16 to 20 April 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 16 April 2012

  • NEW YORK YELLOW: Nissan’s NV200 vehicle is specially designed to suit duty as a New York taxi cab. It includes features such as USB, power chargers and GPS for the passengers, a huge glass sunroof and easy to clean seats and floor. One version of the cab includes a ramp for wheelchairs. The vehicle can carry 4 passengers and luggage, has sliding doors, a Hearing Loop System for the hearing impaired and an intercom for talking with the driver. The cabs will start service from 2013. WiFi would be a nice touch too. Nissan.
  • NOISY NUMBERS: Random numbers are used for all sorts of purposes, such as air traffic control, electronic gaming and encryption. But numbers generated electronically aren’t usually truly random. Researchers at The Australian National University believe they’ve found a source of truly random numbers by using the noise in the vacuum of space. Vacuum is not completely empty, dark, and silent. Instead virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appear and disappear in it, creating random noise. The researchers are using that noise to generate their random numbers. Quantum theory apparently guarantees that such numbers will be unpredictable. That’s the theory, but has it been tested yet? The Australian National University.
  • THE BAG OR THE PILOT?: The single-seater Elektra One Solar plane derives its power from solar cells on the wing surfaces. The carbon composite plane can fly for more than 8 hours with a payload of around 100 Kg, including pilot. Hmm, this one’s for skinny pilots only. Inhabitat.
  • SERIOUSLY ALARMED: The Ramos alarm clock won’t let you sleep in. To turn it off you have to get out of bed, go in another room and punch in a unique code. The remote keypad then sends a wireless signal to turn off the alarm The US inventor says the only other way to stop the alarm would be to smash the clock. That’s drastic. BBC.
  • OVERSIGHT: The US Air Force is busy capturing imagery with their drones — masses of it. The only problem is, there’s too much data for the Air Force to interpret, digest and use well. So essentially their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Wired.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 17 April 2012

  • PRESS THE FLESH: Forgotten your EFTPOS card again? The Japanese Ogaki Kyoritsu Bank is installing scanners that read your palm instead of a card for validation. Customers first register their biometric info with the bank then can go to a branch, enter their birthdate and PIN and scan their palm for cash. It’s good not to have to fumble for the plastic card, but do you really want to follow the person who clearly has flu? I hope they wipe the scanner between uses. Discovery News.
  • LIGHTS OUT: A potential new test for explosives has been developed at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The problem at airports and other borders is to determine whether bags contain explosive material. The team created a specialised polymer that is brightly fluorescent. In the presence of substances similar to explosives though the fluorescence is quenched. So it’s dangerous if it doesn’t glow — that’s good to know. Asian Scientist.
  • FLU ON A CHIP: A lab test for the H1N1 flu takes around 3 hours and is quite costly. Researchers from Boston University have condensed the flu test down to a prototype microfluidic chip that can do the job accurately in the doctor’s office for only a few dollars. A sample is placed on the slide which then channels it through a column that extracts RNA, and another that produces DNA. Finally a climate-controlled lower channel replicates the DNA so it can be detected by an external reader. The next step is to reduce the time the test takes and further reduce the cost. At least 3 hours with a chip would give a same-day result. Boston University.
  • RISING SOLAR: An ongoing problem with solar panels is their inefficiency. Researchers at MIT have found that making towers of cells increases their output by between 2 and 20 times. The biggest boost came on cloudier days and in winter months. Unfortunately the cost per unit of energy is higher than for flat panels, but since more fit on a given area and the output is more uniform they could be more easily integrated with a grid. Even solar panels are going 3D now. MIT News.
  • GOLDEN SAVINGS: Some power plants use copper to convert their waste CO2 into methane that can provide electricity. But copper’s not very stable, can easily oxidise to become much less efficient and create unwanted byproducts. Researchers at MIT found that adding nanoparticles of gold to copper makes it much more stable. Electrodes coated with the hybrid nanoparticles also need less energy to convert CO2. Of course, gold is an expensive metal, but for industrial-scale use the additional cost may be outweighed by the energy savings. Sometimes you have to spend a lot to save a lot. MIT News.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 18 April 2012

  • DANGER, PRISONER: South Korean authorities are experimenting with robot prison guards. The robots patrol the corridors at up to 2 Kph, looking in the cells. When they identify suspicious or problem behaviour by prisoners they alert the guards. The guards in the control room can control the robot with an iPad and speak to the prisoners. When a robot’s battery runs out it returns to a charging station on the wall. These look pretty functional, but just wait till they come out with Dalek or Cylon models for the harshest prisons. IEEE Spectrum.
  • SOFT TOUCH: Scientists for the Universities of Austria and Tokyo have created solar cells that are thinner than a thread of spider silk. The device is made up of electrodes on a plastic foil, about about 1.9 micrometers thick in total. The cell is soft and flexible and so less prone to damage than conventional cells. It could perhaps be attached to clothing for powering medical devices or sensors. Or perhaps use it on cases for smartphones and tablets. PhysOrg.
  • CASH ON A CHIP: The Royal Canadian Mint has created its own form of digital currency. The MintChip is a digital file that can be mathematically verified by software without requiring personal details. First you use a secure physical chip to add an amount to your smartphone, the Cloud or other digital wallet. Then you can exchange MintChips for goods or services that cost as little at 1 cent. The Mint is currently challenging developers to create apps for MintChip. Anything that helps us spend, spend, spend. The MintChip Challenge.
  • TWINKLE, TWINKLE MANY STARS: After 10 years of work astronomers have released a detailed image containing more than 1 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Data from two near-infrared telescopes were combined to create the image which contains 150 billion pixels and can be panned and zoomed. The dataset and image provide valuable information to astronomers, and are interesting for the general public. So many stars, and that’s just our galaxy. The University of Edinburgh. View the image.
  • EASY TOUCH: Barcodes and QR codes get data into devices such as smartphones via the camera. Touchcode comes from a German company called Printechnologic and it’s different because it uses the touchscreen. It’s an invisible electronic code you can add with a regular printer to product packaging, tickets or almost anything else. Press the printed material to the touchscreen of your phone to enter the data into the device. The phone may respond with video content, a website or other material. It wasn’t explicit, but there must be an app for that. Printechnologic.

Tech Universe: Thursday 19 April 2012

  • OIL SUCKERS: Engineers at Rice University have created sponges made of carbon nanotubes with boron mixed in that could be used to soak up oil spills from water. The sponge is extremely hydrophobic: it doesn’t absorb any water, but just floats on the top. It’s magnetic though so can be moved and directed with magnets. The main attribute though is that it soaks up 100 times its weight in oil which can then be squeezed or even burned out without harming the sponge. The sponge can then be used again. Now let’s see them devise oil tanks filled with the sponges in the first place so oil never spills. io9.
  • PAPER 2.0: Italian scientists have come up with an upgrade to ordinary paper. Their process uses nanotechnology to make paper waterproof, magnetic, antibacterial or even fluorescent without modifying the basic properties of the paper. That means you can still write or draw on the paper as usual and even recycle it. The process adds specific nanoparticles to single molecules of the paper, meaning it doesn’t add a layer on top. Instead the particles wrap around each fibre. The process could, for example, create antibacterial paper money or food wrappers. I want to see the waterproof, antibacterial, magnetic, fluorescent banknotes clumping together. Forbes.
  • HUD’S UP: What say you’re walking around wearing glasses with a heads-up display? Probably only the HUD will be in focus and the rest of what you see won’t be. A new contact lens from iOptik aims to give us clear vision in two separate parts of our field of view. The central part of the lens sends light from the HUD towards the middle of the pupil. The outer part sends light from the surrounding environment to the pupil’s rim. This means that light from both separate images is in focus at the same time on the retina. The company is making these prototype lenses for DARPA, but hope to license the technology for public use too. Some experts suggest the lenses may just give the wearer motion sickness. No using the HUD on a bus then. BBC.
  • ICE PHONES: Surrounded by ice and snow you may be too cold to risk taking your gloves off. So how do you use your smartphone or tablet’s touchscreen then? ISGLOVES (pronounced ice gloves) from Singapore cleverly combine nanotech and bamboo yarns to create conductive and touch sensitive gloves. The gloves are then capped with mittens for warmth. Slip off the mitten cap to tap a gloved finger on your phone, then slide the cap back on to warm up your hands. Of course, your phone may freeze, but at least your fingers won’t. FIETT PTE Ltd.
  • CODDLE THE KIDS: Car airbags can save lives — for adults, anyway. But children and toddlers are still at great risk. A company in Sussex, UK, has created the Carkoon to protect young children. The special carseat has a cover that deploys in a fraction of a second on impact to protect the child from flying debris and fire. The seat also sends a signal to emergency services, including a GPS location. The Carkoon is quite pricy and not yet commercially available. That makes an airbag seem a little inadequate really. BBC.

Tech Universe: Friday 20 April 2012

  • MODEL BRAIN: Brain surgeons have to start somewhere with practicing their techniques. The Cybram 001 Cybernetic Brain Artery Model is a life-size see-through plastic patient fitted out with cerebral blood vessels so students can learn how to do certain types of brain surgery. A circulation pump and pressure control circuit realistically simulate blood flow and pressure, while a touch panel allows the surgeon to set blood pressure and heart rate in the model. The model can be used for training surgeons, equipment testing and for education. How did brain surgeons practice in the past, I wonder? DigInfo News.
  • GARBAGE UNDER THE SUN: Landfills eventually reach capacity and are then generally sealed with a polyethylene cap, covered in soil and grassed over. That can be good to look at, but the noxious waste below ground means the area can’t really be used for much. The Hickory Ridge landfill in Georgia, USA is covered instead with more than 7,000 thin-film photovoltaic solar panels on top of a special membrane. The landfill now produces enough energy to power around 225 homes. Garbage in; power out. Scientific American.
  • INFO GREED: The Department of Homeland Security in the US are buying a war surplus camera to keep a rather comprehensive eye on the southern border. The Kestrel camera provides high resolution images of entire miles of border in a single frame. The DHS plan to attach the camera to a blimp or aerostat to watch for illegal immigrants and illicit activities. Then they hope to find software that can handle the glut of data the camera produces. Just watch the data stack up till it’s useless. Wired.
  • HOMER PAGE: The University of Oxford and the Vatican plan to digitise 1.5 million pages of rare and ancient texts in a project that’s expected to take 4 years. The project will include works by Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Hippocrates along with many church texts and Hebrew manuscripts. The work is made possible by a donation that aims to help democratise access to information. Slowly, slowly, the world’s files are going online. Ars Technica.
  • FILE — MELT: Keeping your super-secret documents on a memory stick? We all know what happens when you lose the USB stick. But now there’s a thumb drive being used by the British Secret Service that can destroy confidential files. An embedded GPS device lets the owner track where the USB stick is. It has a battery that recharges when it’s plugged into a computer. The owner can block access to documents via an encoded text message or though a web app, and if all else fails, they can issue a remote destroy command where a high voltage charge melts the chip. Imagine that self-destruct command glitching and firing by mistake or by virus! BBC.

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.