26 to 30 November 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 26 November 2012

  • NO DUMMIES: As you go shopping keep an eye on the mannequins — they may be watching you. EyeSee mannequins have a camera embedded in one eye that feeds data into facial-recognition software. It logs age, race and gender. Retailers can use the data to reveal detailed shopping trends and adjust their displays and promotions. Now who are the dummies? Bloomberg.
  • PLASTIC ROADS: Vancouver is doing something useful with its recycled plastic: they’re mixing it with asphalt to create a paving mixture for the city’s streets. The mix allows asphalt to be laid at a lower temperature, which means the process uses less fuel. The plastic also reduces vapours released into the air when the paving’s laid. That’s a win all round, using up plastic and reducing the negatives of roading. Inhabitat.
  • UNCUFFED: When the doctor tests your blood pressure it involves a cuff on your arm and a stethoscope. Nihon University has a blood pressure meter that you simply touch with a fingertip to get a reading. LEDs send out light that’s reflected from the finger. Photo transistors register that reflected light and provide a reading. The monitor could make it much easier to measure blood pressure in babies and elderly people. It could also be a handy household device for anyone worried about their blood pressure. Tech-On.
  • THE KIOSK TOUCH: New York has long had pay phones, but now they’re adding 250 touch screen kiosks to go alongside some of the phones. The kiosks provide city information, along with coupons from local retailers. In an emergency they can provide safety messages and users can also call for help. The kiosks have been over-engineered to withstand potentially harsh environments and hard use. Handy for replacing phone books too. GigaOm.
  • BUILDING SMARTS: Building toy houses with toy bricks is a bit old-hat now. But how about if you could rig them to explode when a camera flashes? Atoms are electronic bricks that easily plug together to make toys that do things. Atoms don’t need any electronics skills — kids can just take them out of the box, add them into their Lego sets or hook them on to stuffed animals, Barbies or action figures. The modular blocks can also be controlled with an iPhone. Three kinds of bricks are available: sensing, logic and output. And one brick explodes on command. That exploding brick’s sure to be popular. Atoms Express.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 27 November 2012

  • MEDICAL STAMPS: A medical monitor designed by electrical engineers at Oregon State University fits on a bandage and is cheap and easy to manufacture. It could monitor the heart, the brain or physical activity. The electronics are about the same size and thickness as a postage stamp and harvest energy in the form of radio-frequencies from a nearby cellphone. With cellphones working harder they’re going to need better batteries themselves. Oregon State University.
  • TICKLE CHARGE: One way to power smaller gadgets may be by using the static electricity generated by friction as we move around. Researchers at Georgia Tech have a device that can do just that. The device combines thin films of polyethylene terephthalate and a metal whose surfaces are patterned with nanoscale structures to create a greater surface area. As the films flex they rub together and create a current. The nanogenerator can convert 10% to 15% of the energy in mechanical motions into electricity. About 50 common plastics, metals, and other materials can be paired to make this type of device, and fabrication is easy. It seems once we really start to look at ways to generate electricity there are endless flexible options. Technology Review.
  • FADE TO WHITE: White noise is sound that contains all frequencies, and white light mixes all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum. So Olfactory White is a mix of all smells. Researchers mixed aroma molecules from across the scent spectrum and discovered they’d created a neutral scent that was neither pleasant nor foul. Mixing 20 single-molecule odorants was enough to create the neutral smell. With 30 components testers could no longer tell different smells apart. Researchers believe the Olfactory White scent could be used to mask odours too. Which would make sense, since adding extra odours beyond the cut-off point seems to simply amplify the neutral smell. Nature.
  • DOG ON A CHIP: A dog’s nose is a very sensitive thing — it can smell the minutest traces of compounds. That’s why dogs are so popular for detecting explosives and drugs. At the University of California researchers have developed a device the size of a thumbnail that’s as sensitive as a dog’s nose. Molecules funnel in through a microfluidic channel, which can concentrate them by up to six times. Then nanoparticles excited by laser light amplify their spectral signature which is then identified by a computer. The device could be used to detect explosives, disease or perhaps spoiled food. It’s definitely easier to attach to things than a dog’s nose is. University of California.
  • BATHING IN DATA: The Reality Deck Immersive Giga-pixel Display will be housed in a room 12 metres by 9 by 3 at Stony Brook University in New York. 308 LCDs will be driven by an 85-node graphics computing cluster to fully immerse visitors in 1.25 billion pixels of information. The idea is to provide a lifelike, realistic immersion in data such as that from CT scans, satellite imaging, climate modelling and even crowd analysis. It may need an escape hatch. Stony Brook University.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 28 November 2012

  • IN THE GREEN: Jet lag can be really disruptive, but how about if you could reset your body clock in a couple of hours with green light? The Re-Timer is a device from Flinders University in Australia that looks like a pair of glasses. Wear the glasses for 50 minutes on each of 3 days so they can emit a soft green light onto the eyes. Wear them before bed to delay the body clock to wake up later or in the morning to advance the body clock. Plug the device into a computer’s USB port to recharge the battery. Do they cancel out the sleep disruption from viewing computers and TVs before bed? Flinders University.
  • A TOUCH OF COLD: It’s cold and you’re wearing gloves, so forget trying to use a touchscreen phone. Or maybe not. With the help of Emitips you can keep your gloves on but still work the phone. The iron-on strips attach to the fingers of your gloves. The strips sense the pressure from your fingers and pass on what a capacitive touchscreen needs in order to work. Next you need only worry about dropping your phone thanks to the fumbling caused by wearing gloves. Emitips.
  • PUSH BACK: As trains rush along the tracks they cause the tracks to vibrate. A team at Stony Brook University in the US worked out how to convert that irregular, oscillatory motion into a source of usable energy. Alongside railroad tracks are switches, signals, gates and monitors that need power to operate. The scientists say the Mechanical Motion Rectifier based Railroad Energy Harvester can harness 200 watts of electric energy from train-induced track deflections to power such trackside electrical devices. That will save electricity, reduce CO2 emissions and save money for the railroads. I wonder if taking energy out of the track vibrations could also reduce wear on the track? Stony Brook University.
  • BEETLE BUMPS: NBD Nano reckon they can pull drinkable water from the air, by mimicking an African beetle. They use superhydrophobic and superhydrophilic surfaces to harvest moisture from the air — something that could benefit yachties or desert dwellers. A fan drives air across the surface and water condenses out because of the specially textured surface. On a moving vehicle though the fan wouldn’t be needed. Initially they’d like to incorporate the idea into greenhouses. We have so much left to learn from the world around us. Public Radio International.
  • STEAMING AHEAD: Steam can be used to generate electricity, create drinking water from salt water or clean things. Rice University engineers worked out how to create steam using sunlight without needing to boil water. They direct sunlight onto nanoparticles that heat up quickly while they capture a broad spectrum of light energy. Submerged in water, they release the heat and create steam, even in nearly frozen water. The solar steam system is very efficient and has only a small footprint. It could be used for autoclaves in developing countries and many other purposes. There are so many ways to use sunlight; it’s fantastic to see another one. Rice University.

Tech Universe: Thursday 29 November 2012

  • THIS IS YOUR COW TALKING: Cows produce methane, and that’s a problem as the gas is a serious component of global greenhouse gas emissions. But how do you measure exactly how much methane a cow produces? The answer could lie in sending electronic devices into the stomachs of cows and networking them together. The idea, from the Australian CSIRO, is that the device will stay in the cow’s stomach for weeks and measure gas concentration using infra-red sensors, sharing the data through an ad-hoc wireless network. That’s the first part. Now they have to work out how conditions in the cow’s stomachs predict the volume of gases they belch. Once they have the data though, scientists can work on developing low-emission cows through feeding or breeding. And what happens when the devices exit the cows? Will they just lie crushed into the paddocks? New Scientist.
  • A MILLION A DAY: Does a 339 gigabits per second data transfer sound good? Physicists led by the California Institute of Technology achieved that speed in in Salt Lake City recently. At that speed you could transmit a million full-length movies in a day. Such speeds are more practically useful though for sharing the data involved in high-energy physics, astrophysics, genomics, meteorology, and global climate tracking. That’s a mighty lot of data. PhysOrg.
  • SHAKY START: If you need to know how much damage an earthquake caused to a building having sensors in the right places beforehand would be very helpful. But of course they need power. A researcher at Victoria University has created sensors that harvest the kinetic energy of the earthquake itself as their power source. The wireless sensor is activated by a quake to measure the acceleration in the movement. It then sends the data to an off-site computer where it can be analysed. The biggest challenge was in figuring out how to make the sensor work from a cold start, given the suddenness of an earthquake. Using the power of the quake makes much more sense than relying on batteries. Victoria University.
  • COLLISION ALERT: A radar the size of a fingernail and costing around 1 Euro can calculate the distance of an object up to around 3 metres away with an accuracy of less than 1 millimetre. It can also detect moving objects and calculate their velocity using the Doppler effect. Its size and low cost mean it could be useful in cars, cellphones, robotics and for many other purposes. The radar works in high frequencies, so signal attenuation was a problem. A polyamide substrate for the antenna helped solve that difficulty though. A built-in test feature helps make sure the radar is working correctly. That could be specially handy for blind people and anyone too focused on their phone to watch where they’re walking. European Commission, CORDIS.
  • SEEING SPOTS: A few blind people have a 10×6 electrode array implanted directly on their retina. They can make out colour, movement, and objects but trying to read letters is very slow and cumbersome. Researchers at Second Sight tried instead to project Braille onto the implant via a tiny video camera mounted on a pair of glasses and a wearable computer. The people being tested had a lot of success in seeing the Braille symbols, with a greatly increased reading speed. Presumably it’s easy for a computer to convert text to Braille. io9.

Tech Universe: Friday 30 November 2012

  • IDENTITY CRISIS: DNA results don’t really come back as quickly as your favourite crime show makes out. But NEC’s DNA analyser in a suitcase can do it in an hour, or maybe soon, 25 minutes. The idea is to process samples at the scene of a crime or at disaster sites. The device uses a disposable lab on a chip which handles all the stages: DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction amplification and Electrophoresis. Having a portable device that quickly returns results could be invaluable at the site of a disaster. It’s a massive improvement, but at 2 readings per hour it’s still incredibly time-consuming. PhysOrg.
  • RED LIGHT BABIES: If the baby’s asleep in another room or while you sleep you may not know it’s stopped breathing. Sadly this happens all too often with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Students at Brigham Young University have invented a wireless monitor that spots the problem and sends a message to your smartphone. The Owlet Baby Monitor is integrated into a sock and uses pulse oximetry to do its work. The monitor measures the pulse and oxygen content of the blood with red and infrared light which show up oxygen saturation. These could be essential footwear for babies. Brigham Young University.
  • PERSONAL PRINTER: If you’ve injured a joint you may need new cartilage. A new 3D printing process may be able to help. The printer combines a traditional ink jet printer and an electrospinning machine. The electrospinning machine creates very fine fibres from a polymer solution. Then the inkjet deposits layers of a solution of cartilage cells. Tested mechanically and then on animals, the artificial cartilage performed as the researchers hoped. Before long hospitals may be filled with printers to produce body parts. Institute of Physics.
  • BLUE STOPS: In mid-December the Swedish town of Umea receives only about 4 hours of sun per day. A local power company is installing temporary ultra-violet lights in some of the bus stops to help make up for that. The idea is to help people avoid the winter blues brought on by lack of sunlight. I guess they couldn’t be solar powered though. Reuters. [Update, on checking a broken link I discovered they’d removed the mention of ultra-violet from the story.]
  • BUZZ OFF: LG’s latest air conditioner does more than sort out the temperature of the room. Designed for Nigeria, it includes ultrasonic wave technology to repel mosquitoes. Cool air, free of mosquitoes. Sounds good. LG Newsroom.

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.