location to quickly and effectively assess their health condition and decide if they need to see a doctor. Get those designs underway today.
  • DO YOU SPEAK ROBOT?: Researchers in Queensland are teaching Lingodroids to invent new spoken words and generate an entirely new language. The robots use a mobile platform equipped with a camera, laser range finder, and sonar for mapping and avoiding obstacles. If one robot finds itself in an unfamiliar area it creates a word to describe it and communicates that word to other robots it meets. Then they may play games to reinforce the language. In tests robots were able to create spatial maps even of areas they had never explored. There’s a new challenge for the Google Translate engineers.

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.