11 to 15 July 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 11 July 2011

  • SMART GLASSES: Oxford University in the UK have created an early version of an ordinary looking pair of glasses for people with extremely bad vision. Video cameras at the corners of the specs feed into a tiny pocket computer. The computer then lights up parts of an LED array in the lenses so the wearer can see objects in more detail. The real thing could include optical character recognition for reading newspaper headlines. The OCR sounds good — imagine glasses that could translate languages on the fly.
  • SOUND SPACE: Meanwhile Spanish engineers equipped sunglasses with two micro cameras and headphones in a system called EYE 21. The system makes a 3D model of the space the cameras see and represents it with sounds. A blind person can then hear the visual space around them and their brain reconstructs its shape. Shape recognition software could be a help too.
  • POLITE LOOKS: Add a camera and a computer to a pair of glasses and there are all kinds of things you can do. A scientist at the University of Cambridge in the UK is using facial expression analysis to help people recognise the emotions of those they’re talking to. A camera and software in a pair of glasses tracks 24 feature points on a face and matches expressions to a database. An earpiece advises the wearer of the findings, while a small light inside the lens provides quick alerts. Findings can also be displayed on a computer screen. In tests the 64% accuracy of the glasses beat out the 54% accuracy of humans. We all know people who could use these glasses.
  • MILLIPIXEL CAMERA: At Cornell University they’re making photos without a lens. The camera is a flat piece of doped silicon one 100th of a millimetre thick and half a millimetre on each side. It resolves images about 20 pixels across. It costs only a few cents to make and is incredibly small and light. The camera uses a maths principle called the Fourier transform to create an image. With a bit more sensitivity it could be used for cheap electronic that require only a simple visual system, perhaps for navigation. Follow the light.
  • GIGAPIXEL SPACE CAMERA: And to the other extreme: the European Space Agency is constructing the biggest, most sensitive digital camera ever intended for a space mission. The billion-pixel array uses 106 CCDs and will capture images for the Gaia mission to map the galaxy. Each detector measures 4.7×6 cm but is thinner than a human hair. Each CCD is so precisely placed in the mosaic that technicians added only 4 per day during construction. Gaia will orbit the sun 1.5 million Km behind the Earth for a clear view of the stars. There are cameras everywhere you look.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 12 July 2011

  • FLYING ON IMPULSE: The Solar Impulse is a 1600 Kg single-seater plane made of carbon fibre. 12,000 solar cells on the wings are its sole source of power. The total wingspan is 64 metres, and the plane is almost silent. The team aim to fly around the world within the next few years. We’ll never hear it coming.
  • JET SURFERS: Surfers may ride the waves in, but then they have to paddle back out again for the next one. The WaveJet board includes batteries and water jets that can move the board along at up to 19 Kph. Control comes through a wrist-strap remote. Dude.
  • ENJOY A COLD ONE: Japanese cosmetic companies are selling spray gels to help their customers cool off. The chilling foam hardens into a kind of string that can be used like a bracelet or necklace. Marketing is emphasising energy saved by not using air conditioning. I hate to think what’s actually in the products and what that’s doing to the environment.
  • SMART POOR: Indian authorities are trying out a biometric smart card as a way to ensure the poorest people receive food rations intended for them. Each eligible family in the test area gets a smart card that stores fingerprints, photographs and other details of the head of the family and 2 or more other members. Unlike paper ration books this should mean that subsidised food is provided only to those who are eligible. The card can also keep a record of purchases. Fingerprints too! They’re serious about this.
  • CLEAN CLOTHES: Scientists from the University of Georgia in the USA have developed an anti-microbial spray that kills many dangerous pathogens, such as staph, strep, E. coli, pseudomonas and acetinobacter. They intend it to be sprayed on clothing used by healthcare workers. Even hot water laundering doesn’t wash it out of clothing or degrade it. The chemistry behind the spray is simple and inexpensive. The war on germs never ends.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 13 July 2011

  • FLIP THE FLIER: At the ETH Zurich University in Switzerland researchers can control their quadrocopters with hand gestures alone. A Kinect registers movements that allow the controller to fly, land or flip the machine in a 10x10x10 metre space. A no-fly zone around the controller keeps them safe. No waving at visitors.
  • CASH PILLAR: People who can’t read and write still need to be able to get cash out of the bank, but traditional ATMs may be impossible for them to use. NCR is developing a pillar-shaped freestanding ATM for use in developing countries. It features a biometric fingerprint scanner, preset cash buttons and a dispenser. In research NCR found that people like a receipt, so it prints a receipt too. Users just scan their thumb, press a colour coded cash button and they’re done. Wouldn’t we all like a pillar of cash?
  • BUBBLE CAR: General Motors minuscule EN-V car is an intriguing concept. The designer refers to it as a ‘Segway in a bubble’. The 2-seater electric car travels at up to 40 Kph and has a range of 40 Km per charge within a specially designated zone. The electric networked vehicle (EN-V) has a GPS unit and sensors to avoid obstacles. It can also drive autonomously, perhaps dropping you off at work and returning home alone. It’s a fascinating idea, however it plays out.
  • DOLLY WANT A CRACKER: The world’s oldest commercial recording was made by Thomas Edison in 1883: a woman reciting a verse of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The cylindrical metal phonograph record was distorted and couldn’t be played on the usual equipment, so scientists used three-dimensional optical scanning instead. They recovered almost all of the recording. The record was probably intended to be used inside a talking doll. As usual, toys led technology, even then. Listen to the MP3 recording.
  • BOMB WEATHER: In World War 2 planes flew a huge number of bombing runs. One study of the effects of their contrails, in a time when there was no real civilian air traffic, has shown the raids may have affected the weather. The study showed increased cloud and lower temperatures as a result of aircraft gathering into formation, meaning the contrails were concentrated. “It was a cloudy, chilly day when the bombers took off…”

Tech Universe: Thursday 14 July 2011

  • EYE PHONE: Cataracts are the main cause of blindness. MIT’s CATRA project uses off-the-shelf components and a smartphone to help with diagnosis. The user looks into an eyepiece and responds to what they see. This could give people in developing countries ready access to low cost cataract diagnosis and help. Smartphone is such a misnomer. Video of the similar Netra for eyeglass prescriptions:
  • GENIUS EPLANE: The eGenius project at the University of Stuttgart created an electric plane that has both speed and range. A 56-kilowatt-hour battery pack powers a motor on the tail of a motor glider. In a recent test with 2 people aboard the plane flew at 160 Kph for around 2 hours — a total of 340 Km. These electric planes are starting to look useful.
  • SKY LOAD: The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope that Australia and New Zealand are bidding to host will generate more data per day than the entire internet when it’s up and running in 2020 — up to an exabyte a day of raw data. New data centres will need to be constructed to handle the load. The SKA will be 10,000 times more powerful than any current telescope. Do they need their own undersea cables too?
  • BRIGHT CARS: Jakarta in Indonesia is home to more than 10 million people and 200,000 street lights. Running those lights costs at least $17 million dollars per year. So they can add more lights but reduce costs researchers at the Institut Teknologi Bandung have an idea to switch on street lights only when vehicles are passing. Their idea uses a camera to detect vehicles, though it’s not very accurate yet. There are so many things wrong with that idea, from broken cameras to needing the light ahead not above.
  • CLAM ROCK: All high-tech was low-tech once. After all, we humans started by banging rocks together. An Australian Blackspot Tuskfish was photographed recently using a rock as a tool to open up a clam for dinner. Evidence of prior use was clear in the broken shells around its anvil rock. Can we be sure it wasn’t a game of rock, clam, seaweed Spock?

Tech Universe: Friday, 15 July 2011

  • HD EYE: Tanya Vlach is an American who lost an eye in a car accident. She has plans though to create and use a bionic eye by adding an HD cam, Bluetooth and wireless to her artificial eye. Oh, along with optical zoom, Firewire, AV out and a power source. And she has a list of desirable features too, including geotagging, facial recognition and blinking to capture stills. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.
  • HOT METAL: A new metal alloy from the University of Minnesota exploits small temperature differences to create electricity. The material is a non-magnetic solid but when heated a little it becomes highly-magnetic. That phase change can induce a current in a coil connected to a magnet. This could be used to recover waste heat from computers or car exhausts. It could even generate electricity from the difference between the temperatures of ground water and air. Every trickle of energy builds the current.
  • SPORTY WATCH: VEA’s new Sportive mobile watch lets you carry a bunch of things on your wrist while you run, including camera, MP3 player, phone, cardio monitor, watch. It has Bluetooth and USB too. Now all you need is a bunch of money.
  • PIXEL COAT: David Forbes wears a lab coat that plays The Simpsons. It’s a wearable TV driven by circuit boards on the shoulders and hips. The 160×120 pixel colour LED display is built on flex boards hotglued onto a lab coat. There are controls for colour and brightness and the video is provided by an iPod. Total cost: 6 months and $20,000. Makers, your inspiration is here.
  • TIXEL TICKLE: One major drawback of multi-touch screens is that you need to be able to see them. Senseg E-Sense replicates the feeling of touch with a tiny electrical charge. The charge passes through tixels to create a controlled electric field several millimeters above the surface that attracts skin. Modulating the field changes the nature of the sensation. Tixels? A portmanteau word from tactile pixels. How long till they’re simply called ‘tickles’?

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.