18 to 22 March 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 18 March 2013

  • CHEAP TRICKS: I’m sure if MacGyver had had a smartphone this would have been the plot of at least one episode of the TV show. Scientists in rural Tanzania used their smartphone as an improvised microscope to diagnose schoolchildren with intestinal worm infections. They placed samples on lab slides wrapped in cellophane then taped them to the phone. The phone had an $8 ball lens attached to help with magnification, and a cheap torch was the light source. The smartphone microscope correctly picked up 70% of the samples with infections present. That’s not bad when the smallest eggs visible using the smartphone were 40 to 60 micrometres in diameter. Try a version of this one at home folks. BBC.
  • KEEP MOVING: To see through walls, or people, you need infrared or x-rays. Infrared’s good for detecting heat, while x-rays are known to be dangerous. A new prototype video camera instead uses terahertz wavelengths to see through objects. The radiation it produces isn’t harmful and it reveals both dense materials such as metals and less dense materials, such as plastics or liquids. Scanners like these are already being used in places like airports, but require a subject that’s standing still. This new camera produces video so can be used while subjects are moving. The camera is also sensitive to several wavelengths in the terahertz band. Apart from security uses this camera can also show how well hydrated human tissue is, meaning it could be used to analyse burns. At least those security lines could move more quickly. Discovery News.
  • MATCH OR FIND?: Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore had study participants play different types of video games on their smartphones. Some games matched similar objects, while others were action games, or found hidden items. The researchers discovered that the games worked like exercise to strengthen particular muscles. People who played action games improved their capacity to track multiple objects in a short span of time, while those who played matching or finding games improved their performance on visual search tasks. It seems though that video games don’t cause a general improvement in mental abilities. Choose your games carefully. ScienceDaily.
  • SWEET HAT: The MSA-Gard GRN Hard Hat is like any other hat workers would use on a building site or in other areas where head protection is a good idea. The high-density polyethylene is a bit different though: instead of being made from petroleum products it’s made from sugarcane, which means less carbon is emitted during production. At the end of its life it can be recycled too. It’s great to replace petroleum as the source material, but isn’t sugar cane a food crop? MSA Safety.
  • HEART ON HEAD: LifeBEAM’s prototype smart cycling helmet measures the wearer’s heart rate and motion and displays it in real time on devices such as smartphones and cycling computers. Future iterations could measure other vital signs too. The helmet does all the work, without needing chest straps, by using an optical physiological sensor, accelerometer, and microprocessor, then sending data via Bluetooth. The helmet is based on tech the company previously developed for fighter pilots and astronauts. It’d be great with a heads up display on the helmet. LifeBEAM.
  • Tech Universe: Tuesday 19 March 2013

    • MID-AIR THIEF: An eagle may grab its prey on the fly. That inspired a team at the University of Pennsylvania to add such snatching capabilities to a drone. The team attached a 3D-printed, 3-fingered claw to a 10 cm motorised leg on a drone. As with an eagle, the leg and claw can trail behind after snatching an object, meaning the flier doesn’t need to slow down. Being able to add arms and legs to drones in this way could make them useful for carrying out repairs, fetching parcels or perhaps pruning trees, rather than just flying about spying on things. Imagine a whole new approach to bag-snatching — hang on to your phone if you hear an engine. New Scientist.
    • ROBOTS, ROBOTS ALL AROUND: Want to learn to swim? The Swimoid robot is designed to help coaches improve a swimmer’s performance. It moves along the bottom of a pool filming the swimmer above. AN LCD on the top of the robot lets swimmers see how they’re doing. Meanwhile a coach at the side of the pool can watch the swimmer’s strokes and provide feedback. That could probably also be readily modified to give feedback on speed and timings, and the like. University of Tokyo.
    • PICK ONE: If you need a wheelchair to get around in a city, maybe the Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System from Hitachi could replace the chair? Pick a destination on a smartphone or a tablet then let the pathfinding system sort out the route. The robot travels at up to 6 Kph, using a stereo camera and laser rangefinders to avoid collisions and map its position. It’s still a concept vehicle at the moment, but it sounds interesting. Engadget.
    • NEW OR OLD?: Alzheimer’s is the source of a lot of grief. People with the disease can suffer from debilitating symptoms. But they’ve generally had the disease for quite a while before any symptoms appear, and as always, early diagnosis gives them more options. US company Neurotrack have developed a computer-based cognitive test that can diagnose the disease 6 years before symptoms show up. An eye-tracking device monitors eye movements as a patient compares new and old images that appear briefly on a screen. An analysis of the eye movements detects perturbations on the hippocampus, the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s, then assigns a score. The score is a good indicator of who will later develop Alzheimer’s. The researchers hope to eventually create a smartphone app consumers can use. Now we need some good treatments too. Counsel & Heal.
    • LEANER TV: So you’ve decided to splurge on a new TV, but do you have the wall space to hang it on? And what about all the hassle of actually attaching it to the wall? DesignLine TVs from Philips have taken at least some of the hassle away: they don’t hang on the wall, but lean against it. The smart LED TV is a frameless sheet of glass which offers full HD. It also lets you share content with devices such as iPads. And actually, you can still hang it on the wall if you like. Watch that vacuum cleaner! Philips.

    Tech Universe: Wednesday 20 March 2013

    • ON THE BALL: Millions of people around the world don’t have a source of light once the day grows dark. The SOCCKET soccer ball aims to play a part in bringing light to the night. Inside the ball is a small pendulum that harnesses kinetic energy as it moves during play. That turns a generator that feeds a rechargeable battery. An LED light plugs into the ball for when play is done. 30 minutes of play can supply 3 hours of light. The waterproof foam ball doesn’t need inflation and can’t be deflated. It has a 6 watt output capable of powering the included lamp for more than 72 hours. Nice work: play during the day and enjoy the light at night. Uncharted Play.
    • GORILLA IN THE BACKGROUND: People wandering across the background of a video can be really annoying. But provided the video background is static researchers at Max Planck Institute for Informatics can remove the intruders with some very clever software. The system uses other frames of the video to establish what should be visible, then uses smoothing techniques to make colour consistent. While the software had some problems with complex scenes, it was often very successful. You just can’t ever believe what you see. Max Planck Institute for Informatics.
    • EYE BEAMS: Could plastic retinas help you see? Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology have developed a flexible organic polymer that converts light into electrical stimulation without needing an external power supply. In a study they grew neurons on the photovoltaic polymer, then placed damaged retinas on a piece of glass coated with the polymer. When they shone a light onto the retinas, it caused neuron activity similar to that in an undamaged retina. Daylight levels of brightness caused a good response, though dimmer levels didn’t work well. Eventually this technology may help people with retinitis pigmentosa and some forms of macular degeneration. There will be many people wishing them good speed on that. Technology Review.
    • KEEP PUMPING: People waiting for a liver transplant have a tricky time of it. When a donor liver is found it’s packed in ice and chemicals then rushed to its destination. But all too often the liver deteriorates in transit and can’t be used. A new device from the University of Oxford should improve the chances of livers arriving in good shape. It keeps a donated liver at body temperature for 24 hours or more, and supplies it with blood, sugar, oxygen and nutrients. In some tests livers survived for 72 hours. The device works like a human body, pumping blood and nutrients through the liver and monitoring it for changes. The scientists say the device could be modified for other transplantable body parts too. In hindsight an artificial body seems a bit obvious. New Scientist.
    • FROM RAGS TO RESIN: Photovoltaic solar panels are a good source of clean energy, but unfortunately components of the panels are generally made from petroleum products. BioSolar’s components made from renewable cotton derived from rags and resin from castor beans can replace petroleum-based plastic panels and save the manufacturer money. It’s encouraging to see renewable sources gradually replacing petroleum, and at least rags aren’t a food source. BioSolar.

    Tech Universe: Thursday 21 March 2013

    • PEAS IN A PAD: If you’ve ever grabbed a pack of peas from the freezer to cool down a sprain or injury then you’ll appreciate FrozenPeaz. Rather than petroleum gel, the packs are made with Zemea propanediol balls, and they in turn are made from fermented corn syrup. The product uses Clear Ice Solution to absorb and retain heat and cold and is both flexible and reusable. But while you may always have peas in the freezer, will you have the right size FrozenPeaz pack when you need it? MedGadget. Video:
    • SET PHASERS TO SOUND: A laser amplifies light, causing photons of a specific and very narrow wavelength to travel in the same direction at the same time. But how about if you could do that with sound phonons? Scientists at NTT Basic Research Laboratories in Japan have created a phaser that confines phonons, or sound waves, to a very narrow wavelength. But while light can travel through a vacuum, phonons need a medium to carry them. That means the phaser is confined within its creating device. Such coherent sound could be used for ultrasound medical imaging, high-precision measurements and other purposes. Do not listen directly to the phaser. Wired.
    • INVISIBLE PRINTING: 3D printers have been accepted fairly quickly but the new tabletop 3D laser lithography printer from Nanoscribe adds a quirk. The Photonic Professional GT produces tiny objects in the sub-micrometer range in seconds instead of minutes. Handy next time you need an invisible cat print. Nanoscribe.
    • GREEN WALLS: Walgreens in the US is planning a net zero energy retail store in Illinois. Solar panels and wind turbines will generate electricity while geothermal technology and ultra-high-efficiency refrigeration will supply heat. Energy-efficient building materials, LED lighting and using daylight will help make the building so energy efficient it actually creates more than it consumes. If they could apply this to all their 8,000 stores they could have a significant positive impact. That shows commendable initiative. Walgreens.
    • THE LONG VIEW: If you’re going to cheat a casino then you need to make sure you play your cards right. One cheater in Melbourne managed to clean up $32 million by having an accomplice hack into the high-resolution security cameras. The accomplice tipped the player off as to what cards he was playing against. Which just goes to show that anything that can be used to protect you can also be used as a weapon against you. Herald Sun.

    Tech Universe: Friday 22 March 2013

    • 17 YEAR OLD BIOFUEL: Bored of an evening? You could always create an Algae Biofuel Lab, as one 17 year old student in the US did to win a $100,000 science prize. Sara Volz used artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content. Her research could reduce the cost of the normally quite costly biofuels. Kids today! Intel.
    • ON THE SWIM: Salamandra robotica II is a Swiss amphibious salamander-like robot. The robot has four legs and an actuated spine that let it both swim in water and walk on the ground. It’s an updated version of an earlier model and lets researchers explore body and limb coordination in robots and animals like lizards that have a sprawling posture. That’s a versatile robot. If only it could fly too. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Video:
    • POLICE NOTICES: Heading for Mexico City? If you like, the police will track your every move, thanks to their dedicated smartphone app. And if you need to call for help the app will do that for you too. Just hope the police aren’t too busy to answer the phone as the call isn’t automatically routed to an emergency number. The aim is to increase safety and help the police respond more quickly to emergencies. Will it also alert you if you stray into the wrong neighbourhoods? Wired.
    • THE HIGH STREET: Google Street View is commonly associated with photos of buildings on streets — it’s all in the name, after all. Recently though they added views on and from Everest Base Camp, Mount Kilimanjaro and several other of the Seven Summits. Let others brave the snow and wind, and do your mountain climbing from your own desk. Google Official Blog.
    • FIND THE ZEBRA: A rare disease is usually defined as one that occurs in less than 1 in 2000 of the population, and may be referred to as a zebra, because it’s rare and unexpected. Of course, that’s still a lot of people who can be affected. Because the diseases are rare though, they’re also hard and slow to diagnose, so doctors and others are likely to turn to web searching for help. The FindZebra search engine is dedicated to the diagnosis of rare diseases. The search engine crawls a specially selected set of curated databases on rare diseases, and tests have shown it to return better results than generic and general search engines such as Google. Get ready to zebra your symptoms. Technology Review.