07 to 11 May 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 07 May 2012

  • PUNCHY: Missing your loved one? Call them up on your smartphone and hug the Hugvie instead. The plush toy has a pocket for your cellphone and a microcontroller and vibrators that produce a throbbing sound like a heartbeat. The throbbing changes according to the volume and tone of the caller’s voice. Aww, better hope the other person’s not angry when you call. DigInfoTV.
  • SKELETON KEY: I hate fumbling with a door key when my arms are full of shopping. Now researchers from AT&T Labs are working on a door that opens when you touch the handle, even though the door’s locked. The idea is that a smartphone sends an inaudible acoustic signal through the person’s skeleton. The door handle receives the signal, and if the vibration signature is correct, the door unlocks. Nice idea. Innovation News Daily.
  • THE CRUSHER: Afghanistan may have as many as 10 million anti-personnel landmines in its soil. Komatsu Japan has developed the D85EX-15 deminer machine to help with the enormous task of clearing the mines. The 38 ton machine is heavily reinforced with blast armour and can be controlled remotely. A drum on the front spins flails through the top layer of soil. It detonates and crushes mines. The deminer climbs slopes as steep as 30 degrees, and clears up to 500 square metres of land per hour. That’s one mine for every 3 people in the country. Gizmodo.
  • BROLLIES UP!: The Anti-Piracy Curtain isn’t a cloth to throw over your laptop. Instead it’s used for real-life pirates trying to board vessels at sea. Current anti-piracy systems fire water from a high-pressure canon. The curtain system uses special nozzles that make hoses whip around violently while spraying a lot of water into a pirate’s boat with the aim of sinking it. The hoses can spray more than 1 cm of water a minute into a pirate boat. The hose sprays enough water to prevent a ladder being raised. What next? The anti-anti-piracy umbrella? DigInfo.tv.
  • THE HAPPY GAMES: Researchers from the University of Auckland designed a special video game to help young people with depression. SPARX guides the player through challenges that help them practice handling various life situations and emotions. The study showed the game could be as effective as counselling in helping treat depression and anxiety. Anything that works…. Medgadget.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 08 May 2012

  • OIL SUBMARINES: Imagine a submarine only a tenth as wide as a human hair. Now imagine it has a surface that absorbs oil, from an oil spill at sea, for example. A team from the University of California has developed such proof-of-concept subs in the lab. The subs are propelled by bubbles created from internal oxidation of tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide and can move very quickly. A swarm of such subs could gather droplets of oil and take them back to a collection point. Even ridiculous sounding ideas may have merit. BBC.
  • MIDDLING SOUND: Hearing impaired people who use cochlear implants inside their ear still need to wear a microphone and other electronics outside the head. University of Utah engineers have prototyped a tiny microphone that could be implanted in the middle ear. The new system, once reduced in size and approved, would implant everything except a small charger inside the head. The implant works by using an accelerometer to detect vibrations in the bones of the ear and convert them to outgoing electrical signals that can then be rendered into sound. Ingenious. University of Utah.
  • SEA SAMPLER: Robots on Mars are busy sampling the rocks around them. But now an underwater robot is sampling the sea in Tasman Bay, to help protect local fisheries and producers. The Environmental Sample Processor has an Internet connection so researchers can send a command to collect a particular sample and results can be sent right back. The processor detects micro-organisms such as bloom-forming phytoplankton. It’s what they do with the results that really counts. Cawthron Institute.
  • RIPE OR NOT RIPE?: As fruits and other produce ripen they produce tiny amounts of ethylene. MIT have developed a sensor consisting of an array of tens of thousands of carbon nanotubes with added copper atoms and tiny beads of polystyrene. The sensor can detect those traces of ethylene and send data on ripeness to a scanner. Attached to cartons, the sensors could help suppliers and shop owners monitor the produce they’re carrying or selling and make sure it’s displayed before it’s too ripe. Perhaps they could also use it to track the ripening process and tune up how they carry and store the fruit. MIT News.
  • SUN BATHER: The Solar Orbiter from the European Space Agency should be ready for launch in 2017. The spacecraft will fly as close as 42 million km from the Sun — closer than the orbit of Mercury — while a thick heatshield will protect it. The temperature at that distance is around 500 degrees. Its mission is to study the solar wind, helping us understand the flow of charged particles in the solar system. The craft will carry 21 separate sensors. I have a few organic sensors I’d like to put in a sunny spot. BBC. Solar Orbiter:

Tech Universe: Wednesday 09 May 2012

  • THE ENEMY WITHIN: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US want to monitor the health of soldiers on the battlefield. They hope to use nanosensors to do it. They’re calling for proposals for tiny sensors that could be used inside the body to provide continuous, noninvasive, and highly accurate measurement of a variety of conditions and substances. The sensors could, for example, watch for infectious diseases or chemical or biological agents. If DARPA develop it I’m sure there are plenty who could use it. Innovation News Daily.
  • UNDERWATER SWIMS: In Antwerp, Belgium, city officials wanted a new outdoor swimming pool. So they’re building a floating pool, moored at the Docklands. The whole thing is 120 metres long and can accommodate 600 people. The floating area consists of an Olympic size swimming pool, 2 event venues, several floors and a restaurant with a lounge terrace. In winter the pool can be used for ice skating. An old ferry boat connects the floating pool to the land. The floating pool can be moved to a new location if necessary. Do they empty the pool first or just float the whole thing to a new location? Bustler.
  • NANO ENLARGEMENT: Nanowires are very good at transporting electrons, but their surface area is small. The surface area is important in things like catalytic activity, perhaps in batteries or solar cells where greater surface area could mean better yield. That’s why researchers at Stanford University found a way to boost the surface area with sinuous chains of metal oxide or noble metal nanoparticles. The decorations work like branches and leaves to increase the available surface, leading to dramatic improvements. You can’t fault getting more of a good thing. Stanford University.
  • SUGAR BANDAGE: Removing medical dressings can be painful, so how about a dressing that just dissolves into glucose your body can safely absorb? Scientists at Pennsylvania State University spun starch into fibres. The fibres can then be combined to form products like bandages or napkins. As the products degrade they form glucose that can be safely absorbed. Starch is abundant and cheaper than both cellulose and petroleum-based materials. Surely the glucose could be a bit of a worry though. Pennsylvania State University.
  • SUIT UP: Olympians in training in the UK have been wearing a special suit that tells them when their movements are correct. The MotivePro suit contains sensors that send data to a nearby computer. When the athlete gets a movement right the computer sends a tiny impulse to the sensors that the athlete feels as a vibration. This immediate feedback helps the athlete improve their moves. The suit can also be used to train people like nurses how best to lift patients or heavy equipment. Instant feedback is a winning strategy. Daily Mail.

Tech Universe: Thursday 10 May 2012

  • CHEAP SLEEP: With increasing tourism comes a greater demand for cheap accommodation. That why China’s first capsule hotel has just opened in Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. The capsules are extremely small rooms with a bed, TV set, dresser, computer desk and wireless broadband. Communal laundries and lounges round out the facilities. Snorers have their own wing in the hotel. Sounds ideal for people travelling on the cheap. Chinanews.com.
  • DEEP SLEEP: In Dubai they’re diving deep. The Water Discus Hotel will include 21 underwater rooms around 10 metres deep, along with an underwater diving centre, a spa, garden and open terrace above the waterline. The disc-shaped hotel will have one section above and another below water. A special lighting system will illuminate the flora and fauna outside. All of which won’t disrupt the seabed or sea life at all, I’m sure. The Daily Mail.
  • POWER BOX: In a disaster power supplies may be disrupted and difficult to restore. A groups of students from Princeton University created a prototype Power in a Box system that fits in a standard shipping container and could be readily delivered to where it’s needed. Inside the container are a 12 metre telescoping tower and wind turbine and a series of solar panels. It’s designed to replace diesel-powered generators in areas cut off from other power sources. Except, how will it be delivered in a disaster? Princeton University
  • DIAGNOSIS OF CROWDS: Malaria can be hard to diagnose, so how about enlisting crowds of people to play a game to do the work? Researchers at the University of California tested a computer game played on a tablet or smartphone where players assessed images of microbes. Their predictions for malaria came within 1.25% of those from an expert pathologist. Maintaining interest in the game may be the bigger problem. The Ozcan Research Group.
  • DENSE ENERGY: 250 billion solar nanocrystals on the head of a pin! These solar cells from the University of Southern California are really tiny and could be painted onto a surface. The nanocrystals, made of the semiconductor cadmium selenide, are cheap to fabricate but not very efficient. Cadmium is also toxic and restricted in commercial applications. Once the researchers have overcome those problems though, we could start seeing solar cells we can paint or print onto the surface we need them on. Sigh, so many otherwise good things are toxic. University of Southern California.

Tech Universe: Friday 11 May 2012

  • MARATHON SUIT: Two weeks after starting the London Marathon the final competitor finished the course. The competitor may have been slow, but considering she’s paralysed from the chest down and was walking with the aid of a bionic ReWalk suit it’s an unparalleled achievement. Motion sensors and an onboard computer system read the wearer’s intentions and move the suit in response, allowing them to walk. So you decide: is 2 miles per day a slow walk or a fast one? The Telegraph.
  • DRILL AND GROW: Those fillings in your teeth really just plug up a hole. But scientists at the University of Maryland have created a filling that can also regenerate the tooth structure. After drilling harmful bacteria remain in the cavity. In the new material nanoparticles of silver and calcium include antibacterial agents and regenerate tooth minerals. Your dentist won’t be using it though, as it hasn’t yet been tested on human teeth. I want nanostuff that means there’s no drilling at all. University of Maryland.
  • WELL-LIKED: Do you want to buy the clothes everyone likes? One shop in Brazil is using hangars that display in real time the number of Facebook Likes the item has received. For the Fashion Like campaign the company posts photos on a dedicated Facebook page and invites viewers to Like the items that appeal. That is so open to trolling. Springwise.
  • 1.5 KILOPIXEL EYES: Pioneering eye implants have given 2 British men who were completely blind the ability to see light and some shapes. Now they’re wearing behind their retinas a thin 3mm square microelectronic chip with 1,500 light-sensitive pixels which replace the function of photoreceptor rods and cones in the eye. A fine cable runs from the sensor to a control unit under the skin behind the ear. Now the men have to learn to correctly interpret the signals from the chips. This is part of a clinical trial of the chips, but may eventually lead to some people having at least partial vision restored. Now that’s definitely an augmented reality. BBC.
  • SINGLE TOUCH: Disney Research are working on a sensing system called Touché that recognises various kinds of touch. It exploits the fact that different tissues in the human body have different capacitive properties. With a single wire, the system can discriminate between a single finger, several fingers, an elbow, a hand, a pair of hands and so on. This could open up a broad range of applications, such as controlling a music player simply by tapping a finger on your wrist. That could lead to some very discreet apps. Disney Research.

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.