28 November to 02 December 2011 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 28 November 2011

  • BOAT TRACKS: Dump your boat trailer. The Iguana yacht can make its own way into and out of the water using its retractable caterpillar tracks. The yacht is 8.6 metres long, weighs 2 tonnes and can carry 10 passengers. It can travel at 35 knots at sea. Ah, but what’s its speed in traffic? Iguana Yachts.
  • FOAMING GAS: Nano-stuff is very small, which makes it really hard to work with. So researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made continuous graphene nanosheets into a kind of foam then used it to detect gases. Gas particles stick to the graphene surface and change the electrical resistance. The larger sheet of foam was much easier to work with than nano-sized particles. The foam performs better than current sensors at detecting potentially dangerous and explosive chemicals, and it works at room temperature. Graphene certainly seems to be the new miracle substance. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
  • HEART RACER: The Vital Signs Camera App from Philips uses the iPad 2 camera to remotely measure your heart and breathing rates. Place the iPad on a table and sit still in front of it for a few moments. The camera detects small changes in the colour and blood flow in your face and the motion of your chest as you breathe. With this one narcissists will probably always have an elevated heart rate. Vital Signs Camera.
  • ROTORS, ROTORS EVERYWHERE: Scotland’s about to build a 6MW wind turbine just off its East Coast as part of its goal for 100% renewable energy. The turbine features 2 blades and a helicopter landing pad. That’s a challenging landing spot for pilots. Clean Technica.
  • KOREAN BOOKINGS: The Kyobo eReader is based on Qualcomm’s 5.7 inch Mirasol display and Snapdragon processor. The low-power colour device can be used in sunshine and the display is also capable of refreshing quickly enough for video. About 93,000 ebooks are currently available for the Kyobo. The South Korean Culture Ministry plans to invest in ebook tech for the next 5 years to help nurture the industry. Authors: this may be yet another format to add to the list, but at least you could add video. The Korea Herald.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 29 November 2011

  • AESTHETIC ALGORITHM: The Aesthetic Image Search program from Xerox automatically categorises images into good and bad. Its algorithms first understand the content of the image, without needing text tags. Then it filters the images for good or bad aesthetic elements, using known photographic principles such as avoiding cluttered backgrounds. Its results show images in 2 groups: good and bad aesthetics. So binary, but surprisingly accurate. Open Xerox.
  • ROTARY MOVES: Seeing a helicopter land on the bed of a moving truck is a bit special. But when you find out the helicopter is an autonomous drone, with no pilot, then it really is something. The Boeing H-6U Unmanned Little Bird rotorcraft was getting in a bit of practice for landing on an aircraft carrier even in high seas and low visibility. It’s a big jump from a smoothly horizontal flatbed truck to a heaving aircraft carrier. sUAS News.
  • FINGERS IN THE AIR: Microsoft’s Kinect pops up all over the place as a control system for games, scientific projects and other gestural interfaces. Now it has a rival: the Russian Displair projects images onto a stream of cold fog and allows a person to interact with the images by gesture alone. Where Kinect detects large body movements, Displair uses an infrared camera to capture fine hand gestures. Cold fog though? TechCrunch.
  • ROBOTS IN PRISON: In South Korea robots are soon to become prison guards — for a month long trial in one prison, anyway. They’ll patrol the corridors and monitor conditions inside the cells. Sudden or unusual activity will cause them to alert the human guards. Unlike passive cameras, the robots can analyse activity and assess whether it may cause a problem. The appearance of the robots is being customised to make them appear humane and friendly. It’ll be interesting to see if the prisoners bond with guard robots the way people do with carer robots. The Wall Street Journal.
  • CARTERCYCLE: Car? Scooter? Motorbike? How about all three rolled into one package? The Tilter is an ultra-compact electric vehicle for city dwellers. It puts an air-conditioned cabin around a 3-wheeled vehicle that’s not much bigger than a scooter. The doors slide open towards the front of the vehicle, and the seats resemble car seats, although they’re inline rather than side by side. The back seat flips up if you need to carry goods rather than a passenger. A built-in smartphone dock will let you use custom apps as a car computer. The Tilter can travel 120 Km on a charge at speeds up to 110 Kph. It’s an innovative idea for a vehicle. Tilter.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 30 November 2011

  • CURIOUS CAR: NASA’s latest Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, Curiosity, is now on its way to Mars, expected to land in around 250 days. The vehicle is about the size of a car and weighs 900 Kg. A lab on wheels it will sample rocks and soil then analyse them with the equipment it carries. The rover communicates with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, but also directly with Earth if necessary. Here’s hoping it surpasses even Spirit and Opportunity in its usefulness and longevity. NASA.
  • PHONES WITH STAMINA: Finnish researchers reckon they can cut power consumption of 3G smart phones up to 74%. Their solution is to optimise a network proxy. They say that properly optimised websites and more efficient data caching could also make a big difference to how long phone batteries last. Their work should have a big impact in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda where many people have cellphones, but limited access to electricity for recharging them. Those sound like just the countries where small-scale solar power charging stations could be a big hit too. AlphaGalileo.
  • ROAD JUICE: Imagine being able to charge up your electric car just by driving along the road. Researchers from Stanford University believe it should be possible to embed special coils in roads to transfer power to cars with similar coils. Calculations suggest that in only 7 microseconds a set of resonant coils and discs could transfer about 10 kilowatts with 97% efficiency. The resonance of the two coils needs to be carefully tuned for the system to work. Get those regular tune ups or your car may run out of juice in the middle of the road. New Scientist.
  • BULLET RECOGNITION: Scottish police are using a high-res 3D camera to take images of bullets and cartridges found at crime scenes. The images are matched with those from bullets found at other crime scenes across the UK and Europe. Police hope to find matches and links with other crimes that will help them catch the perpetrators. Every day it’s that bit harder to hide. BBC.
  • PATTERN MATCHING: Palantir Technologies is a US company that collates information — the sort of information that law enforcement agencies are interested in. The datamining software pulls together information about banking transactions, travel, communications and human activities such as taking photos of public places to identify patterns of possible suspicious activities. Palantir reaches into existing databases, such as those held by the FBI and CIA to collate disparate yet connected items of information. The software has its roots in PayPal where staff developed ways to deal with suspicious transactions that may have been part of money laundering schemes. But really its the interpretation of the data and patterns that counts. Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tech Universe: Thursday 01 December 2011

  • BUILDING BY NUMBERS: In Orléans, France, robots are to build a 6 metre tall tower made of 1,500 prefabricated polystyrene foam modules. A fleet of quadrocopters, controlled by a central command, will do the actual work. The whole thing’s an art installation, but the idea of automated robot assembly of a structure is an interesting one. Dezeen. See a fleet of quadrocopters flying in formation —
  • GREEN LIGHT FOR POOP: Ads spend a lot of time encouraging us to get rid of bacteria, but now Philips want us to keep them around instead. Their poop-powered light idea uses bioluminescent bacteria to provide a room with a gentle ambient green glow. The bacteria would feed on the sludge produced by a methane digester that processes household waste. The concept is part of a larger idea called the Microbial Home that would recycle waste products into useful sources of energy. There should be no such thing as waste. Philips. and The Microbial Home.
  • SUPERGIANT INBOX: If you think processing the couple of megabytes in your email In Box is an achievement consider what you’d do with more than one Exabyte of raw data per day. That’s how much data the Square Kilometre Array will generate. The SKA will begin construction in 2016 in either South Africa or Australia and New Zealand. IBM has successfully prototyped new software for automating that data management and reveal insights about the Universe. At least some of the work it will do is currently handled manually. That’s the trouble with the Universe — it just contains so much information! SKA Telescope via emailed press release.
  • IS THAT DATA IN YOUR BASEMENT?: More and more researchers are trying to figure out ways to keep server farms cool and maybe even make use of their surplus heat. Now US researchers have suggested siting small server farms called data furnaces in the basements of apartment blocks and office buildings to help warm them up. Obviously the data and the equipment would need to be secured against intrusions, but the researchers seem to think the idea could work. And if the server’s used for criminal purposes would the homeowners be held liable, benefiting from the proceeds of crime? New York Times.
  • CROWDED WHALES: Computer tech can sometimes only do half a job and we humans need to clean up at the end. That’s the case with one crowdsourced project at the moment: Whale FM. Marine researchers recorded songs of whales in various locations and are now looking for patterns in the song. At the Zooniverse website visitors compare whalesongs and decide whether or not they match using both the sound and a spectrogram of the sound as aids. Software has already grouped the calls by probable similarity, but a human decision is still needed. It’s a nice way to while away some time on a rainy day. Whale FM.

Tech Universe: Friday 02 December 2011

  • OLD NEWS: Dying to catch up on the events of 150 years ago? You may no longer need to visit the Library or Archive in person. The British Library digitised up to 8,000 pages per day of newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s free to search the 12 billion words of the archive but accessing the actual content requires paying a fee. Scanning hasn’t stopped either: the Library plan to digitise up to another 40 million newspaper pages over the next 10 years. Researchers will be very happy about this. BBC. The British Newspaper Archive:
  • CODED FISH: That fish you’re eating — is it really what it’s claimed to be? Well, maybe you could check its barcode. DNA barcoding is gradually being accepted around the world as a way to verify the species of fish. For instance, a sample of the fish caught by a trawler may be tested and barcoded as a way to certify its authenticity. This may help avoid cheaper fish being misrepresented as being a more valuable species, or endangered species being sold as a more common variety. Look for a thriving industry next of swapping and forging barcodes. AP.
  • SHAPESHIFTER: It oozes; it slithers; it undulates. It probably even does the Limbo. A soft robot from Harvard is made of elastomers. The robot is made to move by filling chambers within its body with compressed air. The starfish-shaped robot can slither into confined spaces, perhaps under a door. Although resistant to toppling over or falling it’s very vulnerable because of its soft body. If you need some slithering done though, it’s your go-to robot. DVICE.
  • PAPER TIES: For those who just can’t end their love affair with print the Little Printer may prolong the euphoria just a bit longer. A tiny cube holds a holds a compact, inkless, thermal printer that connects to the web via wireless. It checks sources and creates a supermarket receipt style magazine for you as often as you like — perhaps twice a day. Your magazine could include puzzles, headlines, FourSquare checkins, ToDo lists and other items. All the fun and inconvenience of being tied to the 20th century! Berg Cloud.
  • STICK TO YOUR KNITTING: 2011 has been the International Year of Chemistry, so to celebrate chemists across New Zealand have knitted a 3.7 metre by 1.9 metre periodic table of the elements. The item took more than 3 months for 162 knitters to create and contains 8 Km of pure wool. Clearly chemists can do anything. University of Waikato News.

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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.