02 to 05 April 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 02 April 2012

  • DOWN LOW: James Cameron spent 3 hours almost 11 Km down in the deepest part of the ocean the other day when his specially constructed capsule dived to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Mariana Trench. While the descent took 2.5 hours, the ride back up was only 70 minutes long. That dive proved the technology, and should mark the beginning of many future dives. The enormous pressures at that depth caused the capsule to physically contract by around 7 cm. So the walls really were pushing in. National Geographic. Video:
  • HIGHS AND LOWS: Apollo 11 was one of the most famous expeditions to the moon. Five F-1 rocket engines sent the Apollo 11 mission on its way and then fell into the Atlantic when they were spent. Jeff Bezos used state-of-the-art deep sea sonar to find the rockets 4 Km below the surface. Bezos Expeditions aims to raise at least one of the engines from the sea floor, and hope that although NASA own the equipment they’ll make it available to the Smithsonian Museum. It seems undersea’s all the rage. Bezos Expeditions.
  • LIGHT FROM THE PAST: You may think that ancient settlements are gone without trace. That’s not so, as human activity leaves its marks on soil, which may have higher levels of organic materials, a finer texture and lighter appearance. That difference can be seen by satellites as areas that reflect more light. A researcher from Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained software to recognise these lighter areas in satellite images already recorded in the last 50 years. The satellite imagery provided evidence of 14,000 settlement sites spanning eight millennia in 23,000 square kilometres of northeastern Syria. In conjunction with digital elevation data collected in 2000 by the space shuttle the researcher was able to estimate the volume of larger sites, suggesting their longevity. That’s a clever way to re-use old images. Nature.
  • LIGHT TOUCH: Take a very special camera that can fire pulses of laser light and then record with extreme accuracy how long the photons take to bounce back. By applying an algorithm to those time differences the software can reconstruct items that are hidden by intervening objects from the camera’s view. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used this technique to see around corners. The camera fires 60 laser pulses, each to a slightly different position and each only 50 quadrillionths of a second long. The reconstruction algorithm then takes all the data and creates an image of what the camera can’t see. The camera can record images every 2 picoseconds, the time it takes light to travel just 0.6 mm. At the moment it takes several minutes to construct an image, but researchers hope to reduce that to just a few seconds. Clever. Very clever. Nature News.
  • TINGLY TAT: Nokia have filed a patent for a tattoo using ferromagnetic inks that vibrate based on commands from your phone. The ink material would first be demagnetised, then applied to your body. Then the ink needs to be magnetised again so it’s sensitive to magnetic fields. Then your phone could send out a specific magnetic field that makes your tattoo vibrate. You want to be very careful about where to apply that tat. Unwired View.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 03 April 2012

  • BENDY PLASTIC: LG has begun mass production of the world’s first flexible, plastic e-ink display. It has a resolution of 1024×768 and is lighter and thinner than glass displays of comparable size. E-ink displays can run for months on a small battery and are well suited for reading text. I’m not sure I’d want text I’m reading to be flexing too much. ExtremeTech.
  • SPENDY PLASTIC: Paper money’s old hat. Canada’s switching to plastic money for all denominations of what used to be paper bills. They’re switching to polymer because they say the new notes are easy to verify and hard to counterfeit. The layers of plastic that make up the notes can be encoded with holograms that change colour when the money is bent, but which are very hard for counterfeiters to reproduce. Still old hat: New Zealand went to polymer bank notes more than a decade ago. Technology Review.
  • THE DARK NIGHT: The Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory is high in the Chilean Andes where the air is clear and the skies are dark. Soon the Giant Magellan Telescope will be joining it to help astronomers probe the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Casting is already underway on the seven 8.5 metre diameter primary mirror segments. 3 million cubic feet of rock will be blasted from the site in 70 controlled blasts, leaving a solid bedrock foundation for the telescope. The $700 million telescope is being built by a consortium of institutions. Seeing what no-one has seen before. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
  • CADDY ON CALL: Out for a round of golf? Can’t be bothered toting your own golf clubs? The robot CaddyTrek golf caddy could be for you. It follows you around at a distance of about a metre. The lithium ion battery lasts for about 27 holes, and 250 watt dual motors and treaded wheels mean it can handle most golf course terrain and climb hills up to 30 degrees. You wear a small transceiver so it can follow you, but a small remote also lets you send it on ahead or call it back to you. And for non-golfers how about a shopping trolley version? CaddyTrek.
  • FARM IN A BOX: Growtainers are farms in shipping containers. The containers are set up with food grade materials such as shelving, irrigation, LED lighting and controllers that link back to your computer. Heat, light and watering are all controlled by the computer. The aim is to achieve high yield with low energy inputs and the convenience of choosing a location for the farm. For example, a Growtainer might be parked behind a school, community hall or even a cafe and provide fresh food that doesn’t depend on the weather. Sounds good for vegies, but what about livestock? Growtainers.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 04 April 2012

  • GIANT LEAP: The Sand Flea jumping robot from Boston Dynamics is an impressive little beastie. It’s a small platform on 4 wheels. If it meets an obstacle its remote driver makes it swivel to point a CO2 powered piston down at the ground. Then it fires the piston and leaps into the air, as much as 7.6 metres high, and a little forward. That’s enough to let it jump onto a roof or through a second floor window, for example. It can jump 30 times before the piston needs recharging. The US military are deploying the Sand Flea to Afghanistan to help see what’s in walled compounds. I’d have thought they’d do better with a small RC helicopter to fly above the compounds. Army Times.
  • SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA: Those TV crime shows where the computer spends hours matching a face? So slow! Hitachi Kokusai Electric in Japan developed a system that can search through data on 36 million faces in one second. Results come immediately and show thumbnail images of potential candidates. Click a thumbnail to see associated recorded surveillance footage. This system could be used in large stores, railway stations or perhaps at public events. Some speed is achieved by grouping similar faces and detecting faces when the footage is recorded. Maybe it’s time for masks to become trendy? DigInfo News.
  • SMILE, YOU’RE ON TV: If you buy a new Samsung LED HDTV make sure to read the manual. Some of the top-of-the-line models include a built-in, internally wired HD camera, twin microphones, face tracking and speech recognition that can connect to the Internet. That’s pretty cool and you have some degree of voice control with it. But the problem is that there’s no hardware switch on the camera or mic and no light or other sign they’re switched on. All of which means the world could be watching you if the TV’s accessed by someone with bad intent. Read that manual carefully. HDGuru.
  • MONEY MAGNETS: Vending machines can verify the authenticity of a banknote because of the magnetic ink it contains. So you’d think bundles of banknotes would be even more magnetic, and they are. Physicists at the University of Washington tried using an ordinary handheld metal detector to detect banknotes concealed behind different kinds of materials. With some refinements this could help police catch people trying to smuggle cash across borders. You’d think if money’s magnetic it would attract more. New Scientist.
  • SATELLITE SAFETY: With enough resources you can get access to live satellite imagery of a specific area on the planet. It’s what you can do with that access that’s interesting. In the case of the Satellite Sentinel Project, whose offices are in the USA, it’s tracking the movements of rival armed forces in the Sudan and warning civilians when the troops are coming. That gives the locals time to flee. Analysts receive reports from people on the ground and then gain satellite access to grab pictures. By analysing the photos they can estimate where tanks and troops are heading. The images are also detailed enough to document things like mass graves or body bags near freshly dug pits. That’s seriously smart spying. The Guardian.

Tech Universe: Thursday 05 April 2012

  • FLY AND DRIVE: The 3-wheeled PAL-V flying car is in a class of its own — Personal Air and Land Vehicles. The small, sleek 2-seater handles like a motorcycle on the roads. Stop and unfold the single rotor and propeller though and you can fly it as a gyrocopter. It flies below 1200 metres, runs on petrol and can reach speeds of up to 180 Kph both on land and in the air. Now that would be a great holiday vehicle. PAL-V.
  • QUAKING ELECTRONS: A scientist at Hokkaido University in Japan noticed something very interesting around earthquakes. It seems that as much as 40 minutes before an earthquake the number of electrons high in the ionosphere increases. The observation was made while using the Total Electron Content of the upper atmosphere to analyse GPS signals and find out why they fluctuate. No-one knows yet why or how this increase happens, but it promises a useful area of study for earthquake prediction. Fascinating. BBC.
  • CABLE FREE KIT: Soldiers these days carry loads of equipment, plus all the cables, batteries and chargers that make it work. A new fabric from Intelligent Textiles in the UK will help reduce the load as the material itself conducts both electricity and data. Built-in redundancy will allow devices to still receive the power they need even if the fabric is ripped or cut. The fabric’s ability to carry power and data also means the soldier need only worry about a single battery that powers everything. Hmm: less clutter but potentially a single point of failure. BBC.
  • CLEAN KIT BAG: Doing your OE and wondering how to wash your clothes effectively on the cheap? The Scrubba bag makes it easy. The bag has a built-in flexible washboard. Add a few litres of clean water, some shampoo or other soapy liquid, seal it up and knead it for 30 seconds. Rinse and dry. The bag weighs around 150 grams and is almost pocket-sized. Fresh and clean on your OE. Scrubba.
  • SKATE THE FOLD: Skateboards are great for riding on but a pain to carry around. SNAP Skateboard fixes that by making its boards foldable. The aluminium skateboard has 3 sections. For storage, the two ends fold away rather like a drop-leaf table. In use the ends are locked into position by high strength steel support pins. When folded, it’s 36 cm long. Aircraft grade aluminium makes for a very strong board. Very discreet. SNAP Skateboard. Video.

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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