31 January to 03 February 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Tuesday 31 January 2012

  • LONG LAUNCH: So you think you’ve seen rocket launches: that big whoosh and the thing hurtles into the sky. It’s all over in seconds. Not if you watch the narrated 8 minute version of the launch of Apollo 11 on 16 July 1969. The launch was recorded on film at a massive 500 frames per second. So what took 30 seconds of real time takes 8 minutes in this video, with fascinating detail. There’s a lot more goes on that just a whoosh and a roar. Spacecraft Films.
  • ATTRACTIVE SOAP: Oil spills. Sigh. They’re an enormous problem to clean up, but scientists at the University of Bristol may have something to help. They dissolved iron in liquid surfactant to create a soap that can be controlled by magnets. The magnetic properties could mean that the soap can be readily removed from the environment once it’s done it’s cleaning job. And, with any luck, recycled too. University of Bristol.
  • JAWS OF DEATH: Researcher at the University of California, Irvine tethered a transistor 25 times smaller than the circuitry in smartphones to teardrops. They aimed to discover how the antiseptic proteins called lysozymes in our tears actually destroy dangerous bacteria. They used the transistor to listen to a single molecule of protein. What the transistor showed is that lysozymes have jaws that latch on and chomp through rows of cell walls. The researchers hope this technique may prove useful in detecting cancerous molecules. I have visions of old-style video games. University of California, Irvine.
  • SEE HOW IT RUNS: The Genius BlueEye DX-Eco wireless mouse won’t chew through batteries the way other mice sometimes do. That’s because it doesn’t need batteries to run. Instead it uses a gold capacitor that you charge for about 3 minutes per day. The makers claim you can recharge it up to 100,000 times. Hooray. No more worrying about how to dispose of dead batteries. Genius.
  • DON’T GET TOO COMFY: Sitting in one position all day can cause all kinds of problems for the human body. And while for some of us, that just means we don’t get up and walk around often enough, for people who use wheelchairs it can be a serious problem. Engineers from Empa and the company «r going» in Switzerland are testing a new ergonomic seat for electric wheelchairs. The backrest of the seat shell is constructed of ribs and joints which simulate the structure of a human torso. An ergotherapist uses a console to program the movements of the backrest. Meanwhile, a pressure mat on the seat measures how the users change their sitting position, shifting the location of pressure points. Initial testing suggests this approach will be effective in helping users change their position frequently. It’s a sort of high-tech poke in the ribs then. Empa.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 01 February 2012

  • LEANING TOWARDS MILAN: Normally if a building’s on a lean you’d stay clear of it. Except in Pisa, Italy, of course. Now Milan has a pair of hotels that lean on purpose. The architect designed in a 5 degree lean on the pair of buildings that make up the NH Fiera hotel. It must have been a nightmare for the builders, trying to keep everything ‘square’. NH Hotels.
  • DRIVING MARS: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created a couple of interactive websites that let visitors ‘drive around’ on Mars. You have to install the Unity Web Player browser plugin, but once it’s installed you have an interactive, 360 degree view to play with, tilting the view, zooming in and turning around. Go play on Mars. Gizmodo. Explore Mars: Curiosity. Explore Mars: Spirit’s Journey.
  • SCIENCE AND ART COLLIDE: In the past to test if a work of art was a forgery you’d have to take a physical sample and destroy it. Now nuclear physicists at the University of Notre Dame, USA, test using accelerated ion beams. The proton beam causes electrons to rearrange themselves and emit electromagnetic radiation that betrays what elements make up the work. This helps identify the composition of pigments or other materials, revealing forgeries. It also helps explain where ancient artefacts derived from, revealing trading partners for example. Ah, an archaeological tricorder. Physics Today.
  • PRECISION DRONE: You’d think the Americans were the only ones to have drone military aircraft. But the Europeans are making headway too: the nEUROn is a technology demonstrator for a European Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle. It’s the first stealth combat drone developed in Europe on behalf of half a dozen countries. One of its capabilities will be to drop Precision Guided Munitions. The maiden flight is expected in the middle of this year. Let’s hope the precision extends to hitting real targets and not civilians. The Aviationist.
  • FISH FEED: Last year’s tsunami in Japan hit the fishing industry hard. One fishing firm, Sanriku Toretate Ichiba, have installed web cams on their vessels. As they catch fish they sell them online, rather than simply bringing the catch to market in port. They hope to help make fishing more sustainable by matching supply and demand and reducing the quantity of fish that goes to waste. If you’re buying from a seller you trust, why would you need a physical marketplace? New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Thursday 02 February 2012

  • FLY AND DRIVE: Is that a plane in your garage? Terrafugia’s Transition vehicle is a ‘roadable aircraft’. It’s a light-sport aircraft that must operate out of an airport, but it can fold its wings, shift power from the propeller to the rear wheels and drive on the roads. It includes such car safety features as airbags and crumple zones. It’s intended to allow you to drive from home to the airport, fly to an airport near your destination and then drive the rest of the way. It uses petrol rather than aviation fuel. That vehicle idea just might fly. CNN.
  • WIRELESS OLYMPICS: The 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games will be challenging in many ways, not least of which is the demand for wireless connections. With more than 26,000 members of the press expected to attend there’s an enormous demand for wireless for broadcast use. Ofcom, the provider, will be borrowing spectrum from the Ministry of Defence and taking over whitespace freed up by turning off analogue TV. Hey folks, keep in mind that every single spectator also plans on using wireless to live tweet the events! BBC.
  • BIG PHISH: The big email providers want to clean up emails, especially spam and phishing. To that end they’re collaborating on Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance, a specification for email authentication. Contributors include Google, AOL, Facebook, PayPal, Microsoft and Yahoo. Anything anyone can do to help kill off spam is a welcome contribution. DMARC.
  • SMART GPS: Microsoft’s Pedestrian Route Production will combine data from GPS, weather reports, crime statistics and demographics. Then it will advise users on routes that avoid dangerous parts of town, bad weather and difficult terrain. Will it also stop people from blindly driving into rivers because the GPS showed that was the way to go? NPR.
  • SHOECAM: The Bootstrapper project at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany uses cameras below a table to record people’s feet. It’s not just any table though, but a touchscreen table being used by more than one person. The system identifies shoes and matches the wearer to actions on screen using arm position as a guide. The system is wide open to spoofing — a user could wear the same shoes as someone else. But it could be an adjunct to other more cumbersome techniques for tracking multiple touchscreen users. And maybe the shoes could include some kind of double authentication token too. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Friday 03 February 2012

  • 3D CRIME: There’s a crime scene, with all kinds of evidence, and investigators tromping around in the middle of it potentially creating problems. At the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands researchers are working on an augmented reality system to capture and mark images of a crime scene for later study back in the lab. First an investigator wears a head-mounted display that sends 3D video to a laptop in a backpack. They use hand gestures to overlay markers, for example pointing out a blood spatter. The system stores a 3D model of the scene, complete with overlay markers. That can’t be real — we haven’t seen it on TV yet. New Scientist.
  • THE SHINING: Need a bit more light? The 4Sevens XM18 ‘flashlight’ will surely exceed all your needs. With around 35 lithium batteries and 18 LED components it produces 15,000 lumens — enough to light up your whole neighbourhood. Just don’t point it up at the sky. 4Sevens.
  • A SHOT IN THE PARK: Engineers at the Sandia National Laboratories in the USA have created a bullet that can navigate for up to 2 Km at twice the speed of sound to reach its target. The bullets are about 10 cm long and have an optical sensor in the tip. The shooter shines a laser beam on a far-off target. Actuators inside the bullet respond to data from the sensor to steer it with tiny fins. The guidance means that even with cross-winds or changes in air density the bullets can be accurate to within a few centimetres. Moral of the story: if you’re a target, don’t stand still. Wired.
  • MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Spy movies prove to us that passwords can be hacked and fingerprint or retina scanners can be foiled. So how can we actually authenticate ourselves when security requires it? DARPA are exploring the idea that we all interact with our technology in unique ways, because we all think slightly differently. These cognitive fingerprints could also show whether the person who started a computer session is the same one continuing to work with it. Metrics could include keystrokes, eye tracking on the page and the specific language someone uses. Who would have thought it — our misuse of apostrophes could finally come in handy. Network World.
  • SENSITIVE PARKING: The SFPark program in San Francisco aims to help drivers find car parks, so reducing traffic congestion, accidents and pollution. A magnetic sensor is embedded in the ground beneath each parking spot and sends its data to a central management system. Drivers use a website or smart-phone app to see real-time data about where spots are free and how much they cost. That real-time data is also useful for city planners. Give it up; take the bus. Technology Review.

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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.

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