14 to 18 May 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday, 14 May 2012

  • SCAN THE DOG: If you think you’re clever because you taught your dog to sit, try teaching it to climb into an MRI machine and lie perfectly still for a while. Researchers at Emory University trained two dogs to do just that so they could scan the dogs’ brains while the dogs were awake and responsive. The fMRI scans are intended to help decode the mental processes of dogs. Results so far show part of the brain lighting up when the dog expects a treat. The dogs are also trained to wear earmuffs to protect against the noise of the scanner. Oh yeah? I bet cats could do that too. Emory University.
  • WIFI DOWN: French researchers have created wallpaper that blocks frequencies used by wireless LANs yet allows cellphone signals and other radio waves through. The wallpaper should be available for sale in 2013. The wallpaper works by blocking only select frequencies rather than all of them. That could put a dent in the wardriving. Ars Technica.
  • IN TOUCH: Researchers in the US and France have created touchpads made from low-cost metallised paper. The paper’s coated in aluminium and a thin film of transparent polymer. With two layers of metal film close to one another but with a gap between them it takes only the touch of a finger to increase capacitance. This means, for example, that boxes could have a paper keypad that requires the correct code before they can be opened. The problem now is all the other electronics required for a workable system. Imagine if book publishers find a way to incorporate these for enhanced DRM. Royal Society of Chemistry.
  • COMPUTERS AT PLAYTIME: Diagnosing autism commonly requires an experienced doctor to analyse hours of video footage of a child playing. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are wondering if they can use the Microsoft Kinect and software analysis to identify kids at risk. In their test setup 5 Kinect motion sensors monitor a group of children as they play. Computers analyse the movements of the children and mark patterns that a specialist should then examine. That should be the kind of thing computers are good at. New Scientist.
  • LIVING DRIVE: A research team from the UK and Japan caused the bacterium Magnetospirilllum magneticum to grow magnets that could perhaps be used in future hard drives. When the bacteria ingest iron they produce tiny crystals of the mineral magnetite. The researchers studied the way the microbes collect, shape and position these nanomagnets inside themselves and then copied the techniques to create smaller magnets than traditional processes can manage. Maybe our future hard drives will just be made of bacteria. BBC.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 15 May 2012

  • DIE BUG DIE: A coating devised at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore attracts bacteria and kills them without antibiotics. The coating is already being used by one contact lens manufacturer. The coating is a sponge-like polymer holds a positive charge. It works like a magnet to draw in bacteria which have a negative charge on their cell walls. On contact the coating ruptures the bacteria and kills them. Gruesome but effective. Nanyang Technological University.
  • FEEL THE MUSIC: Vibroacoustic therapy transmits low sound frequencies to the body and mind through special transducers. Testing at the University of Toronto has shown that this can help people with Parkinsons to walk better and with reduced tremor. The sound therapy works like a really deep massage, providing deep physical cellular stimulation to skin, muscles and joints. That seems like an easy treatment regime — lie back and feel the music. University of Toronto.
  • IN THE CLEAR: You can hear sounds either by vibrations in the air that cause your eardrum to vibrate, or by vibrations that travel through the tissue in your head to vibrate the eardrum. Phones usually use the first method, but a new model from Kyocera takes advantage of the second. Instead of a speaker, the phone contains a ceramic transducer. Touch the phone directly to your ear and you’ll hear clear sound from the call without annoying ambient sounds interfering. The transducer also vibrates the face of the phone which vibrates the air so you can hear it ringing. Unfortunately it still won’t solve signal problems that degrade the sound. GigaOm.
  • GOOD BREATH: Various diseases and conditions leave biomarkers in our breath — for example, ammonia or acetone. A new device, in clinical testing, has you exhale a long breath into a machine that can return an initial diagnosis within moments. The breathalyser from Stony Brook University in the US contains a sensor chip coated with nanowires able to detect a few molecules of chemical compounds in the breath. The researchers suggest low-cost consumer devices could become available. Hypochondriacs rejoice. The National Science Foundation. Video:
  • SOUND CONTROL: SoundWave is sonar gesture control for your computer. It sends out an inaudible tone, between 18 and 22 Kilohertz. As the sound reflects off moving objects such as a hand it shifts frequency. The computer’s microphone receives the reflected sound and determines the gestures the user made. Tests showed the system could be used to scroll, control music, play games and even lock the screen when the user walked away. I like the sound of that. Microsoft Research.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 16 May 2012

  • BRAIN SUPPORT: Is your work just too hard for your brain? The Brainput system, developed by US researchers, determines when a brain is trying to multitask, and offloads some of the workload to a computer. It uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy to measure the activity of the brain. In the lab an operator tried to navigate two robots through a maze at the same time. When the operator was multitasking the robots used their own sensors to navigate so as to help out. With Brainput turned on operator performance improved. Now that would be a useful virtual assistant. ExtremeTech.
  • OLD GEAR: The world’s oldest computer is arguably the Antikythera Mechanism. Unfortunately we don’t know how it works because it was underwater for a couple of thousand years, and it’s incomplete. Scientists used X-Rays though to see inside and found astonishingly precise gears that change our view of the state of engineering in Ancient Greece. We consistently underestimate our predecessors. BBC.
  • SWEAT ALERT: People who have seizures may need an electroencephalogram to determine the severity. And that means a trip to hospital. But a new wristband may be able to do the job more easily. The wristband measures how easily an electrical current can travel across the skin, and that’s related to how much you sweat. Your skin conductance goes up when you feel a flight or fight response. The researchers were originally testing something different but noticed skin conductance was related to seizures and their severity. They may even be able to predict seizures. Such wristbands could also be rigged to send out an alert for particular readings. Is that what some dogs can pick up on when they can predict seizures? New Scientist.
  • GAMMA BENDER: European physicists have found a way to bend and focus gamma rays using a crystal spectrometer and a silicon prism. In tests they bent the gamma rays by about a millionth of a degree, but the researchers think that using different materials in the lenses could result in greater refraction. They hope that eventually they could detect radioactive bomb-making material or use the technique in medical imaging. X-rays have been really useful, so why not gamma rays? ScienceNOW.
  • 3D PHONE: Skype is just so 2D. Dump it and go with the 3D TeleHuman from Queen’s University in Canada. The system uses an array of Microsoft Kinect sensors, a 3D projector, a 1.8 metre tall translucent acrylic cylinder and a convex mirror at each end of the call. The image of the other person appears inside the cylinder, and you can walk all around to see them from any angle. So how about a resurgence of phone boxes with this tech? Queen’s University.

Tech Universe: Thursday 17 May 2012

  • TRUCKS ON THE LINE: We’re familiar with electric trains and trams drawing their power from overhead lines. But how about if trucks could use a similar power delivery system on heavily travelled stretches of road? Siemens have devised such a system and the tech is to be tested in California soon. Specially equipped hybrid trucks will be able to switch from one power source to the other without interruption as they travel down the road. The connecting gear, called a pantograph, is designed to allow for normal sideways movement during travel. It gets rid of CO2 pollution, but introduces a great deal of visual pollution. Designboom.
  • WATER FUEL: Scientists at the US Department of Energy have been looking for a low-cost way to safely create hydrogen. And they may have found it. Their new electrocatalyst uses nickel-molybdenum-nitride to generate hydrogen gas from water. The new catalyst is easier to use and far less expensive than the platinum that’s used now. Cheaper fuels must be good. Brookhaven National Laboratory.
  • DRAGON ON BOARD: Very soon now the first private spaceship will dock with the International Space Station. The Dragon from SpaceX will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After some intensive testing the robotic arm from the ISS will capture Dragon and the two craft will dock. After two weeks the Dragon will splash down in the Pacific off the coast of Southern California. Launch is scheduled for 19 May 2012. This is one dragon that shouldn’t be slain. Gizmodo.
  • HEALTH SUIT: Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people in Africa each year. But a couple of designers at Cornell University hope to reduce that number with their specially designed clothing. The hooded bodysuit is embedded at the molecular level with insecticides. Insect repellant and fabric are bonded at the nanolevel using metal organic framework molecules, meaning the effects last for a long time. In traditional treated mosquito nets the repellant wears off within a few months. Taking small bites out of a big problem. Cornell University.
  • DIMPLE DASH: With the Olympics coming up there’s a lot of emphasis on clothing an equipment. The Nike Pro TurboSpeed uniform material places patterns and dimples on key areas of an athlete’s uniform. Wind tunnel tests helped Nike work out the best way to reduce aerodynamic drag. The principle is the same as for simples on a golf ball. Nike claim the material is up to .023 seconds faster over 100m than their previous track uniform. Go on, run like a golf ball! Nike.

Tech Universe: Friday 18 May 2012

  • 6 BY 6: Honda’s little U3-X uncicyle has grown up into the UNI-CUB. The UNI-CUB is a seat on a single self-balancing omnidirectional wheel, powered by a Lithium-ion battery. You move, control speed and direction by shifting or weight, or with an optional app for a smartphone or tablet. The UNI-CUB can climb gradients, has a range of 6 Km, and can reach a top speed of 6 Kph. Now even that annoying walk from the lounge sofa to the fridge needn’t be so much trouble. Gizmag.
  • THE BEST COFFEE EVER: Being paralysed may have just got a smidge less limiting. As part of the BrainGate2 clinical trial a quadriplegic woman with a brain implant was able to direct a robotic arm to bring a coffee to her lips. Just by thinking about it she made the arm lift a bottle, move it towards her and tilt it so she could drink her coffee through a straw. This is the first time a human has used a brain-computer interface system to manipulate a physical object in 3D space. Once that robot’s mobile just think of the things it could do, starting with making the coffee first. Wired. Video:
  • ARC LIGHTS: We all know that lasers go in straight lines. A team in France though has been able to bend laser beams by as much as 60 degrees. The beams themselves are only a few micrometres across. A spatial light modulator superimposes interference patterns that cause the beam to bend. Bent or even circular laser beams could have many uses, such as making surgical incisions behind structures inside the body, or manipulating nanoparticles in new ways. You still need to see around corners for the actual surgery though. New Scientist.
  • BLOWN UP IN ORBIT: Bigelow Aerospace plans to put inflatable BA 330 habitats into orbit for use by scientists and businesses working with microgravity. The new module offers 330 cubic metres of habitat, though they’ve had smaller test rigs in orbit since 2006 with no problems. SpaceX will provide transport to the Bigelow modules. Quick, think up a good microgravity experiment. The Register.
  • FLYING BACKUP: An earthquake can easily disrupt cell towers and cables, so Japan’s Softbank has decided to float their cellphone towers, using balloons and cables to keep them tethered. The floating mobile relay stations will serve as backup to the regular cell towers, able to carry signals if the land-based towers are damaged. Better hope there are no hurricanes just before a major earthquake. Ubergizmo.

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.