22 to 26 October 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 October 2012

  • STEER RIGHT: Nissan Motors have developed a system of radar and laser scanners, in conjunction with a front-mounted camera to help drivers avoid collisions. The system first alerts the driver to turn in a certain direction. If the driver doesn’t respond quickly enough the system then automatically steers the car. Nissan hope to release the system in around 5 years. Though hitting an object on the road may be the lesser of two evils — something only a human could judge. NHK World.
  • DIESEL FOR TREES: 20% of people, especially those living in the countryside in Africa and Southern Asia, don’t have access to electricity. They often cut down trees to burn for cooking, which is harmful to both land and health. Students at ETH Zurich and the University of St. Gallen created a generator for low-cost production in large quantities. Their Smart Micro Grid System fits on a trailer and includes both solar cells and diesel. It can supply enough power for 100 people in 20 households, and it uses waste heat to purify 1,000 litres of water per day. A computer controls the electricity loads and would allow users to redeem credits they’ve bought at a local kiosk. So now the village just needs a kiosk, a water supply and diesel. PhysOrg.
  • BABY STEPS: In Kenya there’s only one doctor for every 10,000 people. On the other hand, nearly 75% of people there own a mobile phone, and many use it for going online. With limited access to medical services, many women die because of complications in pregnancy. The Baby Monitor trial project is assessing whether automated phone calls can help with this problem. Women receive a long phonecall at regular intervals and provide answers to questions about the progress of their pregnancy. Women trialling the system currently visit health workers who ask the same questions to see if the automated system is getting it right. If it works correctly, the system should advise whether progress is normal or the woman should visit a health clinic. Lifesaving cellphones. BBC.
  • MOUTH AID: Sometimes you regret that sip of coffee if it burns your mouth. Still, you just have to tough it out and wait until the pain eases. Now a team from the University of Texas have developed a dissolvable oral strip that could help. The strip contains a local topical anesthetic, benzocaine, and a therapeutic polymer. Stick the strip to the roof of your mouth. It slowly dissolves while releasing the painkiller and promotes healing. Who’s going to be the first to see if it numbs toothache too? EurekAlert.
  • OPERATING SYSTEM UPDATES: You’d think that while you’re a patient in hospital the only viruses you’d have to worry about would be the kind that infect humans. Unfortunately, viruses are also a problem with medical equipment, much of which runs on Windows. Equipment manufacturers often refuse to allow OS updates or security patches because of concerns that the equipment may then no longer meet required standards for approval. Malware can cause slowdowns and delays in the use of essential equipment. Medical equipment is usually connected to an internal network that is itself connected to the Internet, making devices vulnerable to malware. What’s the equivalent of an autoclave for electronic devices? Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Thursday 25 October 2012

  • BRAIN TRAIN: The Muse headset from InteraXon is a 4-sensor headband that measures your state of mind. It has 2 sensors on the forehead and 2 behind the ears. It can help you maintain concentration and focus by alerting you to when your mind is drifting off-topic or by helping you to relax or sharpen your mind. The headband comes with a brain-training app and an SDK for others to create their own applications. The headset connects via wireless or Bluetooth to various common smartphones and computers and includes a rechargeable battery. Imagine schoolkids with access to these headbands. KurzweilAI.
  • WALK THIS WAY: A team at Glasgow Caledonian University are using 3D printers to quickly make orthotic devices that are more supportive than traditionally made devices. In the past a foot mould was created in plaster then plastic was added around it by hand. The whole process took several weeks. In the new process motion sensor cameras measure the exact proportions of the leg or foot then a 3D printer builds up layers of plastic to create the insole or splint. And it would be easy to produce spares, or orthotics in various colours. BBC.
  • SHAKE IT OFF: Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are using carbon nanotubes to create material that repels chemical and biological agents. The fabric is intended for military uniforms. To stop soldiers from becoming overheated the fabric in their uniforms needs to be able to breathe. But that openness makes them vulnerable to attack by chemical or biological agents. The new fabric will block biologic agents with a small pore size on the nanotubes, though chemicals could still slip through. An agent on the fabric will respond to chemical threats by closing the pores and also by shedding a layer of the fabric. Like a dog, a good shake and they could be safely on their way. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
  • HARBOUR RUN: When it comes to driving warships new recruits aren’t let loose on the real thing. At the Britannia Royal Naval College in the UK trainees are immersed in real-world harbour scenarios through almost a gigabyte of actual photographs displayed on 180 degrees of wrap-around screens. A graphics specialist spent 5 days and nights photographing every aspect of Portsmouth Harbour in various conditions to create a scene that’s so realistic trainees forget they’re on a training bridge rather than the real thing. 10 high-spec computers drive the simulation which can also recreate a lookout’s view through binoculars. Which makes you wonder how they were trained in the days before computers. Ministry of Defence UK.
  • BAGS OF RUN: The Urban Crew backpack from iSafe aims to protect you from assailants. Pull a cord and it sets off two 125-decibel sirens and a set of flashing strobes. The sirens are loud enough to cause hearing damage, and painful enough to make an assailant flee. Two batteries power the siren for 2 hours and the strobes for up to 60 hours. Perhaps it should include emergency earplugs for the owner. Wired. Video:

Tech Universe: Friday 26 October 2012

  • BLACK SCREEN OF DEATH: Boeing’s Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project sends out a high-powered microwave pulse when it reaches its target. It’s the kind if pulse that disables all electronic equipment, such as computers. The weapon succeeded in knocking out all the targeted computers in a test, while not harming any people or buildings. And with people increasingly relying on personal medical electronics that ‘collateral’ damage may just be greater than envisioned in real-life work. Boeing. Video:
  • MOUSE ALERT: Dogs can sniff out explosives such as those used in landmines, but so can mice. Mice also have the advantage that they don’t trigger the mines. Researchers at the City University of New York have genetically engineered mice to have a sense of smell hundreds of times sharper than unmodified mice. The engineered mice have 10,000 to 1,000,000 odour-sensing neurons with a special TNT-detecting receptor compared with only 4,000 in a normal animal. This sensitivity means that instead of needing to be trained to react to explosives the mice would involuntarily experience a seizure when they smell TNT. Then an implanted chip would track, report, and record their behaviours. Let loose the mice of war! Technology Review.
  • DEER LIGHTS: Wildlife crossing the road is a real danger in some places, like the US. If a vehicle collides with a deer or moose the animal is often killed, the vehicle damaged and humans may be injured or killed too. DeerDeter from Austria uses solar-powered light-sensitive pods attached to roadside stakes in areas where dense foliage flanks the road. When a car’s headlights activate the pod a strobe flashes to simulate a predator and the pod creates sounds like those of a wounded animal. The combined light and noise distract nearby animals while the car passes. Test data shows a severe or total reduction in the number of animals hit. How’s the driver distraction rate? Wired.
  • GOOD VIBRATIONS: Stuttering is a genetic and neurological condition that affects around 1 person in every hundred. Researchers at the University of Mississippi have created a cellphone-sized battery-powered device that helps people who stutter to speak more fluently. The device is based on one researcher’s finding that he could speak more fluently with a hand on his throat. The tactile feedback, where he could feel his throat vibrate while speaking, made the difference. So if a hand works, why the gadget? University of Mississippi.
  • OUT OF THIN AIR: Getting oil is such a messy business, with all the drilling, transport mishaps and the like. Then much of it is refined into petrol for our cars and trucks. Imagine if we could make petrol out of thin air instead. That’s just what Air Fuel Synthesis in the UK have done: combining air and water to create synthetic fuel. The demonstration unit has made 5 litres of petrol since August, but full production, expected in 2015, will be much more efficient. Although it sounds good, if it needs potable water it may not be as helpful as it seems. BBC.

Tech Universe: Monday 29 October 2012

  • COMING UP VEGES: Traditionally farms need a lot of space, covering hectares of land. In places like Singapore though land is in very short supply and most vegetables are imported. So how about if a farm could go up instead of out? Singapore’s first commercial vertical farm grows vegetables in troughs on the sides of aluminium towers up to 9 metres tall. The 3.65 hectare farm produces 0.5 tonnes of vegetables from 120 towers, but the growers aim to ramp up to 2 tonnes from 300 towers in the next year. Imagine if the walls of every skyscraper included a farming layer. Channel News Asia. Video:
  • LOOK HERE: If tapping the screen of a tablet computer is too much for you try the EyeDock from The Eye Tribe. It adds an inexpensive webcam and infrared LED to the device. The software pinpoints which icon you’re looking at on the screen then operates the software for you. That could open up some interesting educational uses. The Eye Tribe.
  • NOT AN MP3 PLAYER: Back in 1878 was the first time anyone ever recorded a human voice and played it back. The achievement belonged to Thomas Edison, using tinfoil. The physical recording was so fragile though that we haven’t been able to listen to it since. So scientists carefully photographed the tinfoil to create a 3D image, then used software to reconstruct the groove and model what a stylus would do. Ultimately they were able to create the sound waves as though the physical recording were played back. Hear Thomas Edison reading a nursery rhyme. Science Space Robots.
  • SHINE A LIGHT ON CANCER: Delivering a chemotherapy drug directly to a cancer cell while also heating the cell is an effective way to deal with cancer. Targeting the correct cells without cutting open the person is tricky though. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital think they’re on the right track with gold nanorods that can be controlled by near-infrared light. The self assembled nanorods hold a chemotherapy drug that works on cancer cells. When the nanorods reach their destination a light makes them release the drug and heat up nearby cells. The research work is in its early stages, but holds promise for future non-invasive cancer treatments. Presumably the cells aren’t to deep inside the body if the light’s to reach them. Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
  • ROBOT BY WIRE: Researchers are pretty skilled these days at creating robots that can walk and balance. But mainly they achieve these feats of balance on solid ground. The Primer-V4 robot walks a tightrope — a 4mm diameter cable stretched 1 metre above the floor. The robot uses its arms for balance, while its solid flat feet have a slot for the tightrope. What next? Robots on the trapeze? Robots Dreams.

Monday was a holiday so there was no Tech Universe. There wasn’t one on Tuesday either.

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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