29 October to 02 November 2012 Tech Universe Digest

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.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 30 October 2012

  • ROAD TOLLS: Texas has a new highway, with a speed limit of 85 mph (136 Kph). Toll booths read number plates and a toll tag on the cars as they drive past. To test whether the booths could cope with speeding vehicles one carmaker drove his 1,226 VR1200 Cadillac CTS-V on the closed road at roughly 180 mph (290 Kph) past the toll booths, although his maximum speed was 220.5 mph (355 Kph). The State Troopers also took the opportunity to test whether their speed cameras register accurately for such high speeds. They do. At that top speed you could drive Wellington to Auckland in less than 90 minutes. Jalopnik.
  • LIVING SMALL: In Warsaw, Poland, Israeli writer Etgar Keret has just moved into his new house. That’s not unusual, but even at its widest point the house is less than two metres across. It’s been built into an alleyway in a former Jewish ghetto as a memorial to his parents’ family who died in the Holocaust. The fully-functioning house includes a micro-kitchen, mini-bathroom, sleeping cubicle and tiny work area, all accessible via ladders. He could have trouble fitting in early morning stretches — literally. RT.com.
  • ROBOT ARMS OPENING: The Da Vinci robot has 4 arms and performs open-heart surgery. A surgeon operates the robot via a control panel and courtesy of a 3D, high-definition view of the heart. Each arm is equipped with an expensive tool that has to be replaced after 10 operations. Whereas a surgeon has to open the whole breast plate to operate, the robot’s arm are inserted between the patient’s ribs, meaning less pain and a faster recovery. Really the robot is more like a very sophisticated set of prosthetics. BBC.
  • GUESSING AT PLANETS: The European Space Agency’s CHEOPS satellite will launch in 2017. It will look at nearby bright stars already known to have planets orbiting around them and will precisely monitor the star’s brightness. The telescope’s job is to accurately measure the radius of an exoplanet, helping to reveal density and the planet’s structure. Cheops will operate in a Sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 800 km. Its mission should last for around 3.5 years. It’s amazing to think that the first exoplanet was only discovered around 20 years ago and now we’re studying them in detail. ESA News.
  • VIRTUAL TABLETS: Way back in 3200BC some folks in a region now in the south west of modern Iran were writing on wet clay tablets. Their Proto-Elamite writings remain to this day, with more than 1600 texts and fragments in museums around the world. One big problem though is that as yet no-one has deciphered them beyond a few numbers. So academics in Oxford in the UK used Reflectance Transformation Imaging to make and share high resolution images of the tablets. They hope the public can help decode the texts. The imaging system combines 76 separate photographic lights with computer processing to capture and reproduce every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets. The virtual images can be turned around and examined from every angle. Fancy yourself as a codebreaker? Take a look at the tablets. BBC. Proto-Elamite website.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 31 October 2012

  • RESCUE PONG: Bounce Imaging in the US have created a camera that could help firefighters, rescuers, police and the military. A responder throws a small ball into an area they need to assess before entering. Inside the ball are 6 near-infrared cameras and infrared LEDs. The device snaps photos and sends them back to a smartphone or laptop where they’re assembled into a panoramic image. The device is cheap enough that responders don’t need to worry too much about possible damage when they throw it into the unknown. Crews may need to add pitching practice into their training routines. New Scientist.
  • BLUE SKIES FLYING: The Sunseeker Duo is a 2-seater solar-powered plane from Solar Flight. The plane has a 24 metre wingspan and weighs less than 275 Kg. One battery charge lets the plane climb for 20 minutes, then the solar panels on the wings and body power the plane. Once the creators have raised enough fund for the specialised electronics and hardware the plane needs they intend to fly around the world to raise awareness. Why on Earth is it so hard for projects like this to raise the funding they need? Tourism organisations could step up for this one. Inhabitat.
  • IMUS ON THE SOLES OF YOUR SHOES: GPS works pretty well in the open above ground, but firefighters in flaming buildings and miners underground are out of luck if they or their supervisors want to know exactly where they are. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have an answer that uses dead reckoning to keep track: a wearable suite of sensors measures footsteps to analyse a person’s location. The Micro-Inertial Navigation Technology system embeds a computer and three sensor units in a pair of boots. An Inertial Measurement Unit in the heel of each boot is paired with a tiny radar device in the ball area of one boot. The radar measures how far the IMU travels and the position data can be sent back to a supervisor. Researchers see interesting possibilities for making the system smarter by sharing data, perhaps mapping an exit route or creating a detailed picture of environmental factors such as temperature. Your team member has travelled 20 paces due North, what do you do now? Txchnologist.
  • DESCRIBING DATA: That web page or email you download is sent as multiple separate packets of data, and the network constantly checks to see if any have gone missing. If any are lost the network makes sure they’re sent again. But that constant error checking slows down the overall transmission speed. Researchers have found a way to speed things up enormously using algebra. Instead of sending packets, the new method sends algebraic equations that describe series of packets. If a packet is lost the equation can figure out what should have been in it. The new method has showed huge improvements in speed where packets of data were previously being dropped. That’s a very cunning way to solve the problem. Technology Review.
  • PASTRY PRACTICE: At the Donq bakery in Japan customers load up a tray with the food they want to eat and then take the tray to a checkout. There a scanner recognises each item by its shape and other characteristics. If an item isn’t recognised a staff member confirms what it is and the system learns that item. The idea is to speed up checkout times and take some of the load off new staff who don’t always know what all the items in the store are. For food items that don’t come in packaging with barcodes this is a good idea. I guess the system could help train those new staff too. BBC.

Tech Universe: Thursday 01 November 2012

  • ANY COLOUR, SO LONG AS IT’S BLACK: In Switzerland the company BlackSocks unsurprisingly sells socks. But their Smart Socks are a bit different because each contains an RFID tag. Wave a wireless reader called the Sock Sorter over the socks to identify matching pairs. A free app helps owners measure a sock’s age and colour density too — is it still black enough to wear in formal situations? Amazingly, it seems this isn’t even a parody. Hmmm, The Internet of Things. Ecouterre. Video.
  • FUEL FOR TRASH: Sweden has a program for generating energy from rubbish. Unfortunately, it’s been so successful that they’ve run out of rubbish. Now Sweden has started importing around 800,000 tons of trash per year from other countries, and some, like Norway, are paying for the privilege. Sweden’s incineration plants create energy for around 250,000 homes. So even at full stretch, all the rubbish they create powers only what amounts to a handful of homes, relatively speaking. NPR.
  • WHIRLY CAPSULE: When a capsule returns from space it normally has to land in the ocean. NowNASA are testing alternatives, in the form of an unpowered rotor system to give a capsule the stability and control of a helicopter. Air passing over the rotors makes the blades turn. Astronauts have some control by changing the pitch of the blades. In tests on a model a researcher remotely changed the pitch of the rotors to slow the fall of an unpowered craft from a tower. If the system works astronauts on board could plan a soft landing and direct the craft to any spot they chose. That would beat a plain old parachute. NASA.
  • TOUCHING PHONES: The Project RAY Android smartphone has been specially designed for blind people. Its custom designed user interface includes vibrations and audio cues. It’s also designed to replace audio book-readers, colour readers, navigation tools, raised Braille labels, special bar-code scanners, and large-buttoned, voice-enabled MP3 players by integrating all their capabilities into a single device. The touchscreen is the starting point for users, while voice prompts provide user feedback. In Israel, where the device is in trials, books and other material are available from The Central Library for the Blind. When smartphones get smarter. Qualcomm.
  • GREEN HOUSE: The BIQ house in Germany has a novel way to keep cool and generate energy: it’s coated in algae. The bio-adaptive façade uses microalgae that grow faster in bright sunlight and provide shade. The algae capture solar thermal heat and produce biomass that can be harvested. The building should be completed in March 2013. The algae may be good for wildlife too, attracting insects and birds. PSFK.

Tech Universe: Friday 02 November 2012

  • FIVE FINGER TYPISTS: The Gauntlet Keyboard, developed at The University of Alabama, is a glove that functions as a wireless keyboard. Certain points on the fingers are assigned a letter or other keyboard function. The wearer touches their thumb to a designated spot to activate that letter and send a signal through conductive thread. Commonly used letters are positioned where it’s easiest to touch thumb to finger. On the back of the glove is a Printed Circuit Board that receives the signal and sends it via Bluetooth to the device you’re operating. They need to think of ways to chord the gestures or typing could become a very tiring affair. The University of Alabama.
  • TAPE BURNS: Ripping off a sticking plaster may sting most of us for a moment, but for babies, the elderly and anyone with fragile skin it can actually pull off a layer of skin and cause real damage. And many people in those groups often use medical tape for respirators or other monitoring devices. Researchers have created a medical tape that’s designed to leave skin intact when removed. Most existing tapes have a sticky layer attached to a strong non-sticky layer. The new tape adds a quick-release middle layer between the two. In tests on model surfaces the tape remained securely in place until pulled off, at which time it detached cleanly, leaving most of the adhesive strip behind. Sprinkle baby powder on the adhesive and it stops being sticky, then gradually wears away naturally. The researchers now need to test the tape on people. Those who simply don’t like the sting will also appreciate this one. MIT News.
  • PATTERN RECOGNITION: If autism’s diagnosed early interventions can be very successful in teaching useful social skills and behaviour patterns to children. Yet in the US the average age for diagnosis is a relatively late 5 years. Analysing video frame by frame is often used as an important diagnostic tool. That’s why a new technique from the University of Minnesota is so important: software analyses video recordings to spot markers that may indicate autism. The software can analyse both home videos and recordings made during a professional diagnosis, and tests have shown it’s very accurate. Such analysis may even reveal useful behaviour patterns that are currently hidden. Being able to analyse home video must be one of its most useful features. Technology Review.
  • POWER ON HIGH: The world’s tallest power supply pylon is in China’s Anhui Province on the banks of the Yangtse River. It supports a new ultra high voltage power line to Shanghai and stands 277.5m tall — nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower. The power line will bring 50 billion Kwh of electricity per year to Shanghai’s 23 million residents, saving 280,000 rail carriages of coal per year. I imagine there are some coal workers who aren’t so happy now. BBC.
  • REMOTE POSSIBILITIES: When US Navy personnel fired a missile from an inflatable hulled watercraft recently they hit their floating target about two miles away. But the boat was empty and the operators were on shore. The armed drone boat is the US Navy’s first robotic surface vessel capable of firing a weapon, rather than simply spying or clearing mines. The 11 metre inflatable boat could be used to help protect the coastline or to defend against fast attack craft. Once both sides have robot craft, then what? Wired.

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.