14 to 17 June 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 13 June 2011

  • SMS SIGNS: NHK science and technology research labs in Japan are working on a new animated sign language translation system. People send Japanese texts into the system and the software converts it into sign language delivered by an avatar. If there is a word that doesn’t directly translate it’s replaced with a synonym. The system’s not perfect yet so there’s a manual mode that allows human intervention to adjust the translation and fix mistakes. The primary use is expected to be for emergency news broadcasts. Signs of the times.
  • STICKIES FOR WOUNDS: 3M’s Kind Removal Silicone Tape sticks well to the skin yet is easy to remove without pain. The silicone adhesive works differently from the standard acrylate adhesives, although 3M don’t explain what those differences are. Tests have shown though that the silicone tape caused significantly less damage to the skin. It’s a slow peel that’s painless.
  • RED HOT WOUND: Australian scientists are working on a bandage that changes colour according to the temperature of a wound. The temperature change could suggest inflammation or problems with blood supply that could lead to infection. The fabric can detect changes of less than half a degree C. A simple colour chart can help the wearer determine the health of their wound. The system is expected to reduce costs. Is green OK?
  • OPPORTUNE ENDEAVOURS: NASA’s Mars Rover, Opportunity, has travelled more than 30 Km in the last seven years. NASA expected it to travel less than 1 Km in total in its planned 3 month mission. While its sister Mars Rover, Spirit, has unfortunately been officially declared no longer active, Opportunity is still going strong. It’s now on a trek to the Endeavor Crater, 3.5 km away, and should arrive later this year. Slow and steady’s won the praise.
  • TRIPLE HOT: Ford is developing a 1000 cc EcoBoost engine which has 3 cylinders and the displacement of a soft drink bottle. They claim the tiny engine will have the same torque and power as 1600 cc 4-cylinder engine. Their main goal was to reduce fuel consumption while keeping the power. Special construction techniques help the engine get up to operating temperature more quickly and reduce the temperature of the exhaust. Direct injection and variable camshaft timing also help. It sounds like a pain to tune up.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 14 June 2011

  • GET SMART: Current bike helmets are dumb — they’re really just designed to protect your head from an impact. But what say the helmet could record data about your accident and maybe even call an emergency number? This was one of 5 winning ideas in Toyota’s Ideas For Good competition. Technology, including accelerometers, and gyroscopes, normally used in a Prius could be used to make such a helmet. As one of the winners, this idea will now be pushed along to see if it can work at a reasonable price. No one wants a dumb head.
  • YOU CAN’T LIE TO YOUR ATM: The Russian Sberbank is testing an ATM with a built-in lie detector. The machine scans a passport, takes fingerprints and does a 3D facial scan. Then it uses voice-analysis software on spoken answers to recorded questions: nervousness and lying change the tone and pacing of speech. All this to work out if someone applying for a credit card is telling the truth. And if the machine makes you nervous — well, there go your chances of a credit card!
  • MEMORY FLASH: According to iSuppli Market Research Apple now buys more semiconductors than any other company, mainly because of the success of the iPhone and iPad. In 12 months Apple have moved up from 3rd place to 1st, and iSuppli expect Apple to extend their lead in the year to come. The semiconductors are used for NAND flash memory, among other things. That’s a big leap in one year.
  • PAID TO STAND AROUND: For a paraplegic Austin Whitney spends a lot of time standing up and walking around. A recent graduate, he now has a job testing a robotic exoskeleton at University of California at Berkeley. Eventually though he plans to study law. With so much attention on the technology of exoskeletons it’s easy to forget they’re actually all about the wearer.
  • STEAM AND MIRRORS: A new hybrid power plant will be built in Turkey, combining a traditional gas-fired steam turbine, solar thermal power and wind power. Tracking mirrors will focus sunlight on a tower to amplify the gas-powered steam turbine’s output, while a wind farm will feed in extra energy. The renewable sources are being added to an existing plant. The new plant is expected to be more than twice as efficient as other natural gas power plants. Shared systems help reduce costs. One day single-source energy may be considered quaint and simplistic.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 15 June 2011

  • DOUBLE DOUBLE: Performing a backflip on a motorbike is a pretty clever stunt. Doing a double backflip even more so. The other day at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas two action sports stars performed side-by-side double backflips on their motorcycles. Watch and enjoy.
  • WALK THIS WAY: You might think your latest pair of shoes look pretty smart, but they’re probably actually rather dumb. After all, do they report back to you exactly how you’re walking? Researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands created the ForceShoe. It’s been made to help people who are recovering from a stroke, but could also be useful in sports. Sensors at the heel and front of the foot measure force and movement, then send data wirelessly to a computer for analysis. Ministering to those with funny walks.
  • SKY GIANT: The 2.6 metre VLT survey telescope sits in Chile’s Atacama Desert where the skies are really clear. It’s the largest telescope in the world designed to survey the sky in visible light. Using a 268 megapixel camera the new telescope has already taken some images, and expects to produce around 30 terabytes of data per year. Two images that have just been released are a 660 MB picture of the Swan Nebula and a detailed shot of Omega Centauri. Take a look: they’re gorgeous. Video:
  • THE TWEETS HAVE IT: At the end of May amateur astronomers spotted a bright supernova erupting in the Whirlpool Galaxy. Then they tweeted about it, and that tweet was picked up by professional astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley. They got right onto it and were able to grab the spectrum of light from the supernova. It’s very rare for astronomers to catch a supernova erupting, and it turns out that Twitter is a great way to share such news. Stellar work, Twitter.
  • RED HOT SHIPPING: Researchers from the University of Melbourne and the King Abdulla University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have been thinking about whether the Leidenfrost effect could be used to reduce energy costs in shipping. In some cases where a hot object travels through a cooler liquid drag is reduced almost to the minimum possible. So perhaps a hot ship could travel more cheaply through the ocean because of reduced drag. And the costs of heating the ship in the first place?

Tech Universe: Thursday 16 June 2011

  • IT HOVERS!: The Australian Hoverbike looks like a motorbike except that the wheels are parallel to the ground. It has handlebars with a throttle control and another control for deflecting air. It’s still only in the ground testing phase. They expect that once it’s ready for flight it will be able to carry a 130 Kg person for up to 45 minutes flying. The 1170 cc hover bike is made from carbon fibre, Kevlar, and foam core and uses propellers made from oak. The makers estimate that it will be able to hover at over 3,000 metres, though it’s really designed for flying close to the ground. And we thought it’d be flying cars.
  • BAKER BOT: The PR2 robot at MIT’s Distributed Robotics Lab is being programmed to bake. The robot has to be to follow a long list of tasks while also recognising objects and executing control motions. A laser scanner and stereo camera allow it to locate the baking sheet and butter. It identifies other ingredients and supplies by colour and size, then follows hardcoded steps for mixing, scraping and making the biscuits the right size and shape. That’s the science of baking. It’ll be a challenge to incorporate the art of it.
  • METAL MIND: The Northwestern University School of Medicine in the US is testing a new way to steer an electric wheelchair. Since even paralysed people can still usually move their tongue, the user wears a magnetic stud in their tongue. A headset with sensors picks up the magnetic signals from the stud. The wheelchair user simply moves their tongue to change the wheelchair’s direction. Piercings: not just decorative.
  • SHIELDS UP: NASA’s Voyager probes have found something new at the edge of the solar system: they’ve encountered an area of frothy magnetic bubbles. Each bubble is around 160 million Km wide. Researchers think this zone has been created by the sun spinning and twisting its magnetic field. Now they’re trying to find out whether the magnetic bubbles protect us from cosmic rays. And one wonders how the disturbed magnetic fields may affect observations of the universe from Earth.
  • HOT BLUE: Bluetooth v4.0 is to include some profiles specifically designed for medical devices. The Health Thermometer Profile and the Heart Rate Profile allow wireless monitoring of body functions. For example a thermometer patch may send temperature readings to a mobile phone every half hour, letting parents watch a fevered child without disturbing them. Bluetooth v4.0 is expected to be embedded in new smartphones starting this year. Fitness fans will love this.

Tech Universe: Friday 17 June 2011

  • FLYING OR SAILING?: A flying yacht? This one of a kind craft was manufactured in France for corporate executives of the Masqat Airways air transport company. As a plane it has a range of 600 Km. As a yacht the wings transform into 4 masts to support the sails and can presumably sail as long as there’s wind. It’s definitely bizarre.
  • HEART YOUR PHONE: Just in case you quickly need to monitor your heart, the Smartheart personal electrocardiogram (ECG) can be right at your side. It turns your smartphone into a hospital-grade ECG. A single monitor straps to the chest and sends data to a smartphone wirelessly. Within 30 seconds your results are ready and can be emailed or faxed to your doctor. Treat your smartphone well — it may save your life Video:
  • MOON AND MORE: China’s Chang’e-2 spacecraft has been orbiting the moon, but now it’s off to outer space, 1.5 million Km away. While orbiting the moon it took photos of both poles, and the Sinus Iridum, where future lunar missions may land. The long distance mission brings challenges in communications and control. China’s planned lunar missions include a landing and a lunar rover, and collecting soil samples. It’s good to know it’s not just NASA out there.
  • STREAMING EYEZ: Eyez video recording glasses look like an ordinary pair of specs, even while they’re recording video and audio at high quality to the 8 Gb of installed flash memory. The battery lasts up to 3 hours. Wireless and Bluetooth connections make it easy to share recordings. Paired with a smartphone, videos can stream directly to the web. Unfortunately the glasses are still only a prototype. To avoid embarrassment, just make sure you know when the glasses are streaming.
  • HAIR WRITING: The point of an ad is probably to be seen. That’s a bit hard when the ad covers only 100 microns and is written on a human hair with the help of ions and an electron microscope. Gillette wanted to emphasise how precise its blades are and organised the stunt. I’m sure a lot of people would be very happy if all ads were that small.

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.