05 to 09 December 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday, 5 December 2011

  • I ROBOT: Qbo is a cute little robot that can recognise both faces and objects. In one recent experiment Qbo did something most animals can’t do: it learned to recognise its own image in a mirror. Robots 1; dogs 0. The Corpora Robotic Company.
  • THYME FOR SCHOOL: The Thymio II robot from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne has a mission: to teach schoolkids about technology. The 11 cm x 11 cm wheeled robot includes half a dozen sensors and LEDs and has a slot for a memory card. It has proximity sensors, an accelerometer, a microphone and a temperature sensor. A USB port allows the robot to connect to a computer where open source software can be used to program it. It’s not as cute as Qbo though. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
  • LACY TIRES: Do you regularly check the air pressure in your vehicle’s tires? I thought not. New tires from Bridgestone don’t even need air. Instead carefully patterned spokes made from a recyclable thermoplastic resin form a lattice on the side of the tire for support. Cross another annoyance for car owners off the list. Tech-On.
  • WINDOW SMARTS: Windows are a bit of a problem when it comes to heat. In the summer they let heat in and in the winter they let it out, so we end up adding extra cooling or heating to make a room comfortable. Window coatings reduce heat coming in on sunny summer days, but then the winter sun doesn’t warm the room either. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are exploring using nanocrystals to change the window surface dynamically. Charge the nanocrystals with a small electric current and they can allow light but not heat through. Hook the windows into a sensor system and they could dynamically adapt to conditions keeping the building at just the right temperature. Keeping winter warmth in sounds like a great idea. NPR.
  • BABY FOLDING: Got a baby? Need a stroller? The Origami baby stroller does the hard folding work for you. A built-in generator charges the system while you walk, which is just as well because the stroller includes daytime running lights and pathway lights. An LCD screen shows information such as the weather, your walking speed and whether a child is actually in the seat. And when you want to fold the stroller to put it in the car or to store till tomorrow press a button and it folds itself. Caution: remove baby before folding stroller. 4Moms.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 06 December 2011

  • CITY CAR: The Kobot concept vehicle from Kowa-TMSUK is an idea for an electric vehicle that could ease congestion in a city centre or be used in environmentally sensitive tourist areas. The compact 1-seater vehicle can actually fold up for parking. The idea would be to have fleets of the vehicles available for hire at mass parking lots on the periphery of the city. Or just own your own. Gizmag.
  • CABLE STRETCHES: As we humans move our skin and muscles stretch and contract to fit. Robots also need to stretch as they move, but the power cables they rely on are a fixed length. Roboden from Asahi Kasei Fibers is an elastic electrical cable that solves that problem as it stretches and contracts as needed. The technology is also available for USB and signal cables. Next: robot yoga. DigInfo News.
  • MODEL PHOTOS: Once upon a time a photo used to be able to prove something. Now images are so easily altered we can’t trust any of them. Computer scientists at Dartmouth College in the USA have created software that can indicate just how different an altered image is from an original. The software ignores global changes such as cropping, but instead can show that a person’s body shape has been altered, for example making a fashion model look slimmer. Perhaps it would be easier to just mark images that haven’t been altered. Scientific American.
  • 3D BONES: Researchers from Washington State University successfully used a 3D printer to create scaffolding for bone regrowth. A bone-like material is printed and then new real bone grows around it. Eventually the printed scaffold dissolves away, leaving the actual bone in place. Before long doctors should be able to use this technique to help repair human bones. Printing human body parts seems to be a growth area. Washington State University.
  • MEDICAL SMARTPHONE: The capacitive touchscreen on a smartphone is pretty sensitive. Scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology hope to use that sensitivity to analyse substances, for example, for medical purposes. For testing they used solutions of DNA from the bacteria that causes chlamydia. The screens were sensitive enough to detect differing levels of capacitance among the various solutions. In the real world there will need to be a way to protect the screens, so the scientists are also developing a film for the screen that biological samples could be attached to. Imagine being able to do a quick and cheap analysis in countries where larger more expensive technology is very restricted or far away. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 07 December 2011

  • SECRETS OF USB: Do you keep all your secrets on a USB stick? The Crypteks USB drive uses 256 bit AES hardware encryption to help keep it safe, but more than that it adds a combination lock sleeve to keep it extra safe. Without the correct combination from more than 14 million possibilities the USB stick can’t be removed from the sleeve. Spies and politicians take note. Crypteks. Video:
  • SECRETS OF PAPER: On TV investigators may quickly reassemble shredded papers for the vital clues they need, but in real life it’s not that simple. US agency DARPA set it as a challenge with a $50,000 prize to find the messages in a pile of shredded paper. The winning team used a visual recognition program they created to help a user find and place the right pieces. After 33 days of work the team was successful in sorting the 10,000 pieces of paper. Better keep those secrets on a double-encrypted USB stick! Wired.
  • LED SECRETS: We always seem to want things faster, cheaper and using less energy. A special ultrafast nanoscale LED from Stanford University can transmit data on a computer chip at 10 billion bits per second. This LED operates at room temperature and like a laser, it emits light at only a single wavelength. The LED is made of quantum dots of the light-emitting material indium arsenide. Tiny holes etched in a semiconductor around the quantum dots act as a mirror to focus the light. The team claim the system is 2,000 times more energy efficient than best devices in use today. The laser that isn’t a laser? Stanford University.
  • PLANE SECRETS: Stealth aircraft like to hide, so they’re often painted in black or other dark colours. At the University of Michigan scientists are working with carbon nanotubes that absorb absorb a broad spectrum of light almost perfectly. If carbon nanotubes are grown with spaces between them they don’t scatter light, meaning that radar signals, for example, don’t bounce back. This finding could lead to a paint containing the nanotubes. That paint could then cover stealth aircraft with an invisibility cloak. A completely invisible plane could be a danger on the airfield though — they’d have to leave the lights on all the time to be able to find it. Technology Review.
  • NO SECRETS: German and Japanese scientists have teamed up to create Mask-bot: a human-like face for a robot. They use a projector to beam the 3D image of a human face onto the back of a plastic mask, while a computer controls the voice and facial expressions. The prototype manages to look a lot like a real talking person. Mask-bot displays realistic 3D heads on a transparent plastic mask, unlike other similar devices that simply project a face onto the front of the mask. The system works in daylight, thanks to a strong projector and a coat of luminous paint. A computer algorithm matches specific expressions to phonemes, and applies appropriate expressions for emotional nuances. The researchers think this could be useful in creating a companion robot for older people. At least it would have an off switch. ScienceDaily.

Tech Universe: Thursday 08 December 2011

  • RESCUE STAT!: Lifeguards at beaches may need to spend precious minutes launching a craft to reach the casualty they’re rescuing. Or they may just swim out and have reduced energy for the rescue itself. One project in the annual James Dyson Award is a prototype small powered flotation device called the ASAP. The small device runs on a solar powered Lithium Ion battery and can easily be launched by one person. It’s designed to float a casualty with their head tilted back and facing the lifeguard for monitoring and rescue breaths. A small but powerful idea. James Dyson Foundation.
  • FLEXI CHIPS: Silicon is the familiar basis of computer chips, but it has some problems. One is that below a certain minimum size it becomes unstable and useless. But there’s a new substance that could replace it: the abundant and naturally occurring molybdenite. The Laboratory of Nanoscale Electronics and Structures has created a working prototype integrated circuit using molybdenite and shown that basic binary logic operations are possible. Molybdenite can be worked in layers only 3 atoms thick meaning small and even flexible devices are possible. The material rivals silicon and even graphene in its properties. Abundant, and naturally occurring are also great features. EurekAlert!
  • ATTRACTION PLUS: Feeling magnetic today? Looking for friends or business relationships? The magnetU device may be what you need. The tiny social networking gadget holds information such as your Twitter or Facebook profiles, and a set of ‘social desires’ that you feed in via a web page. When you’re near another magnetU carrier whose profile or desires match yours the device alerts you via an SMS to your phone. Become Facebook friends or exchange business details by touching the devices together. It’s a bit like a tech version of a moodring. magnetU. Video:
  • SIGNATURE SMELL: In opera and movies different characters often have unique music associated with them to help the audience know who’s who — a Leitmotif. Now a team at the National University of Singapore are bringing something like that to real life. Their Sound Perfume glasses include an odour emitter and speakers, and a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. The wearer can choose one specific perfume from eight and a sound to be emitted when they meet others. When two Sound Perfume users meet, an infrared sensor in the glasses triggers an exchange of address cards on the phones which in turn triggers the sound and scent. Initial testing suggests this helps people form a positive first impression. It just smells wrong to me. New Scientist.
  • THE UPSIDE OF SPAM: Spammers keep changing their techniques so their messages avoid spam filters, and Microsoft works hard to update the computer algorithms that keep email streams clean. Meanwhile, in the field of medicine, researchers are trying to figure out how HIV mutates so they can develop effective vaccines. Spot the similarities? These commonalities have brought the Microsoft Research team into the world of HIV research. By applying their anti-spam algorithms to HIV data they’re able to highlight areas the medical researchers should work on. Since the analysis exposes how the human immune system works the results are also useful for cancer researchers and other medical studies. It’s a shame it took spammers to trigger this kind of scientific analysis. Microsoft Research.

Tech Universe: Friday 09 December 2011

  • CUTE UTE: We’ve all seen the cute little Smart cars tootling around town, but soon the Smart range may include a cute Ute. The For-US pickup truck is an electric powered two-seater with a 90 cm cargo tray in the back for a couple of electric bikes and an integrated docking station for them. I guess at a tad under a metre there’d be room for shopping bags or luggage, but I’m not sure about hauling your home handy building supplies. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • MUSCLING IN ON WIRELESS: The US Federal Communications Commission has now set aside some of its radio spectrum for use by medical devices. Medical Micropower Networks are ultra-low power wideband networks of multiple transmitters implanted in the body. The transmitters use electric currents to help take the place of damaged nerves and muscles. With access to this chunk of the spectrum they can be further tested and developed. Every body wants in on the spectrum these days. Federal Communications Commission.
  • CHIPS AND DIP: Different liquids have different surface tensions — some bead up while others flatten when they contact a surface. Physicists at Harvard University have figured out how to exploit that property to create materials that can name an unknown hazardous substance. A special lab-grown opal is applied to a metal chip and then crystals are grown on the chip to create an even surface. But when a specific concentration of water and ethanol is applied the water beads in such a way as to create words. This Watermark Ink could be used to coat a chip for dipping into unknown hazardous substances, for example if they were spilled on the road. The name of the substance would then appear on the chip. Hmm, guacamole, I believe. io9.
  • STRETCHING BOUNDARIES: If you put a single molecule in a junction between a pair of gold electrodes to form a simple circuit and stretch it, conductance goes down. But if you stretch it enough conductance rockets up, making it 10 times more conductive than if not stretched at all. It’s all to do with quantum mechanics and reduced barriers to electrons tunneling through the molecule. This finding could allow new types of electronic devices. I wish my money had those kind of stretching properties. Arizona State University.
  • DON’T DROWSE DRIVERS: Falling asleep at the wheel is a sure precursor to an accident. A prototype system from Denso Corp uses a camera on the steering column to take pictures of a driver’s face. The system extracts multiple feature points from the facial image and checks muscular activities to determine how drowsy the driver is. Because the system uses more than just the eyes to reflect drowsiness it can detect problems early on. I could use this at my desk. Tech On!

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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 as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.

While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.