19 to 23 November 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 19 November 2012

  • CARDBOARD ROLLS: The cardboard wheelchair from Israel costs less than $10 in materials — durable recycled cardboard, plastic bottles and recycled tires. The wheelchair weighs around 9 Kg and can carry up to 180 Kg. It withstands water and humidity and can be made on largely automated production lines. The wheelchair comes from the inventor of the cardboard bike. At that price you could buy half a dozen to keep as spares. Israel 21c.
  • FISHING FOR CANCER CELLS: Jellyfish have long tentacles that can grab food floating some distance away. That fact inspired one US researcher to create a specialised chip for counting tumour cells in the blood. The chip has strands of DNA tens of microns long attached to it. Those strands capture and hold tumour cells in the bloodstream. Because the device can both sort and count cancer cells it could help doctors assess how well therapy is progressing. In tests the chip captured 60% of the cancer cells floating by — a higher rate than current methods. Those jellyfish have a few clues. Discovery News.
  • IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING: We don’t think of flickering lights as being a specially good thing, but carefully timed flickers could save up to 20% of the electricity lights use. Researchers in the US found that if they alternated 67 millisecond pulses of light with 10 millisecond periods of darkness people wouldn’t perceive the flicker and would believe the light to be just as bright as a steady one. This constancy effect is a trick of the brain and may be associated with how neurons exchange information. If the rate of flicker is connected with brain activity it’s scary to think that carefully tuned flickering could be used to harm, in the way some flickering can already trigger seizures. Txchnologist.
  • CUTTING EDGE SKIN: A team of Stanford University chemists and engineers created a synthetic polymer skin that can heal itself after being cut. Even after 50 cuts and repairs, a sample still withstood bending and stretching just like the original. The keys to the material are long chains of molecules joined by hydrogen bonds and nanoparticles of nickel. The material’s conductive and can detect pressure, so it may be useful as an artificial skin for prosthetics, or for electrical devices in hard to reach places. Now combine it with something like kevlar to make smart armour. KurzweilAI.
  • NEEDLEPOINT IN THE BRAIN: If you’re poking around in the brain it’s best to be both careful and precise. A new microthread electrode, designed to pick up signals from a single neuron as it fires, is made from carbon fibre only 7 micrometers in diameter. The thread is also coated with chemicals to make it resistant to proteins in the brain. Conventional metal electrodes are 100 times as wide. Because the electrode is so small the brain may be less likely to build up scar tissue around it, but putting it in place could be a problem. You could be permanently wired up with threads like that. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 20 November 2012

  • FLIPPING ROBOTS: Do you think of yourself as a speed-reader? You won’t be able to match the Japanese BFS-Auto scanning robot though, with its 250 pages per minute. The book sits on a stand while an automated flipping machine turns the pages. Meanwhile high-speed sensors determine when the pages are least deformed so that high-definition cameras can capture images at 400 pixels per inch. Finally, software matches the page image with the data from the sensors about the page’s deformation and corrects the image. Now, that’s the way to scan books. Ishikawa Oku Laboratory
  • FOREST EGG: A new tree top walk in the Bavarian Forest National Park takes visitors 1.3 Km along a path that gently winds to the top of a wooden tower around 3 ancient fir trees. The 44 metre tower is shaped like an egg and allows visitors views of the surrounding forest and to closely inspect the firs at the centre. Wooden fences and transparent nets keep visitors safe, while integrated rope bridges and other challenges are available for the more adventurous. You have to wonder what effect reducing overall available light will have on the ancient firs in the middle and what authorities will do if the firs die. Bavarian Forest National Park.
  • TVS TO TRANSPORT: Cathode ray TVs contain leaded glass, which is a problem when it comes to recycling. The UK firm Sweeep Kuusakoski is able to reclaim about 1 Kg of lead from each set though, after a British inventor came up with a furnace to do the job. The furnace heats the glass to over 1,000C. The lead falls to the bottom at that heat, and the glass continues through a process that turns it into roading aggregate. Much of the recycled lead is used for car batteries. Who’d have thought TVs could go from transporting us figuratively to literally? BBC.
  • MOTORCAR BUILT FOR TWO: Honda’s new Micro Commuter vehicle is almost ready for production. It weighs less than 400 Kg, is around 125 cm wide and 2.5 metres long. Meant as a short-distance electric commuter vehicle, it’s designed to carry a driver and one other adult or two children up to 100 Km. The battery recharges in less than 3 hours. Real-world testing begins next year. The crucial question though: is there room for the dogs? Gizmag.
  • PHONE ON THE RUN: It’s an emergency but your cellphone has run out of juice. Now what? Don’t throw the phone away in disgust. Researchers at Virginia Tech are working on a piezoelectric charger for just that scenario. They found that zinc oxide might do the job: shake the phone for a few minutes to create enough charge for an emergency call. Just drop the phone in your pocket while you run from the scary monsters. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 21 November 2012

  • FIVE BY DOTS: How much data can we cram onto a hard disk? The magnetised regions on a disk are already packed so close together it seems impossible to fit any more in without magnetic interference wrecking things. But perhaps physically separate dots of magnetic material would allow much denser storage? Current manufacturing techniques still can’t pack them in densely enough. US researchers may have the answer, with blocks of copolymers that can assemble themselves into regular densely packed repeating patterns. Those patterns can be used as templates for the magnetic dots on a hard disk platter. The new technique could allow hard drives to store data at 5 times their current density. Though surely there’s a trend away from disk drives. Technology Review.
  • POWERFUL TWIST: Our muscles expand and contract to allow us to move. But it’s a challenge to create artificial muscles. At the University of Texas they’re using twisted and coiled yarns constructed from carbon nanotubes and filled with paraffin wax. A flash of light can be enough to melt the wax, causing it to expand, increasing the volume of the yarn and making the yarn’s length contract. The artificial muscles can lift more than 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 times more mechanical power than the same size natural muscle. Although they’re not suitable for use in the human body, the muscles could be used in robots, toys, mechanical systems and intelligent materials. Excellent lateral thinking there, to convert a straight motion with a twist. University of Texas.
  • WALK THIS WAY: The Rapid Rehab system is a shoe insole designed to gather data while helping to correct walking problems. A custom gel insole includes force sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect a person’s gait. The system monitors footsteps and provides continuous feedback during every step via a smartphone app. This could help physical therapists correct walking problems, and help prevent falls in people with hip replacements. The system could also be used to help sportspeople during training. There could be some innovative uses around specialised training too, such as high-wire walkers. University of Utah.
  • NO MORE HEAT THAN LIGHT: When light and heat are mentioned in the same breath it’s usually to put them in opposition. But researchers at the University of Texas created a hybrid nanomaterial from copper sulfide nanoparticles and single-walled carbon nanotubes that converts both light and thermal energy into electrical current. They hope to use the material to produce milliwatts of power — enough for sensors or medical devices. The material is more efficient yet less expensive and more environment-friendly than similar hybrids. It’s good to see the end of at least one oppositional duality. University of Texas.
  • THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: Startup View’s auto-tinting window system uses electrochromatic glass to both save energy and make people more comfortable. The windows reduce glare and heat, while letting in as much natural light as possible. The production process adds metal oxide gases onto glass to create a ceramic coating. The finished windows include a second glass pane and are wired to a device that connects them to a wifi network. That means they can be controlled from a smartphone. In commercial systems though sensors connect to a building management system that controls the windows automatically. Arguments over the window remote could be truly annoying. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Thursday 22 November 2012

  • FLYING CHAIR: Hirobo’s helicopter prototype can travel up to 100 Kph and fly for 30 minutes at a time. What’s really special about it though is that it’s an electric single-seater that could be used in disasters to deliver medicine and food. The helicopter amounts to a chair with windshield, rotors and a joystick. Not much food, surely, given its size. BonjourLife.
  • PIT STOP: There’s a hole in the Marius Hills region of the Moon — 65 metres wide and at least 80 metres deep — that could lead to underground tunnels. Naturally, scientists want to explore it. The question is, how? The answer may come in the form of a robot rover that can lower itself into the hole to explore. Here on Earth the 4-wheeled Cave Crawler is practicing by using lasers to sweep the floors, walls and ceilings of a disused mine, creating a map. The robot, from US company Astrobotic Technology, may soon be headed for the Moon as part of the Google Lunar X Prize. Exploring’s one thing; getting the signals back to Earth, another. Nature.
  • FRUIT FRESHER: 25% of all food produced goes uneaten and that waste is a big global problem. FreshPaper keeps fruits and vegetables fresh for 2 to 4 times longer. Put a sheet in the fridge or bag and its edible botanical extracts, including fenugreek, inhibit bacterial and fungal growth, as well as enzymes that cause over-ripening. In use, each sheet lasts around 2 or 3 weeks. Could there be an end to fruit going off before you can eat it? Fenugreen.
  • AT A PINCH: FingerSense from Qeexo can tell whether you’re tapping a touchscreen with your fingertip, knuckle or even fingernail. An acoustic sensor captures the sounds made by different types of on-screen touches from the different parts of a finger. Then an app combines that data with where the screen was tapped and how big the tap was to deduce how the screen was touched. If you haven’t yet quite got the hang of the current pinches, swipes and taps you’d better get a move on. Technology Review.
  • SPECCY TWO EYES: Mammograms aren’t always as accurate as we’d like: normal tissue can mask lesions and 2D scans don’t give a very accurate 3D view. Stereoscopic digital mammography aims to overcome those shortcomings. The technique allows the X-ray tube to move separately from the cassette, providing a more 3D view. Polarising lenses also help identify lesions at different depths. Tests showed the technique significantly improved the accuracy of cancer detection and reduced the need to call women back for further examinations. Now they need to work on reducing the radiation dose. Higher accuracy can only be a good thing, especially if they can get the radiation dose under control. Radiological Society of North America.

Tech Universe: Friday 23 November 2012

  • BIG FOOD: Researchers at the University of Tokyo are developing an augmented reality head-mounted display that makes food look larger than it is while keeping the size of the hand constant. In testing they’ve found that people eat less food when it looks larger and more when it looks smaller. The tech actually tricks the brain so people feel full even when they have eaten less than usual. The researchers want to improve the system so it can be used in the home. The food in the eyes is bigger than the food in the stomach. DigInfo TV.
  • BRIGHT EYES: Seqinetic’s glasses are designed to shine light near but not directly into your eyes, to help keep the winter blues away. 6 LEDs shine onto a reflector that bounces 2,500 lux of soft white daylight around your eyes. The light contains a lot of blue, but no UV. The name is derived from Seqineq, the Icelandic word for sun, and the Greek word kinetic. The battery powered glasses weigh around 64 grams, and they can be combined with your normal specs. With all that blue light don’t wear them before bedtime or they may keep you awake. Seqinetic.
  • LIVE WORD ACTION: If you’re really serious and competitive about your Scrabble you may want to share your every play with the world. The new tournament Scrabble system includes 225 RFID antennas that read each individual Scrabble square every 974 milliseconds. Each Scrabble letter tile contains a unique RFID tag, while play software captures every tile and move to be displayed alongside the HD video footage of players. The tournament can also be streamed online. An LED lighting system adds to the show. After all, what’s Scrabble without the lights? PR Newswire.
  • THOUGHTS TAKE FLIGHT: A pyramid, a flying sphere and an EEG monitor sound like essential elements of a scifi story. They’re not, though. Instead together they make up the Puzzlebox Orbit: a toy that’s operated by your thoughts. The open sphere protects a helicopter that launches from the pyramid as you concentrate on it. When your concentration fades, the helicopter lands again. The pyramid is a remote control and also displays your concentration and relaxation levels with lights. A smartphone app can also be used to control the sphere and to display brainwaves. The thinking person’s toy. Puzzlebox Orbit. Video:
  • MINES IN THE WIND: Clearing landmines is extremely important work, but also very dangerous and costly. The idea behind the Mine Kafon is that it rolls across a minefield, blown by the wind, and has multiple legs that can trigger mines. Made from bamboo and biodegradable plastics, the low-cost Mine Kafon also contains a GPS chip. A website shows its movement, the safest paths and how many land mines are destroyed in that area. A triggered mine will destroy a couple of the Mine Kafon’s legs, but it has enough to continue through several explosions. The inventor grew up in Afghanistan near a minefield. It seems a bit random, but every mine safely exploded is one less threat to people and animals. Massoud Hassani. Video.

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.