Tech Universe: Monday 16 July 2012
- TALKING HANDS: The Ukrainian EnableTalk claims to be the voice of sign language. The system includes a pair of virtual reality gloves that send signals via Bluetooth for computer processing. The gloves include a microcontroller, 15 flex sensors, accelerometer, gyroscope, and a compass in order to define the position of the glove in space. They also have a lithium ion battery and a USB port for charging and for synching with the computer. A person wears the glove and uses sign language to communicate. The glove captures the hand movements then sends signals to the processor that turns the signs into spoken words. So can they make the reverse work too? Speak and the gloves create the signs? EnableTalk.
- LOW COST LOOK: Eye tracking has been used for many purposes, such as finding out where web visitors look. But it could serve a more useful real-world purpose too: allowing people with physical disabilities to interact with objects. A low-cost eyetracker from Imperial College London is made up of 2 fast video game console cameras attached to a cheap pair of glasses. The cameras take pictures of the eye, working out where the pupil is pointing then a processor calculates where and how far into the distance the wearer is looking. While testers played video games this could be used for controlling a prosthetic arm or a wheelchair. The device uses 1 watt of power and can transmit data wirelessly over Wi-Fi or via USB. Now imagine a wheelchair with a robotic arm, both controlled by eye movements. Science Daily.
- SOUNDS OF MUSIC: EyeMusic turns visual input into sound and is intended to help blind people. The system from Hebrew University in Jerusalem mounts a camera on a pair of glasses. A processor converts the location, brightness and colour of pixels in the image into musical sounds with differing pitch, timing and instrument. For example, a violin represents yellow and high pitch represents a high vertical location. After brief training testers were able to accurately locate objects. That shirt’s a nice shade of violin. AlphaGalileo.
- GROW THE BUCK: Buckyballs are rather interesting C60 molecules formed from a hexagonal sphere of interlocking carbon atoms. Recently when researchers fired lasers at Buckyballs they expected the carbon molecules to be destroyed. Instead the Buckyballs absorbed carbon from surrounding hot gases and grew. With crystals of C60 in orbit around distant suns, according to NASA, this research could help us understand the Universe a bit better. It could also make for an interesting shield against lasers that gets stronger as it’s fired on. LiveScience.
- CABLE FACE: Those submarine Internet cables are crucial in our part of the world. Now Facebook is buying into the new 10,000 kilometre Asia Pacific Gateway cable to help connect several Asian countries. Over here, folks, over here! Wired.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 17 July 2012
- SMARTER PHONE: Georgie’s an unusual name for a smartphone, but the new Android-based device has been created especially for blind people and is named after a guide dog. A couple in Peterborough, UK, designed the device to provide apps that help complete tasks such as catching a bus, reading printed text and pinpointing location. Users can dial with a voice-assisted touchscreen and use speech input to send text messages, while other apps help with specific tasks for travel, lifestyle and communication. Well, it’s a much better name than a random bunch of letters and digits. BBC.
- WASTED WASTE: Mostly we don’t think about sewers very much, but apparently they run quite hot, thanks to showers, dishwashers and other sources dumping hot water into them. And where there’s heat there’s potential energy. In Minnesota, USA, a company called Hidden Fuels has been monitoring one town’s sewers to create a thermal energy map. Now they’re working out how to run the sewage through a geothermal heat pump device to extract the energy that could heat hundreds of homes. They plan to be heating one building with extracted energy by the end of the year. Perhaps it’s time to retire the word ‘waste’ in favour of ‘resource’. NPR.
- ELECTRON HURDLES: UK scientists can make electrons jump one at a time across a barrier, creating a very well-defined electrical current. It’s small — the current they produced is ten billion times smaller than the current used when boiling a kettle, but it’s a start. They controlled a billion electrons per second with a quantum dot — a tiny electrostatic trap less than 0.0001 mm wide. Next: nano sprints. National Physical Laboratory.
- KEEP TAPPING: Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have found a way to harvest the energy created when 2 different kinds of plastic materials rub against one another. This could mean that tapping a touchscreen would create electricity to help power the device. The system requires two different kinds of materials to create the different electrodes, as surfaces made from the same material don’t produce a charge differential. There’s a good excuse for playing games: to recharge the device. Georgia Institute of Technology.
- THE POWER OF THREE: Monitoring systems are used in all kinds of places: the human body, remote locations and even just spots that are hard to reach. Yet they all need power. MIT’s new computer and wireless-communication chips harvest the energy they need from their surroundings. The chips combine power from natural light, heat and vibrations in the environment and use a sophisticated control system to produce a constant output. So long as those remote spots aren’t cold and dark… MIT News.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 18 July 2012
- GUIDE SHOES: Ducere Technologies in India wants to help blind people find their way around town, with a device embedded in their shoes. The Le Chal system puts a small actuator inside the sole of one shoe and uses Bluetooth so it can talk to a smartphone. The user speaks a destination into the phone which fetches a local map and tracks the person’s location in real-time. The phone also sends signals to the actuator in the shoe which vibrates to right or left to indicate a direction. A sensor in the tip of the shoe scans the surroundings with sonar and causes the shoe to vibrate when obstacles are near. Listen to the shoe. The Economist.
- WALK IN BUILDINGS: Indoor navigation systems seem to be a hot research topic these days. Researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland reckon the Earth’s magnetic field can be used to create an indoor positioning system. Their IndoorAtlas system is accurate to within 2 metres and uses the magnetometer built in to most smartphones. First floorplans are overlaid on maps, then buildings are mapped to determine the magnetic field strength — their concrete and steel affect the local field. Ultimately a user can open a positioning app to navigate inside. The system would be particularly useful for large buildings such as hospitals and airports. How about extending this with the vibrating shoes? ExtremeTech.
- BUILD YOUR OWN CAR: Modi Corp in Japan announced a DIY micro electric vehicle called the Pius. It’s a single seater, expected to be used as an educational tool for learning the basic functions and structure of EV. In Japan it can be registered as a motorised bicycle. That could be fun for getting round on private roads between buildings on large campuses. Nikkei Business Publications.
- FULL OF NOTHING: Once upon a time aerogel was the lightest and least dense material ever made. Now that title goes to aerographite. Made from a network of hollow carbon tubes grown at nano and micro scales, its density is less than 0.2 mg per cubic cm, so it’s mostly empty space. But what can you do with it? New Scientist.
- LET’S GET ORBITAL: Virgin Galactic’s new rocket is called LauncherOne. It’ll be carried to high altitude by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. From there the rocket will propel a small satellite load into orbit. The launcher’s designed to carry small payloads at a minimal cost, opening up space to private companies. Commercial flights are expected to begin by 2016. Before long someone will have to set up some rules of conduct and behaviour to keep things orderly up there. Virgin Galactic.
Tech Universe: Thursday 19 July 2012
- FULL SCREEN: The Formula 1 training simulator from Norman Design in Sweden includes an F1 body, of course. But more important is the 406 cm curved screen that wraps around for a realistic experience. Start clearing a space in the living room. BornRich.
- IN THE ZONE: Having cars drive themselves is one way to approach the problem of human error. But another approach is to use a silent partner in driving which takes over only when really needed. The semiautonomous safety system from MIT watches as you drive. The system uses an onboard camera and laser rangefinder to identify hazards in the vehicle’s environment and establish a safe zone where the vehicle won’t collide with anything. As long as you’re driving in the zone the system does nothing. If your car appears to be headed out of the safe zone though the system intervenes and steers the car back into safety. Could it make drivers more careless though? KurzweilAI.
- WHOSE VIEW?: If you see a movie in 3D you have the same perspective as everyone else in the audience, unlike real world 3D where everyone sees something slightly different. A team at MIT stack LCD panels to add that perspective, and without needing special glasses. The Tensor Display uses several layers of LCDs, each displaying a unique pattern. Only when all the patterns are aggregated does the 3D image emerge. For a convincing image the LCDs need a refresh rate of 360 hertz. The system uses clever compression to reduce the computations needed to produce the unique patterns for each LCD. So will future movie reviewers have to specify which angle they saw the movie from? MIT News. Video.
- THE EYES HAVE IT: What are you buying at the supermarket? Of course the supermarket know because the cash register tells them. But what they don’t know is what you looked at but didn’t buy. That’s why retailers are experimenting with eye-tracking technology. Some companies are using 3D computer simulations of product designs and store layouts to track what customers are looking at and for how long. Then they use the data to redesign product packaging, graphics and other elements of displays to better capture the buyer’s attention and money. Keep your eyes on your goal: biscuits, middle shelf. Wall Street Journal.
- WALK A MILE IN MY SUIT: Age tends to bring with it slower movements, more difficulties with everyday tasks and perhaps reduced vision or balance. It’s hard for doctors and carers, who are generally younger, to really understand what life is like for older folk. That’s why German scientists created The Age Man Suit. It’s designed to simulate the physical consequences of old age, adding weight, restricting movement, distorting vision and hearing. Once potential carers actually wear the suit for a bit they develop increased empathy for people whose movements are less free. Take that, young’uns! The Guardian.
Tech Universe: Friday 20 July 2012
- GO FOR BROKE: Engineers from Harvard University plan to visit New Mexico soon. Once there, they intend to send a balloon 24 Km into the air to spray tens or hundreds of kilograms of sun-reflecting chemical particles into the atmosphere. They’ve observed that when volcanoes release sulphates high into the atmosphere sunlight is reflected away from Earth, and they want to see if their experiment can help cool the planet. They say they can’t accurately simulate the complexity of the stratosphere in a lab so a real-world test is what’s needed. Let’s hope New Mexico have something to say about this experiment. The Guardian.
- EYE ON THE BALL: Pity the poor camera operator at a game of tennis. Tracking the ball as it moves from one end of the court to the other can’t be easy. The University of Tokyo’s idea is to use mirrors to handle the tracking, instead of panning with the camera. Their 1ms Auto Pan-Tilt system uses a Saccade Mirror and a high-speed camera. The Saccade Mirror rotates two-axis small galvanometer mirrors. Their demo movie of a ping pong game was recorded at 500 fps and the ball is always at the centre of the image. Now someone needs to figure out a way to put a camera in the ball too. University of Tokyo. Video.
- STAR POWER: Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the USA recently test fired a 500 trillion watt laser. Yes, that’s trillion. It’s also 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time. The laser was created by combining the beams of 192 individual high powered lasers onto a 2 millimetre target. The powerful laser is used for studying materials at extreme conditions. Don’t look directly at the laser. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
- FIRE BLASTER: Fighting fire usually takes water or special chemicals, but DARPA can use sound. In their demo they placed speakers on either side of a liquid fuel flame. When they played a sound it thinned the air around the flame, making it easier to extinguish. The sound also disturbed the pool of fuel, vaporising it more quickly, making it wider, thinner and cooler and so easier to extinguish. The system’s being tested for fighting fires in confined spaces such as ships. One problem may be delivering the speakers to the right spots. Wired.
- PHONE FUTURES: British researchers have figured out how to use our smartphone’s location tracking to predict where we’ll be in the future, and with a worrying level of accuracy. By looking at where we are and where we’ve been, and then factoring in the patterns of people in our social group their predictions were less than 20 metres off for a test group. The accuracy was much higher when the social group data was included. The researchers say that habits and patterns of friends are highly correlated. Luckily the test group were all fairly predictable, but it could have implications for the rest of us too. How will our knowledge of the predictions skew our behaviour? Technology Review.
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.