Tech Universe: Monday 12 March 2012
- DRILL ROBOT DRILL: A dentist from Hong Kong is helping to explore still unknown parts of the Egyptian pyramids. He created an insect-sized robot with grips on the top inspired by dental forceps. At the moment 2 doors block the entrance to Pharaoh Cheops’s tomb. The doors lie behind 2 narrow shafts only big enough for the tiny robot to fit. The robot, equipped with a camera, will drill through the doors to discover what lies behind them. Checking the inside of a pyramid has to be better than peering inside a person’s mouth. Reuters.
- SPEAK LIKE A COMPUTER: We’ve heard computers speak with better or worse ‘computer’ voices, but Microsoft’s new software can give the computer your voice, even in another language, handle by machine translation. The system first has to be trained to learn your voice. Then the sounds of the voice are tweaked to be able to speak in the new target language. The project is still just a part of some research work, but is promising for applications in tourism, language learning and perhaps GPS navigation systems. Klingon anyone? Technology Review.
- WALKING ON AIR: We know about airbags in cars protecting the passengers, but Volvo claim a world first with their new airbag that protects pedestrians. Sensors in the car warn the driver and even automatically put on the brakes if a pedestrian steps out into the road in front of the car. But if the car still hits the pedestrian then sensors in the front bumper register the physical contact and an airbag is released under the bonnet. The inflated airbag covers the area under the raised bonnet and around a third of the windscreen. I wonder if the airbag deploys if you hit a pole or nudge the car in front when parking? Volvo.
- ALL THUMBS: While you’re pressing the buttons on your game controller stuff may happen on screen, but even if the controller vibrates you don’t really feel the action. Engineers from the University of Utah want to change that by pulling and stretching the player’s thumb tips. For example, the controller could help the player really feel the pull and tug of a fishing line, the recoil of a gun or the feeling of ocean waves. The new device replaces thumb sticks on a controller with a tactor that provides feedback to the player. The push back makes it that much more fun. University of Utah.
- GOING UP: A higher vantage point always gives a better view, but isn’t always easy to achieve from a ground or water-based vehicle. The Sky Sapience HoverMast handles that problem nicely. The craft is tethered to a vehicle by a combination power and wideband data cable but it flies 50 metres above it. It can carry 9 Kg of equipment such as cameras, hyperspectral sensors or radar. The craft automatically maintains position above its launch vehicle, even if it’s moving. That’d be handy for checking out a traffic jam ahead. SkySapience.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 13 March 2012
- APPLES AND ORANGES: Toshiba’s high speed pattern recognition technology may take the barcodes out of supermarkets. A suitably equipped scanner can recognise fresh fruits and vegetables by their appearance, disregarding the noise of other objects in view. Toshiba plan to set up a database of agricultural produce for the scanners to use. The software can even distinguish between items that are very similar in appearance, such as different types of apples from the same stock. Imagine combining that with something like a ripeness detector and hooking it in to a smartphone app for shoppers to use while selecting the items they want to buy. DigInfo News.
- BLASTED MOLECULES: Researchers at Ohio State University used ultrafast lasers and cameras to record the first real-time image of two atoms vibrating in a Nitrogen or Oxygen molecule. The 50 femtosecond laser pulse knocked one electron out of its natural orbit, then the researchers used the energy of that electron as it fell back to illuminate the molecular motion. Their ultimate goal is to study how molecules such as proteins interact. It’s almost a very miniature game of golf. Ohio State University.
- CELL DATA CUBED: Light radio cubes from Bell Labs fit in the palm of a hand and boost mobile phone network capacity by collectively reshaping the radio beam. In the face of ever increasing demands for data the devices can be used alone or in clusters to add capacity to a cell network without needing to put up more towers. They are still being tested in Spain, the United Arab Emirates and China though. More data, more networks, the demand keeps growing. Technology Review.
- SOFTWARE SPEED TWEAK: Deutsche Telekom claims to have achieved a usable bit rate of 400 gigabits per second over a single channel of its fibre optic network. They sent data 734 Km along their network between Berlin and Hanover and back again. The experiment actually delivered a maximum 512Gbps but the extra was used for error correction. Most of the speed was gained by better error correction software. If they can do it in software, so could anyone. BBC.
- NOTHING LEFT BEHIND: The U Grok It system uses RFID tags, a hardware reader and your smartphone to keep tabs on all your stuff. First add tags to all the stuff you want to be able to check up on, such as keys, clothing items, travel accessories. The tag has a chip and antenna that reflects slightly modified versions of the radio waves broadcast by hardware reader. The reader attaches to your smartphone, and has a range of a couple of metres. An app on the phone handles the database and also sends info to the cloud for backup and sharing. To find an item, or spot if something’s missing from a collection just use the reader. Being able to find lost items would beat out a simple list. U Grok It.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 14 March 2012
- DISAPPEARING WORDS: Recycling paper usually means sending it off to some distant processing plant. Toshiba’s new copier system can erase text printed using a special toner from regular copy paper. The toner can only be used with compatible copiers, but when heated it becomes invisible, allowing the paper to be used again. The eraser device can also scan and store an image of the sheet of paper, so the data can be saved. Toshiba aim to release the system commercially this year. Why don’t we just stop printing all this stuff anyway? DigInfo news.
- TIGHT NEUTRONS: Researchers at the University of New South Wales reckon they can make a clock that’s accurate to within 1/20th of a second. If that doesn’t sound very special, consider that it may gain or lose that 20th of a second over 14 billion years — the age of the universe. Atomic clocks currently use electrons orbiting an atom as the clock pendulum. But electrons are loosely bound and can be affected by external perturbations. The researchers believe they can turn the much more tightly held orbiting neutron of an atomic nucleus into the clock pendulum. They could achieve this by using lasers to orient the electrons in a very specific way. It’s impossible to imagine that degree of accuracy. University of New South Wales.
- CAMO CAMERA: The trouble with trying to film lions is getting close enough. The BeetleCam Project solved it nicely with a small remote controlled buggy with a DSLR camera mounted on top and an armoured shell. Camouflaged to resemble perhaps a rock, the buggy could get right up to the lions and take still photos and video. The BeetleCam even managed to survive being carried off by a playful lion. Stunning photos! BeetleCam. Video:
- FILMING DOWN UNDER: Film maker James Cameron is going down — to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, where he will stay on the seafloor for around 6 hours. The lowest point is almost 11 Km below the surface of the ocean. The deep-sea submersible, Deepsea Challenger, has to cope with crushing pressure, freezing temperatures and total dark. The 7.3 metre long sub is vertical, rather than horizontal, and made of a highly sophisticated syntactic foam developed specifically to withstand the pressure. Thrusters will enable some movement, and a robotic arm will collect samples. The expedition is planned to take place within the next few weeks. That would have to be the most unusual film set ever. DeepSea Challenge.
- LESS IS MORE: Researchers at MIT recently managed to get more light out of an LED than the energy they put in. It turns out that an LED’s efficiency increases as its output power decreases. So when they put in only 25% as much power the light was reduced by 50%. The researchers reduced the LED’s input power to just 30 picowatts and measured an output of 69 picowatts of light. Now I want my wallet to work like that. PhysOrg.
Tech Universe: Thursday 15 March 2012
- TEXT SIGNS: Sign language is extremely important for people who are deaf. Like any language though, both parties in a conversation need to be able to understand it. While various software apps have had some degree of success in translating spoken languages, researchers in Aberdeen, Scotland, are tackling turning sign language into text. Their portable sign language translator uses the camera on devices such as laptops and phones, then an app handles the translation. The system is still being developed, but the creators hope to have a commercial product in 2013. This will be an interesting one to watch. BBC.
- CABLE DROPS: Researchers at MIT have developed a new optic fibre 400 micrometers in diameter. The fibre has a hollow core surrounded by alternating layers of materials with different optical properties that act together to create a mirror. A droplet of fluid in the core can be pumped up and down with a laser. When the droplet receives energy it emits light that bounces back and forth between the mirrors, emerging from the core as a 360-degree laser beam. 4 liquid-crystal channels around the core control the brightness of the emitted light. This all means different people could see different images from the single source. The researchers believe this cable could be useful for medical applications or for 3D displays. Do you see what I see? MIT News.
- WARP BLAST: Suppose for a moment you could travel quickly through the galaxy by deforming the space-time continuum in a bubble around the spaceship. Warp Drive is familiar from Star Trek, but this notion is based on theories by a Mexican physicist called Miguel Alcubierre, and it takes account of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. But even if we could implement Warp Drive today, scientists from the University of Sydney have pointed out a rather substantial problem. The warp bubble would interact with particles of matter and light, building up high energy particles. On arrival releasing those particles would destroy everything for a considerable distance around. Oops. Back to the theoretical drawing board. University of Sydney.
- JUNK INDEX: Lockheed Martin has developed a prototype Space Fence for the US Air Force. It uses ground-based scalable, solid-state S-band radars to detect, track, measure and catalogue more than 200,000 orbiting objects and bits of space debris. Its high wavelength frequency can detect even quite small objects. That’s important so that if space junk is where it shouldn’t be someone can take action to prevent collisions and other damage. You wonder if they’ll at least stop adding to the space junk soon. Lockheed Martin.
- NO TREE WOOD: Making products from wood usually means chopping down trees. And wood’s not so easy to keep clean by washing. Meanwhile, landfills are overflowing with plastic. NewWood in the USA are recycling both used timber and polyethylene plastic by combining them into a product that’s 50% wood and 50% timber. The materials are shredded, shaken, and formed with heat and pressure into panels that are durable, insect-proof and virtually waterproof. And if it’s reached the end of its useful life it can be recycled again. Shake and bake building materials. NewWood.
Tech Universe: Friday 16 March 2012
- SAILOR BOT: Fire on board a ship is a very bad thing, and can be hard to fight because of narrow passageways and ladders. That’s why the US Naval Research Laboratory is developing a humanoid Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. The robot includes includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo IR camera to allow it to see through smoke. It will be able to handle fire suppressors and throw propelled extinguishing agent technology grenades. It will also be able to walk, balance and traverse obstacles. The battery though will only last for 30 minutes of firefighting. Which all sounds extremely demanding. The Naval Research Laboratory.
- DESPERATE MEASURES: Kiribati is home to 103,000 people, but their homes on the nation’s 33 coral atolls are threatened by rising sea levels. The highest point in the country is only 2 metres above sea level. That’s why they’re considering creating a new home — on an artificial island. The floating island is similar to an offshore oil platform and costs $2 billion. GMA News.
- FLAT BATTERY: NEC’s Organic Radical Battery is only 0.3mm thick. That’s thin enough to use in flexible ereaders or even credit cards. The battery is flexible, quick to charge and has a high power output. The ORBs are capable of 2,000 display screen updates, 360 consecutive flash firings and 35 location transmissions on a single charge. The battery is manufactured in a way that integrates circuit boards with batteries. Battery powered credit card huh? Japan Technology Information.
- TOUCH PAPER: Microsoft’s Wearable Multitouch Projector is still an experiment in turning any surface at all into a touch screen. It mounts a depth sensing camera and pico projector on a person’s shoulder then projects an image on a surface such as a wall or a pad of paper. The wearer can then interact with the projected image as if it were any touch screen. The rig’s rather big and clumsy for now, but the researchers believe it could be miniaturised. Once you can wear this like a pendant or brooch it could really catch on. Microsoft Research.
- 3D SPEED: Two-photon-lithography is high-precision 3D printing at a nanometer scale. Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have found a way to print tiny structures very quickly, using a special liquid resin, hardened at precisely the correct spots by a focused laser beam. Initiator molecules anywhere inside the resin are activated if they absorb two photons of the laser beam at once. Those molecules induce a chain reaction in other components of the resin, creating a solid, even if it’s not on the surface. Precisely tuned movable mirrors do the trick by guiding the focal point of the laser beam, making the printing process thousands of times faster than previously. The scientists are now developing biocompatible resins for medical use. Lasers can be quite frightening actually. Vienna University of Technology.
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.