15 to 19 April 2013 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 15 April 2013

  • HOT SLIME: The BIQ House in Hamburg runs on algae. The facade of the building includes 129 bioreactors containing microalgae that generate biomass, provide heat and offer some soundproofing. An energy management centre harvests and stores solar thermal heat and algae to to create hot water. That’s one building where the green slime stays. Daily Mail.
  • THINK IT SO: Fingerprints or iris scans may be used to protect important data or facilities, but such systems are slow and expensive. Researchers at UC Berkeley may be able to create a low-cost and fast way to use thoughts for computer passwords. In tests they had people wear a low-cost Neurosky MindSet that connects via Bluetooth. Test subjects were given a task such as imagining singing a song of their choice. The distinct brainwaves were enough to authenticate users on the computers. Now that would have to be easier than remembering hundreds of passwords, but how does it handle tiredness or the influence of medication? UC Berkeley.
  • PHONE IT IN: Smartphones can do a lot of clever things, but how about reading fingerprints, scanning irises and identifying a face? AOptix has hardware and an app that turns an iPhone into a mobile biometric reader. A special case around the phone collects fingerprints, while the phone’s camera is used for iris scanning and facial recognition, and the built-in microphone collects recordings of the voice. The user can add notes and email data back to base. This isn’t for the general public though and is likely to be used by government agencies. That’s a lot of power in a small device. Wired.
  • SMART READS: Have a reading assignment for your studies? Maybe you diligently read the whole book, or perhaps you flick through a few pages, or maybe you never even open the book. Beware the power of ebooks: your lecturer may know just which pages you have and haven’t read, what notes you made or where you failed to highlight key parts. CourseSmart technology allows lecturers to track the progress their students make through digital textbooks. It collects data and then creates an engagement index for each student that can highlight factors such as how often the student opened a particular textbook. On the other hand, it won’t know if a student makes notes on paper or in a separate computer file. The New York Times.
  • A LONG VIEW: A camera featuring a low-power infrared laser beam and superconducting nanowires can tell when a single photon has hit. With that information it can create high-resolution 3D images from up to 1 Km away. The infrared capability means the camera detects a wide variety of different items, like clothing, that don’t normally reflect laser beams well. The camera could perhaps be used to scan a forest from a plane, or scan the ocean floor. One problem is that superconductors have to be cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero, so this won’t be a handheld gadget any time in the near future. 3D from a single camera isn’t bad. Wired.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 16 April 2013

  • IN A SPIN: E-Volo’s VC200 is a two-seater volocopter that should soon be granted a provisional airworthiness certificate. The developers aim for a flight time of more than 1 hour, and a speed of more than 100 Kph. The minimum flight altitude is around 2,000 metres. The electric Volocopter is a vertical takeoff and landing craft that uses many propellers placed within a circular frame above the body of the craft. The whole craft broadly resembles a helicopter without a tail. That looks like a fun way to fly. E-Volo.
  • ON THE GAME: The Reactive Grip from Tactical Haptics is a device for gamers that brings a more realistic sense of using weapons during a game. Slider bars in the handle move as the player uses various weapons in a game, for example simulating the kick of a gun or the resistance of fighting with a sword. The system also has potential for sportspeople and surgeons. The developers hope to fund developer kits later this year. It seems slow going with making interactions with virtual worlds feel more realistic. Road To VR.
  • HANDS FREE: One US man who lost both hands after a vehicle accident now has bionic hands he can control directly or through an iPhone app. The i-Limb Ultra Revolution hands from Touch Bionics have 5 individually powered fingers, including a fully rotatable thumb. The app lets him choose from 24 different types of grip patterns. He can now easily pick up a pen or a lolly, use an electric drill, play pool or shake hands. Prostheses have made huge advances in such a short time. CNN.
  • DON’T HANDLE THE FRUIT: Fingerprints are still a really useful tool in crime fighting, but one area where they haven’t been used is with food. It’s pretty tricky to lift a print from porous surfaces like those on fruit and vegetables. Forensic scientists at the University of Abertay in Dundee modified a substance known as Powder Suspension and were able to lift high quality prints from onions, apples and tomatoes. Which goes to show that criminals should stick to their crime and not take breaks for snacks. BBC.
  • PLANE WORRYING: A commercial airline pilot and IT security consultant recently gave a talk that showed an Android phone with a special app could take control of a plane. The transmissions between an aircraft and the control tower aren’t secured, so he used them to demonstrate the hijack possibilities on a virtual plane. What’s next? No taking phones on planes? Net Security.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 17 April 2013

  • ANY OLD BITE: Snake bites, bee stings and many other things can fill your blood with venom. So how can that venom be removed? The answer may lie in a nanosponge invented by researchers at the University of California. The nanosponges are made of a biocompatible polymer core wrapped in a natural red blood cell membrane. In tests with mice the nanosponges lowered mortality rates to around a half or even a tenth, depending on when the nanoparticles were injected. This means the nanosponges could be used as a generic therapy for toxins, rather than the current method of using specific remedies for specific bites and stings. Perhaps that could eventually mean an over the counter kit travellers could carry for emergency use. U-T San Diego.
  • VISIBLE BRAIN: Researchers have problems studying the brain because they simply can’t see through the lipids or fats that surround each cell. Instead they have to slice a brain into sheets only a fraction of a millimetre thick and study each sheet separately. In the process they may sever vital connections or introduce deformities. A new technique from Stanford University called Clarity uses a hydrogel to replace the lipids that hold everything in place. The result is a brain that is transparent to light and permeable to molecules that can act as markers. Researchers can now study the brain or in fact any organ much more easily. It’s just a pity techniques like these can’t be used on live brains. io9.
  • LIT UP BRAIN: US researchers used tiny devices containing LEDs the size of individual neurons to activate brain cells in mice. The LEDs caused the mouse brains to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure. The LEDs, thinner than a human hair, were housed in a fibre implanted deep into the brain, so the mice were free to run around, go through a maze or run on a wheel. The researchers used the LEDs to reward the mice for specific behaviours. The devices may be used in future to learn more about the brain or perhaps for pain control. And eventually, we’d guess, may end up in the same markets as illegal substances. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
  • LIGHT WORK: More than 19% of the world’s electricity consumption is accounted for by lighting. A prototype tube LED from Phillips could bring huge savings of both money and electricity because at 200 lumens per watt it’s twice as efficient as lights currently used in offices and industry. Philips expects the light to go on the market in 2015. Save even more by installing windows and skylights too. BBC.
  • KIDNEY EXCHANGE: People whose kidneys fail may need to wait a very long time for a donor organ. A team at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston achieved a breakthrough in growing a new functioning kidney for a rat. They used a collagen scaffold made from healthy rat kidneys and a wash of human stem cells in a bath of oxygen and nutrients. The kidneys grew and were shown to function in a rat, although only at 10% efficiency. This approach could eventually lead to human kidneys being grown from a recipient’s own stem cells, based on kidneys from a pig. Which would change a great many lives, if it’s ever actually achieved. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Thursday 18 April 2013

  • BABY PRINTS: Prenatal sonograms give those expecting a baby an exciting glimpse of the new life within. But what if those parents are blind? One Brazilian industrial designer solves that problem with 3D printing. Sophisticated programs take the sonogram data and turn it into a simulation or a life size printed model. The simulations are useful to doctors who may be able to discover things like a cleft lip or Downs Syndrome. The 3D models make it possible for visually impaired family members and friends to appreciate the fetus. A full model of a fetus at 12 weeks costs around $200. Let’s hope those costs can be reduced. Tech Page One.
  • LIE BACK AND PEDAL: Electric bicycles are one thing, but Outrider USA makes recumbent electric trikes that can travel at up to 65 Kph. Choose between pedal only, electric only, or pedalling with electric assist. Range is up to 265 Km if you do some of the work or 175 Km if you don’t. The Lithium Polymer battery charges from 0% to 100% in 180 minutes. It looks like a nice ride. Outrider USA.
  • REMEMBER THE CHARGE: While older batteries had an annoying memory effect caused by incomplete charging or discharging, lithium-ion batteries don’t. Or so we thought. Scientists have now found that in fact LiFePO4 batteries, such as those used in electric vehicles, can suffer the effect too. The good news is that the effect is tiny and can probably be counteracted in the software used for managing the battery. The last thing we need is for expensive electric vehicle batteries to run out after a brief trip to the shops. PhysOrg.
  • SWIPE THAT: Fujitsu Laboratories are working on a new user interface that detects finger positions and gestures so you can interact with real world objects such as pieces of paper and books. A camera and projector together detect fingertip position, while a processor compensates for potential errors like those caused by curved pages in open books. That means, for example, that you could select part of a document with your finger and automatically capture the data into your computer. Tap or swipe to turn the page? DigInfo TV.
  • A LONG VIEW: The Thirty Meter Telescope will be the world’s largest optical telescope when it’s completed on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. Construction is to start early in 2014, with observations starting in 2021. As one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, it should be able to observe light from 13 billion years ago and track extrasolar planets. That’s a particularly huge telescope to have on the ground. New Scientist..

Tech Universe: Friday 19 April 2013

  • PATCH PERFECT: Many people need to monitor their health closely, perhaps after a stay in hospital. The Bio-patch sensor is a skin patch that’s as thin as a piece of paper. It’s inexpensive, versatile and comfortable to wear. The patch measures bioelectrical signals through the skin. Exactly what it measures depends on where it’s worn: it measures electrocardiography on the chest, but brainwaves on the skull. On the forearm it tracks muscle response. The wearer can analyse the readings in their smartphone, or data can go straight to a health worker for professional analysis. There’s a tiny battery in the patch, which is equipped with wifi too. KTH The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
  • VIDEOS BY NUMBER: Have you been watching videos online? If they were smooth and easy you can probably thank the data centre hosting the videos for using redundancy, data distribution and cueing techniques. Any individual video is likely to be cut up, duplicated and stored across different discs to help create a smooth and unbroken experience. But that approach also uses a lot of electricity. A new technology called network coding may be able to reduce both redundancy and power draw. Rather than storing copies of videos, the system uses algorithms to transform the data that makes up a video into a series of mathematical functions. Devices can then use the functions to compensate for missing portions of the data. There’s logic in that. Technology Review.
  • WORD SHAKE: If you have to spend a while on a treadmill perhaps you’d like to do some reading at the same time? It’s not easy though as your head bobs up and down. Engineers at Purdue University have created ReadingMate to solve the problem. The system adjusts text on a monitor to counteract the bobbing motion of a runner’s head and allows them to read normal-size text on a small monitor mounted in front of the machine. Because our eyes already try to compensate for the movement the system can’t just move the text in synch with the head, so an algorithm handles the calculations. A system like this could be helpful for pilots or people operating heavy machinery to compensate for turbulence while trying to read from a display. Meanwhile, maybe an audio file is a better choice. Purdue University.
  • CLEAN ON COMMAND: LG’s RoboKings are voice activated robot vacuum cleaners. Clap twice to pause operation. The smart cleaner can move towards the user by recognising the direction the voice is coming from. It can also remember the corners of a room and efficiently locate obstacles thanks to 3 ultrasonic sensors. Upper and lower cameras help the robot to clean dark places. The cleaner operates at 48 decibels for up to 100 minutes on a charge. Voice control’s a handy feature. FarEastGizmos.
  • HOME PRINTER: A team of architects in Amsterdam has a 3D printer that’s 6 metres tall. They’re planning to use it to print a whole canal house from different types of plastics and wood fibres extruded through a flexible tube. The architects draw their plans on a computer and feed them to the printer. The printer will first create exterior walls, followed by ceilings and individual rooms, then finally furniture. The pieces will then be assembled on site. This project is an experiment to prove the concept, although the cost will likely be more than for a conventional house. And the great thing is it’s easy to produce scale models beforehand on a regular sized 3D printer. Let’s just hope it can work with plastics produced from renewable sources. BBC.