10 to 13 April 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Tuesday 10 April 2012

  • PAPERING THE CRACKS: We know only too well that earthquakes shake things up. The side-to-side strain can cause masonry to crumble. Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology believe they can reinforce walls with a specially designed wallpaper. They start with strong glass fibres woven together to create an elastic covering. Then a flexible soft adhesive of polyurethane beads penetrates the walls and glues everything together. In simulated earthquakes the wallpaper didn’t tear and helped stop walls crumbling. That may give occupants time to get out safely, which is good. But it looks as though it’ll be harder to tell how dangerous a building is afterwards. Discovery News.
  • WATCH THE WIND BLOW: Over at Hint.fm they have a real-time map that shows the wind blowing across the mainland USA. It’s actually an art project that takes data from the US National Digital Forecast Database. A key shows how fast the wind is blowing according to the map shading. It’s all rather hypnotic really, but I want one for New Zealand. Hint.fm.
  • OUR 3D WORLD: Imagine pointing a scanner round your living room and seeing the room assembled as a 3D image on your laptop. That’s what the consumer-level Matterport does. Its target market includes real estate agents and architects. The handheld device has a range of around 5 metres, and accuracy varies with distance. Then imagine printing scaled models on your 3D printer. That could be fun. Matterport.
  • DRUG PROGRAMS: BIND-014 is a nanoparticle that can be carefully programmed. Its job is to specifically target solid tumors and deliver drugs to destroy them. Human trials are in their early stages, but the drug seems to be much more efficient and at much lower doses than previous treatments. A little can go a long way when it’s in the right place. io9.
  • DOUBLE OR NOTHING: Don’t like the pain of an injection? One designer has the answer for you: get two jabs instead of one. The new design of cannula — a tube used in hospitals and doctors surgeries for delivering drugs — has an additional small needle on the front. That needle, so tiny you can barely feel it, delivers a small amount of local anaesthetic. That numbs the spot where the regular injection goes in so you don’t feel that either. Twice as cunning. BBC.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 11 April 2012

  • MIND GAMES: Ever played Tetris? Eye specialists at Glasgow Caledonian University are getting kids with ‘lazy eye’ to play Tetris for an hour a day to sort out their vision problems. Lazy eye, properly called Amblyopia, is where one eye focuses better than the other. The kids wear special goggles that show the falling blocks clearly to the lazy eye, but less clearly to the other. That forces the brain to be more active and can re-start some dormant cells. After around 10 days the vision problem is fixed. Now do it for myopia please. BBC.
  • SIGHT IN MIND: In Australia the Monash Vision Group are working on a bionic eye to improve vision. A biologically inert chip is inserted into the brain, but can be tuned up by doctors without further surgery. The chip receives wireless signals from a special pair of glasses which detect which way your eyes are looking and then turn a digital camera in that direction. The glasses process the camera signal and send it to the brain as electrical signals via the implanted chip. The chip directly stimulates the visual cortex and the wearer’s brain eventually learns to interpret these signals as sight. Researchers hope to do their first patient tests by 2014. Spectacular. Monash Vision Group.
  • HOLEY LIGHT: We think of optical telescopes as collecting huge amounts of light. All the light is focussed by refraction or reflection on a single point, usually involving carefully crafted, heavy and costly lenses or mirrors. A different approach by the US Air Force Academy instead uses a lightweight ultra-thin plastic disc called a photon sieve. The sieve is perforated by millions of microscopic holes. Each hole bends light at a different angle, creating a focal point. The sieve is cheap and easy to manufacture at large sizes, and it can be tightly folded and unfurled again. Just try that with a standard mirror! The downsides are that it can only take black and white pictures and since it receives less light it doesn’t image dim objects. There’s always a case for the quick and dirty approach, so I’m sure someone will find these photon sieves useful. New Scientist.
  • SIGHT IN TOUCH: If you can’t see or hear then communication is pretty tricky. The Lorm alphabet though allows communication by patterns of touch on the hand. The Mobile Lorm Glove has been created in Germany to help wearers send and receive text messages, emails and chat using the Lorm alphabet. Sensors on the palm read touches and send them via Bluetooth to a phone. Small vibration motors on the back of the glove take signals from a phone and let the wearer feel the words. The makers hope to also develop the system to allow wearers to read ebooks and audio books. By translating between touch signals and email and other forms of messaging, it means deaf blind people can really open up their communication channels. Soon it may be true that on the Internet no-one knows you’re deaf blind. Design Research Lab.
  • SOUND OF SILENCE: Ever wished for just a few minutes of peace and quiet? It turns out we can’t really stand true quiet. The anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis is 99.99% sound absorbent. Metre thick fibreglass acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel and 30 cm thick concrete make it utterly silent. The chamber’s used for testing products and research into sounds and sound quality, but it’s not a human-friendly place. The silence removes cues we need for balance, so you have to sit down. Then you can hear your heart beating, your lungs, your stomach. Most people last only a few minutes before they start to hallucinate and have to get out. The half hour of quiet may be worth it though. The Daily Mail.

Tech Universe: Thursday 12 April 2012

  • HEALING TOUCH: A group of Chinese and Australian scientists has created a handheld plasma torch that can kill bacteria on the skin. The device could be useful for ambulance crew, military personnel and in natural disasters. The low-cost torch uses a 12 volt battery and doesn’t require an external gas feed. In experiments plasma at 23 C (around room temperature) successfully inactivated a biofilm created from 17 different layers of bacteria. There’s a new bit of gear for the survival kit. CSIRO.
  • HEALING FILM: Toray’s Self-cure Coat Film is a protective film for laptops, smartphones, touchscreens and other devices. The special film puts a self-repairing layer on top of a PET base. The self-repairing layer has high viscosity and elasticity so if it’s scratched it repairs itself in 10 seconds or less. The Japanese company have been supplying small amounts of the film for a while, but are about to move into mass-production. Sounds good for those who like to drop their phone into a pocket or bag. Tech On.
  • SHOOT FROM THE TONGUE: The Kinect is pretty good at recognising whole body movements, but researchers in Japan aim to refine its ability to determine how a person’s tongue is moving. Some people have oral motor function disorders that affect their ability to speak or swallow. To help with therapy they need to exercise their tongue. First the Kinect recognises the facial area and eyes. Then it estimates the position of the nose, and from that, the mouth area. The researchers created some video games that use tongue position for actions such as shooting. Now they just need to improve recognition accuracy. Imagine a world where sticking your tongue out could fire real bullets. Scary. DigInfo News.
  • FLOWER POWER: One way to generate energy from sunshine is to concentrate the rays reflected from a bank of mirrors onto a central point. AORA tulip-shaped towers in Southern Spain don’t need cooling, mineral salts or oil, but instead just use the air that’s all around us. The air inside the tower heats up to around 1,000 C, then it’s channelled into a combustion chamber which powers a turbine generator to produce electricity. An external power supply switches on when there’s no sun, so the Tulip can provide continuous power to the community. Tulips in the desert sound a lot more pleasant than plain old towers. Reuters.
  • LOST A PROTON?: Scientists at the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology in Barcelona have created a scale so sensitive it can weigh a mass as tiny as 1 yoctogram. That’s less than the mass of a proton. That might not mean much to your diet, but it could help doctors distinguish between markers of disease that differ by only a proton. The scales involve short nanotubes, low temperatures and a vacuum. Oh, 1 yoctogram = 1 septillionth of a gram. It’s impossible to imagine even 1 millionth of a gram, let alone 1 septillionth! New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Friday 13 April 2012

  • SLEEP BEHIND THE WHEELS: Picture a pop-top camper and I’m sure you see a motor vehicle. The Kamp-Rite Bushtrekka though is designed to be towed by a bicycle. The 4-wheeled trailer has 3 main compartments with over 180 litres of storage. Add a Tentcot on top and you’re set for a good night’s sleep. The 20 Kg trailer unit includes fully adjustable levelling jacks to make sure it’s set up solidly on even rough ground. Loaded up, that’s going to be quite some extra weight to push. Kamp-Rite.
  • WHALES ONLINE: There aren’t many North Atlantic Right Whales left in the world, and one of the main causes of death for the animals is collisions with ships. The problem, of course, is knowing where the whales are. That’s where a new iOS app has a part to play. Acoustic buoys listen for whale calls and send the data to an iOS device in a nearby ship’s bridge. Between the whale calls, GPS and a vessel’s Automatic Identification System it manages to mark the locations of the whales in near real-time. The Whale Alerts app is free to use, and designed for vessels that travel along the East Coast of North America where the whales live. Two words: Maui’s Dolphins. Wired.
  • BLEEDING PLANES: If you damage your skin the bleeding lets you know. But if materials such as plastic are damaged there may be no way to tell. Now researchers have created a new genre of thermoplastics that bleed when they’re damaged and then heal themselves. When the links that connect the plastic’s molecular chains are broken it produces a red warning colour. The materials are likely to be used for aircraft or ground vehicles to help indicate damage. Hooray: more scope for horror movie blood excesses. io9.
  • BUDDY BACKUP: Firefighters, soldiers and others sometimes need to carry an injured person out of harm’s way. The traditional method is to load them across the shoulders in a fireman’s carry. The Injured Personnel Carrier is a simple backpack-like harness that holds them securely, while allowing the person doing the carrying to keep both hands free. The special harness is easy to apply while the injured person is on the ground. Then the person who will carry them lies down, slips the straps over their shoulder, rolls over and stands up with the injured person on their back like a backpack. Simple but effective. Agilite.
  • QUBIT OR NOT QUBIT: Looking for a computing challenge? The Rainier processor in the D-Wave One computer system is designed to perform a single mathematical operation called discrete optimization. It does so alongside your normal computing platform running its usual operations. The superconducting 128-qubit processor chip is housed inside a cryogenics system within a 10 square meter shielded room. To program the processor you just need some basic quantum physics and machine learning skills. So not one for hobbyists then. D-Wave.

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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