10 to 14 December 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 10 December 2012

  • COMPANION ASTROBOT: Next year Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will spend 6 months aboard the ISS. To keep him company the Japanese are building a 34 cm tall humanoid robot. The robot will recognise the astronaut’s face, take photos and send data back to base. It’ll also talk to Wakata in Japanese. A twin robot on Earth will do public relations. Ten four little buddy. Japan Today.
  • RED LIGHT AT NIGHT, ASTRONAUT’S DELIGHT: The International Space Station has a couple of problems that may be solved by installing new light bulbs. For one thing, the old bulbs are wearing out. But more important is that astronauts have trouble sleeping, possibly in part because of the lighting. The new bulbs contain more than 100 LED bulbs cloaked by a diffuser, so they appear to be a single panel of white light. But the bulbs can change mode, from white general purpose light, to blue to promote wakefulness and a red-shifted hue for bedtime. The lights are being tested here on Earth before doing duty in space. It sounds as though a hue switch would be more useful for most of us than a dimmer. Scientific American.
  • BIKE LIGHT: A British woman has designed a bike light that projects an image of a bicycle on to the road to alert drivers to the presence of a bike. The Blaze uses a laser to project a bright green image 5 metres in front of the bike. The image can be steady or flashing. Anything that helps drivers see cyclists is useful. BBC.
  • A LIGHT BULB MOMENT: What say you could remove a light bulb from its socket and plug in a small computer instead that projects a simple touch screen onto your desk? The prototype LuminAR Bulb developed at MIT combines a pico-projector, camera, and wireless computer using a processor commonly found in smartphones. It projects an image onto a surface then detects finger movements within the image. A wifi connection lets the small computer interact with a cloud server for object recognition and other intensive tasks. Rig them up above dance floors for some real fun. Technology Review.
  • IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: The Belgian Centre for Microsystems Technology developed a prototype curved LCD display that can be embedded into a contact lens. The lens could display an image intended for others to view. The image would be too close to the wearer’s eye for them to focus on it. It could be used for adaptive sunglasses or to change the colour of the iris. One unsolved problem is how to power the device autonomously. That could be handy for security systems that normally scan the iris. Optics.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 11 December 2012

  • POLLY WANT A SCOOTER: Pepper the African grey parrot was a noisy bird, until he got his very own Bird Buggy and could follow his owner around. The 4-wheeler is driven by a joystick that the bird moves with his beak from his perch just behind it. Sensors in the front of the buggy help prevent it from bumping into things when pepper’s driving skills fail. The buggy also has an autonomous docking feature so it finds home base and docks once Pepper’s left the vehicle. Scooters beat crackers any day. Alligator.
  • DREAM TRIP: Would you like to take a trip in the cockpit of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner? You may not be able to achieve that in real life, but perhaps the virtual experience would work for you. The virtual flight deck puts you in the jump seat as pilots take off and land the plane. Pan around and click on additional information too. Unless you’re an actual pilot that’s probably the closest you’ll get to the cockpit of a 787. Dreamliner Dream Pass.
  • VOYAGE TO THE EDGE: It’s taken 35 years, but now the Voyager 1 spacecraft is at the edge of the solar system, around 20 billion Km from the Sun. The biggest news though is that it’s crossed a boundary into a new region of space, The Magnetic Highway, where the Sun’s effects are diminished. It’s not yet quite free of the Solar System, but that could be only months away. How long will we continue to receive signals though, once it’s out in free space? Technology Review.
  • FLY YOU TO THE MOON: Before the decade’s out The Golden Spike Company plan to fly paying passengers to the Moon. They expect a 2-person lunar surface mission to cost around $1.4 billion and that tickets will be taken up by governments. That’d cheaper than setting up their own space programme. io9.
  • A GLIDE ON THE OCEAN WAVE: The PacX Wave Glider has been swimming in the Pacific for more than a year. Now it’s finally reached its goal: the shores of Australia. The wave glider is a self-controlled robot called Papa Mau, in honour of a skilled navigator. The robot was powered by wave energy, while solar panels provided energy for sensors. On its journey Papa Mau gathered data about the abundance of phytoplankton. That’s a long swim. BBC.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 12 December 2012

  • COAST TO WORK: The Eco-Ride was developed by Tokyo University and doesn’t run on ordinary tracks. Like a roller coaster, it coasts along without an engine, its speed controlled by aerodynamics and curves. At stations it’s stopped and started by rotating wheels between the rails that catch a fin under the train. It uses its own inertia to climb slopes, though it may need to be winched up steeper inclines. With no engine, the train is lightweight, so it doesn’t take a lot of energy to run. Now for the swings and roundabouts. New Scientist.
  • LIGHT FALL: Kerosene lamps are vital in developing countries but create harmful smoke and are a fire risk. The GravityLight could be an alternative. It’s a low cost light with no ongoing running costs. Fill a bag with rocks or sand and hang it from the light. As the bag drops it generates enough power for around 30 minutes of light. No batteries means no problems with replacing them. Some mechanical clocks used to work like that, didn’t they? GravityLight. Video:
  • PUT ALGAE TO WORK: Wastewater in a commercial building usually just goes down the drain. In one highrise office block in Paris though, they’re growing algae in wastewater in panels on the side of the building. The algae use the nutrients in the water for their own growth, which takes 24 to 48 hours. That helps clean up the water. Once grown, the algae are used as biomass to produce energy. That’s a great way to clean up. Scientific American.
  • SWEATY TATTOO: If you have to wear a monitor, perhaps to check your skin’s pH levels in response to metabolic stress from exertion, then why not make it fun? A sensor from the University of Toronto looks and works like a temporary tattoo. It uses standard screen printing techniques and commercially available transfer tattoo paper, and is shaped like a smiley face. Unlike bulky sensors that may fall off during exercise or when the wearer’s sweating, these sensors stay in place. By using different sensing materials, the tattoos can be modified to detect other components of sweat. It’s good to see some fun in the serious work. University of Toronto.
  • PLASTIC PHONE: Dai Nippon Printing hope their new plastic will replace the glass covers on smartphone displays. The plastic resists abrasion and fingerprints yet is flexible and lets a lot of light through. They aim to start shipping in volume early in 2013. But does it feel as good as glass? Tech-On!

Tech Universe: Thursday 13 December 2012

  • SPIT ON A STICK: People with diabetes may have to prick their fingers several times a day to read off blood sugar levels. Now researchers in Iran have created a monitor to do the same reading from saliva. The glucose in saliva is 100 to 2000 times lower than in blood, which has been a problem until now. The new monitor uses an extremely sensitive technique with a more sensitive device. The researchers expect to patent the device and release it commercially by the end of April 2013. Stick a needle in your finger or spit on a stick? It’d be an easy choice. Tehran University of Medical Sciences.
  • TEMPLE TOUCH: The Scanadu SCOUT is a tiny hardware device. Touch it to the temple and a few seconds later it reports pulse transit time, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, heart rate variability and blood oxygenation to an app on your smartphone. The app then offers advice and guidance, such as suggesting a trip to the doctor or resting for 24 hours. The measurements are helpful, but the advice is the gem. Gizmodo.
  • BLUE ROADS: Calgary in Canada is trying to help drivers on one particular stretch of road, the Deerfoot Trail. Overhead displays show road congestion and estimated travel time to the next point. The system gathers its data from the MAC addresses of Bluetooth signals in cars using the road, while filtering out signals from pedestrians. 15 sensors and 7 permanent message boards gather and display the data. So it could be a public service to keep Bluetooth switched on, even if you’re not using it. CTV News Calgary.
  • NOT ANONYMOUS: Businesses in Newbury in the UK are trying to catch shoplifters as well as capturing just their image on security cameras. Shopkeepers upload images from their in-store security cams to the Police and file a report. The Police then set up a gallery of images and ask the public to help identify the faces. The Facewatch system seems to be working in Newbury, with a drop in reported shoplifting. Crowdsourcing crime prevention takes another step. BBC.
  • EYES RIGHT: There’s iris recognition, but then there’s also recognising the pattern of veins in the whites of your eyes. EyeVerify hope their eye recognition might be used for secure access to online medical records or bank accounts. Gaze into your smartphone’s high-res camera and look to the side to reveal the whites of your eyes. The captured image is compared to a stored eyeprint and access is granted if they match. The app can distinguish between a real eye and an image of an eye. In a small-scale test the app was 99.97% accurate. Which is pretty good, but it still means a lot of people locked out of their records. Technology Review.

Tech Universe: Friday 14 December 2012

  • LIQUID LESSONS: Sometimes improving education is about buildings and facilities, rather than the teaching. The Waterbank school in Kenya is one example. The new school is located in an area where water’s scarce. Girls are sent to collect water for the family and can’t attend school. The water they collect is also not always clean, leading to illness in the community. The new school collects water on its roof, filters it and stores it in an underground tank. There should be enough for each student to receive 5 litres of water per day. Now the girls can go to school, and everyone benefits. WAN.
  • TOUCHING TUMOURS: Put a touch-sensitive fibre as wide as a human hair into an optical fibre and you may be able to detect cancerous tumours by touch. Researchers at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia are developing a device to do just that. Tumour cells are stiffer than cells from a healthy area, so a touch sensor could be used to detect them. The optical fibre is very flexible, and often used in surgery now. Adding the touch sensor could mean quicker results for patients. Now add something to treat or destroy the tumours at the same time. Swinburne University of Technology.
  • 8 WAYS TO SMELL: Bomb sniffer dogs work hard and with a lot of success, but they can’t be everywhere at once. So researchers at UNSW in Canberra have developed a laser device capable of detecting tiny traces of explosive vapour. The device could be used on a luggage carousel or at airport security checkpoints to detect explosives. The device sends a laser pulse through vapour in a figure of eight path, making it highly accurate. The researchers believe the device may be ready for commercial use after another 2 years testing. Meanwhile those dogs had better keep sniffing. UNSW.
  • SHAPED CHARGE: A new metamaterial from Cornell University is made of synthetic DNA and called a meta-hydrogel. This one is liquid in air yet solid in water, and remembers its original shape. As a test the researchers formed the letters DNA from the material. In air the letters turned into a blobby mass. In water though the letters reformed exactly. The mesh of organic molecules could be used for delivering drugs to a wound. Or how about coded messages? Cornell University.
  • BRAIN TICKLE: Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have implanted a device in the brain of a person with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The purpose of the device is to provide deep brain stimulation via low-voltage electrical charges. The idea is to enhance brain function, boost memory and reverse cognitive decline and so perhaps replace the drugs which don’t seem to help. 40 patients are to test the device to see if it does actually make a difference. Even slowing the effects of Alzheimer’s would be a useful advance. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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.