12 to 16 November 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 12 November 2012

  • A SLOW READ: Scientists from the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Co Ltd in Japan have developed a slow-refresh LCD panel that can reduce the eye strain amongst those who watch displays for long hours. The specific technology reduces the number of screen refreshes needed to display a still image from 60x per second to 1x per second or less. The panel uses red, green and blue LEDs for backlighting. The researchers say the wavelength of this particular blue light isn’t harmful to our eyes, so that also reduces eye strain. It must reduce power draw too. Tech-On!
  • SAIL INTO THE WIND: Conventional wind turbines have giant blades, are expensive and inefficient. The Saphonian from Saphon Energy has no spinning parts but rather a sail-shaped body. The wind is harnessed by a sail that follows a non-rotational back and forth motion. Pistons convert the kinetic energy into mechanical energy. That creates hydraulic pressure that can be stored or directly converted into electricity. A prototype was twice as efficient as conventional wind turbines at almost half the cost. I can see how the wind would push the sail back, but what allows it to come forward again? Saphon Energy.
  • STACK UP THE BREEZE: The lazy turn of a ceiling fan can be quite relaxing, but the Exhale fan doesn’t use blades at all. Instead it uses a stack of rapidly spinning discs that move the air out to the sides by laminar flow. That circulates and mixes the air around the room, rather than just stirring the air beneath the fan. A gentle breeze all over the room. Indiegogo.
  • STRAIGHT HIT: Bulky steel and lightweight Kevlar are both good at stopping bullets. But how about a thin and almost weightless fabric? Researchers at MIT developed a self-assembling polymer using rubbery layers for resilience, alternating with glassy layers for strength. Then they developed a technique for studying the effects of different kinds of impact. In scaled down tests the team found that head-on hits were absorbed 30% more effectively than edge-on impacts. Being able to effectively measure the effects of impacts is what may allow new materials to be developed. Just so long as the shooters aim straight on. MIT news.
  • MATHS PLANET: Thanks to some very powerful statistical software astronomers have found a new potential habitable exoplanet around the star HD 40307. It’s a mere 42 light years away in the constellation Pictor. The software analyses exoplanets radial velocity data, in this case gathered from the Arecibo telescope. Who ever thought of explorers and discoverers would be folks who sit around doing maths? Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 13 November 2012

  • LET’S ALL SPEAK MANDARIN: It’s something of a dream to think of speaking in one language and having your words, in your own voice, be heard correctly phrased in another. So it’s startling to see a real-life demo. Microsoft used a technique called Deep Neural Networks to train more discriminative and better speech recognisers than previous methods. The system converts spoken English into text, much like dictation apps, but with greater accuracy. Then those words are translated in real-time into Mandarin and spoken aloud using sounds captured from the speaker’s own voice. It’s still not perfect, of course, but it feels like a step into the future. The Next Web.
  • DON’T WASTE WASTE: There’s one resource that isn’t in short supply around the world: urine. Three teenage girls in Africa developed a generator that produces 6 hours of power for every litre of urine fed into it. Most people produce a couple of litres of urine per day. The device uses an electrolytic cell to extract hydrogen from the urine. The hydrogen is then purified with a typical water filter and fed into a cylinder of liquid borax to remove excess humidity. From there the purified hydrogen can power a generator to produce 6 hours of electricity. Couldn’t that revolutionise city or even household sewage systems! I wonder what the waste products are. Inhabitat.
  • A SPRING IN THE STEP: Artificial leg prostheses often cause wearers to walk unevenly because the prosthesis is lacking a proper ankle. Researchers at The University of Alabama are developing a powered ankle for such prostheses. Powered prostheses are usually quite heavy, but the team are working on an artificial muscle that is lighter. The new ankle also uses a monopropellant to store and release energy generated by walking. In the long term they hope to make prostheses that look and function like human legs. Presumably these developments could be adapted for other body joints too. The University of Alabama.
  • LIKE SANDS THROUGH THE HOURGLASS: Annoyed by a particular character on the latest episode of that TV show? StoryVisualizer software may let you customise TV shows to watch only what you want from them. A team at the Toulouse Institute for Computer Science Research created software that deconstructs storylines by detecting actors faces and backgrounds, and by gathering keywords from the audio. Then it assembles the chunks into separate plotlines reflecting semantically similar items. One idea is that you could quickly catch up if you’ve missed several episodes of a favourite show. Or perhaps you could remove the annoying characters from the episode, and focus on the ones you like. New Scientist.
  • SCREEN YOUR CARDS: A new credit card from Mastercard includes an LCD display and built-in keyboard. The card could be used in two-factor authentication, removing the need for a separate gadget, and it may in future display loyalty points, recent transactions or an account balance. Yet another password to learn? BBC.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 14 November 2012

  • A LONG DRIVE: Sunita Williams, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, recently used a laptop to drive a robot in Germany. She was testing Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN, an Internet for space. Problems with sending and receiving data in space include interruptions when craft are behind a planet or moon, solar storms, and of course delays as signals may need to travel long distances. The Curiosity rover on Mars, for example, receives signals direct from Earth, or sometimes via a satellite orbiting the planet. Interruptions and delays mean data can be lost. The DTN will take currently discrete items, such as the individual rovers, and build them into a network that can store data and send it on once a connection becomes possible. The Internet here on Earth has transformed how we do things. Doing the same for space is a new challenge. BBC.
  • MUSIC TO THE EARS: We can quickly decide whether music we hear comes from a violin or a piano, thanks to timbre. But people with hearing loss can’t easily do that because hearing aids discard much of a sound in favour of the parts that convey speech. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University studied sound and the way our brains process it. Then they devised a computer model that can accurately mimic how specific brain regions process sounds as they enter our ears. In tests, the model was able to almost perfectly pick which of 13 instruments was playing. The research could help improve hearing aids or lead to computer systems that are better at processing music. I bet music publishers wouldn’t mind a wider market. The Johns Hopkins University.
  • LEND THEM YOUR EARS: To let us balance ourselves and hear sounds our ears convert mechanical energy into an electrochemical signal. They don’t produce much energy — it’s measured in nanowatts. Still, it’s enough to power a tiny chip that contains a 2.4-gigahertz radio transmitter. A team from MIT created the device and tested it on a guinea pig. The animal’s ear provided enough power to run the transmitter without damaging the guinea pig’s hearing. The researchers hope this finding could lead to implantable sensors and health monitoring devices. Did you ever think of yourself as a power station? Discovery News.
  • FLIP THE SWITCH: It’s well-known that strobe lights can trigger seizures, but researchers at Stanford and Pierre and Marie Curie University in France found that pulses of light could also stop them. Tests on genetically altered rats targeted pulses of light to cells in the thalamus region of the brain. The light immediately stopped the seizure activity. The genetic alteration though may mean this approach would be too risky to try on humans. There are probably some people whose seizures are severe or frequent enough they’d be willing to give it a try. Technology Review.
  • DUMMY SURGEONS: At the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Scotland trainee surgeons are practising surgical techniques on 3D models and animations instead of working on cadavers or dummies. The interactive system means students can work at their own pace and repeat any elements they want to work on. The system could also be used to help patients better understand their diagnosis and treatment options. The cadavers and dummies are sure to be grateful for the reprieve. Golden Jubilee National Hospital. prieve. Go

Tech Universe: Thursday 15 November 2012

  • HOLD THAT POSE: Photos are just so flat and 2D. A shop in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood lets you print out a tiny 3D doll of yourself. You hold a pose for 15 minutes or so while a technician scans your body. Then a realistic 10 cm figurine is printed that shows your features and the basic textures of your clothing and hair. So how much weight does that camera add to your image? io9.
  • GROW A SPACESHIP: NASA’s turning to 3D printing to make small parts for its next heavy-lift rocket and to save millions of dollars at the same time. They’re using an M2 Cusing machine, built by Concept LaserSelective in Germany. The laser melting process uses a high-energy laser to melt metal powder in a designed pattern. The melted dust builds up in layers to create the parts. It’s a quick process, compared to conventional manufacturing. Because they don’t need welding, the parts are also stronger and more reliable, which means vehicles are safer. It must be rewarding too, to see parts being created in your own work area. NASA. Video:
  • STEP INTO OIL: It takes aeons for oil to be formed. But engineers at the University of Michigan created biocrude oil in less than a minute by pressure cooking wet green microalgae in sand at almost 600 degrees C. One problem though: their tests used only 1.5 milliliters of microalgae. The other problem is how much energy it would take to generate the extreme heat at a commercial scale. Oh well, it’s a first step. Wired.
  • ESCAPE PORTS: Fish are an important food source, but it’s a challenge to catch only fish that are wanted and not all sorts of by-catch too. Although smaller fish should be able to escape through the mesh in nets the gaps are often distorted by the force of the water. What’s more the fish often can’t see where they could escape. The SafetyNet is a redesigned net to solve these problems. It contains escape ports — lit rings powered by battery or by tiny turbines. It also uses fish behaviour to help endangered cod escape through the bottom while allowing the intended catch to gather near the top. Reducing the weight of fish in the net also helps reduce fuel used by the fishing boats. It’s efficient all around. SafetyNet. Video:
  • ROBOT FRIENDS: Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK have been using robots from the French firm Aldebaran to explore how autistic children at school may learn better. They found that because the humanoid robots have no emotion the children find them easier to engage with and less threatening than their teachers. The robots help to teach phonics and play cards or memory and imitation games with children aged from 5 to 10. The robots won’t tire either, though they may run out of battery power. BBC.

Tech Universe: Friday 16 November 2012

  • TRUE EXPLOSIONS: What do you do when your film script calls for a priceless car to be blown up? In the James Bond movie Skyfall the Aston Martin DB 5 explodes in flames, so the props makers created 3 precise copies using 3D printers. The car detail had to be as true to life as possible, so after printing using the plastic material PMMA the components were assembled, painted and had chrome added, along with bullet holes. The meticulous work paid off: one model was blown up, and another auctioned for $100,000. It must be a strange profession, doing your best work so it can be blown up. 3ders.org.
  • BIKE WARMER: The Dutch like their bicycles, but it can be pretty chilly and icy in winter. So why not heat the bike paths? A test project in the Dutch province of Utrecht and the city of Zutphen will put pipes 50 metres below the bike paths. In the summer the pipes collect and store heat then release it in winter to warm the paths. The authorities aim to reduce the cost of ice and straw, and save money from fewer accidents. Mind you, it may be cheaper just to cover the paths. TreeHugger.
  • ARE YOU IN PAIN?: People in a vegetative state may be awake sometimes, but have no perception of themselves or the outside world. This may be a result of an injury to the brain. Doctors recently used fMRI to scan the brain of one man in a vegetative state while asking him questions. One question was “are you in pain?”. His pattern of brain activity showed he was clearly choosing to answer the questions, and that he responded “no” to the pain question. The doctors say that means the man knows who and where he is, and that it’s a breakthrough for working with such patients. How powerful to be able to communicate via a brain scan when no other option is available. BBC.
  • BED BUGS: Hospitals are full of germs, and it stands to reason that sheets and gowns would carry bacteria and other organisms. Scientists at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya BarcelonaTech in Spain were able to eliminate infectious bacteria from medical textiles by treating them with nanoparticles and biopolymers. The process adds antimicrobial nanoparticles to the fabric that remain in place even through 70 washes. The treated fabrics should help prevent infections from spreading and so reduce the average length of stay. 70 washes is better than none, but that’s not many in the context of a hospital, surely. Phys.org.
  • DON’T GET UP: Toyota’s human support robot is designed to help people with limited mobility do simple tasks around the home, such as picking up items from the floor, opening curtains, retrieving items from high shelves, and serving as a bedside assistant. The small, roughly humanoid robot is controlled from a tablet. It has a single arm, with a pincer for picking up objects and can extend to reach high shelves. Limited mobility … or the lazy. DVICE.

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.