05 March to 09 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 05 March 2012

  • MARVIN SHOPPING CART: As if supermarket shopping isn’t annoying enough the prototype Kinect-enabled shopping cart from Whole Foods could drive you crazy. OK, it’s a nice idea: the cart knows your shopping list, follows you around and chats away with advice and feedback. Your role is to take items from the shelf and pass them across the scanner in the cart. But somehow the whole approach just feels wrong. “Are you sure you want to buy that chocolate?” GeekWire.
  • ROCKS ON THE SOLES: Kevlar socks? You’d normally associate kevlar with bulletproof vests, but these socks are designed to replace shoes. The Swiss Protection Sock combines kevlar, polyester, spandex and cotton, and the soles are laminated. The makers claim the socks can protect your feet from rocks, glass and even broken porcelain. They may not cut, but the pointy bits still jab hard. Dvice.
  • NO SHOW ZONE: There’s an ad showing at a bus stop in Oxford Street, London. But it’s not showing to everyone, only those who match certain criteria. An HD camera and facial recognition software determine whether a man or woman is standing in front of the screen. Women see a video while men are directed to a website and denied the choice to view the full content. The ad’s making a point — that women in many places are denied choices due to poverty and discrimination. Presumably shoulder-surfing is a quick way round with this stunt, but the implications in general are very interesting. Plan UK.
  • PAINLESS LIGHT: A team of researchers from several universities may have found a way to replace a dentist’s injections with pulses of light. A molecule called QAQ doesn’t easily pass through cell membranes. And that means it could be be very selective as a local anaesthetic. Once in place a pulse of light can cause it to block specific pain receptors in nerves. And that means a dentist could block pain from just one tooth without making the whole side of your face numb. ArsTechnica.
  • TREES FROM SPACE: Our New Zealand forests are reasonably tall, according to a new map produced by NASA. The accurate, high-resolution map of the height of Earth’s forests was created using 2.5 million carefully screened, globally distributed laser pulse measurements from space, or LIDAR. In fact, although JPL determined that forests tend to be taller in tropical regions Australia and New Zealand are exceptional because of stands of tall Eucalypts. The eyes in the sky know all. JPL. Map:

Tech Universe: Tuesday 06 March 2012

  • BLUE SPOTTED WALLS: What’s a cheap way to find out where your house is leaking heat? Not a standard thermal camera, because they cost thousands. But perhaps a $40 open source DIY detector would do the job. It’s a thermal flashlight built around a single infrared thermometer. The thermometer picks up varying levels of radiation coming from a wall. The data goes to a microprocessor that responds by shining coloured LED lights, blue for cool and red for warm. Use a camera to capture the coloured light on the wall and see where the heat leak problems are. The device comes from the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science in the USA. Brilliant. New Scientist.
  • UPLIFTING: Air Danshin Systems are fitting 88 buildings in Japan with a special air cushion. Their idea is that a sensor detects an oncoming earthquake and in less than 1 second an air compressor lifts the building as high as 3cm off the ground. Once the quake has passed the building sinks back to its foundation. There’s creative thinking. Spoon & Tamago.
  • CAMERA RANGER: Samsung has a new CMOS sensor that captures both RGB and range at the same time. The sensor includes normal-sized red, green and blue pixels, as well as a large Z pixel. The Z pixel uses a time-of-flight method to detect range. The range detection ability could mean that ordinary digital cameras could detect gestures in the way a Kinect does. Given how often the Kinect is popping up in useful but clunky tech ideas, having the capabilities in a much smaller package sounds ideal. Tech-On!
  • FRUIT APP: When fruit ripens it changes chemically. Now imagine holding your smartphone over the fruit and getting a reading of whether it’s still good to eat. That’s what the new silk-based sensors designed by scientists at Tufts University can do. Embedded in the silk are sensors made of fine gold antennae. The silk film works like glue to stick the sensors to the fruit, while the sensors change their electromagnetic signal as the fruit ripens. Better: use the app to choose the best fruit while you’re buying it. Co.Exist.
  • CHARGE CARD: Come home and toss your phone on the shelf so it can charge up. That’s what the Duracell Powermat WiCC could make real for us. The Wireless Charging Card relies on the phone including a couple of extra connectors, then it fits inside the device’s case. When you put the device onto the Powermat it charges up. WiCC cards also double as NFC antennae so device makers don’t even have to allow extra space. We can only hope. Engadget.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 07 March 2012

  • HOT HEADS: Fraunhofer IZM have developed a prototype solar powered helmet that skiers or cyclists could use for powering their MP3 player, smartphone and other devices. The solar cells have been specially designed to fit to the curve of a helmet, bike, clothing or other objects without losing performance. A specialised microcontroller also makes recharging at temperatures between -30°C and +60°C possible. Charging all your devices sounds like a great excuse to go skiing. Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
  • SHOOTING INTO SPACE: When it comes to hurling a payload into space, most of the fuel is used in moving the fuel itself. Very little applies to the actual payload. StarTram has an idea for doing things differently: a maglev vacuum tube that launches cargo up the side of a mountain and straight into low Earth orbit. They figure a 128 Km tube, with the inside held at a vacuum, could launch a magnetically levitated payload that’s been fired along the tube at 32,000 Kph. Although construction costs would be high, the cost per payload would be quite low. The acceleration force on the payload though would be high enough to be unsuitable for humans. What a ride that would be! DVICE.
  • THE SILENCER: Japanese researchers, concerned about people talking for more than their fair share of the time, have created a speech-jamming device. The device uses a directional microphone and speaker to listen to someone’s words and play them back after a short delay of around 0.2 seconds. The effect is to silence the speaker, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had that kind of feedback while on a phonecall. Cue the movie villains. ExtremeTech.
  • TWISTED SIGNALS: Electromagnetic waves carry radio, TV and wifi signals. As the waves travel through the air they could be twisted a little and made to carry more data. In a crude experiment in Italy recently the technique was shown to work. A standard satellite-type dish was split and the two resulting edges were separated, imparting a twist to the dish. That meant that as the beam was sent, different points around it had a slightly different starting time, twisting the beam. Researchers used this twist to send 2 signals within the bandwidth normally filled by 1 signal. So long as the signals are twisted and not crossed. BBC.
  • KEEP IT TOGETHER: Scientists in Illinois, USA, are experimenting with wrapping some bridges with stretched spirals of shape memory wire made of a nickel-titanium-niobium alloy. If the wire’s wrapped around the column of a bridge and heated it contracts, applying pressure to the column and strengthening it. The purpose is to see if bridge columns strengthened in this way could withstand earthquakes and other stressors. It could be an interesting building technique in itself. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Thursday 08 March 2012

  • THE HUMAN CABLE: Near Field Communication may let your phone transmit data when it’s touched to another phone but Ericsson are exploring the idea of using the human body as a data channel. In a proof of concept they’ve shown how a phone in your pocket could send data when you touch a suitably equipped door handle, or play music from your phone through a speaker you touch. It’ll be interesting to see how this one develops. BBC Click.
  • LEAKY TRANSISTORS: While encrypting data may keep it safe from an attacker trying to break into it, the technique may not be immune to eavesdropping on the signal. Cryptography Research recently demonstrated easily listening in on the radio signals leaking from the transistors in smartphones as they used their secret key on the data. That pattern of radio signals gave away the key in use. There’s always a way around if you look hard enough. Technology Review.
  • FARM THE WIND: A new wind turbine farm in Hawai’i is being built on Oahu’s North Shore. 30 turbines will generate 69 MW, or around 5% of the island’s annual electricity needs. The new farm will be the largest wind energy facility in Hawai’i. Hot air’s good for something after all. First Wind.
  • FOR THE HIGH JUMP: High altitude balloons fly to around 40 kilometres above sea level with scientific research experiments as their payload. That height takes them above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere. The Near Space Corporation is now building a commercial launch facility in Tillamook, Oregon to handle payloads ranging in mass from hundreds of grams to thousands of kilograms. And if the balloon bursts? Do we really want thousands of kilos of stuff plummeting to the ground from that height? Network World.
  • CABLE JUMP: Remote areas pose a huge challenge to high-speed digital communications, where cabling across rough terrain can be almost impossible. A team of researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany say their millimeter-wave wireless bridge can carry up to 20 billion bits of data per second across gaps between cables, for example across a lake or valley. Unlike a laser link, these millimeter-wave signals continue to work through fog, rain, and dust. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor fog, nor dust stays these courageous waves from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The Optical Society.

Tech Universe: Friday 09 March 2012

  • WHEN ROBOTS RUN: The Cheetah robot from DARPA has 4 legs and resembles a headless dog. It recently set a new speed record for legged robot running when it achieved around 30 Kph on a treadmill. The previous record of around 20 Kph was set in 1989. Testing of a free-running prototype is planned for later this year. In other news: they had legged running robots in 1989. DARPA.
  • TINY SCAFFOLDING: Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new interface for prosthetics that could allow nerves to be connected directly to artificial limbs. They start with electrodes on polymers and then add a special scaffold of thin evaporated metal or patterned multiwalled carbon nanotubes. That forms a neural interface that nerves can grow through. The challenge now is to make everything small enough. growing nerves is surely quite a trick in itself. Sandia National Laboratories.
  • HIGH STREAMERS: This month NASA will launch 5 rockets from the east coast of the USA in approximately 5 minutes to study the high-altitude jet stream. The Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment will release a chemical tracer at around 100 Km above the Earth so scientists can see how the upper jet stream behaves. Two of the rockets will also measure the pressure and temperature in the atmosphere at the height of the high-speed winds. So that’s five by five then. NASA.
  • EYE TRACKS: Tobii’s IS-2S eye tracker is smaller, cheaper and draws less power than its predecessor. The eye tracker can be embedded in other products such as computer monitors and arcade games, or perhaps medical devices or lie detectors. I want my iPad to see when I’m ready to turn the page or scroll. Engadget.
  • APP WHISTLE: Sonic Notify triggers your smartphone to display a message or map, call up a web page or do something else when your phone receives a high pitched signal. The signal is inaudible to the human ear and can be broadcast from speakers or perhaps be embedded in a video. If your phone is within range it receives the signal and responds. Aimed at advertisers, this seems like a major incentive to turn your phone off while shopping. PSFK.

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.