Tech Universe: Monday 22 July 2013
- A NEW SPIN: The silk that comes from Spiber in Japan hasn’t been spun by silkworms. The material is tougher than kevlar, lighter than steel, and can be stretched 40% beyond its original length without breaking. The protein fibroin gives silk its resilience. Spiber use bioengineered bacteria to replicate artificial fibroin that can take the form of a film, gel, sponge, powder or nanofibres. The new material could be used in spacesuits, cars or perhaps for artificial blood vessels. Or how about shirts? Inhabitat.
- TIRED CAM: It’s been a very long day and you’re driving, feeling tired, but keen to get home. That’s a recipe for a car accident, of course. One Swiss student has developed a video analysis algorithm that can tell by how much a driver’s eyelids are drooping how tired they are. Now a prototype is being tested in real driving conditions. A single infrared camera behind the wheel measures the percentage of time that the pupil is at least 80% covered by the eyelid during a predetermined timespan. The algorithm can distinguish an open eye from a closed one and deal with confusing effects of changing light and the variety of eye shapes. The biggest challenge is the frame rate, as unconscious blinks of the eye occur within 100 to 150 milliseconds. I guess 30 frames per second isn’t much use in that case. EPFL.
- DON’T HIT THE WALL: Imagine touching an ordinary whiteboard but having it react as though it were touch-sensitive. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are working on vibration sensors that can be attached to any surface, such as wood, aluminium, steel, glass and plastic. A light touch on the surface causes vibrations to ripple out and hit the sensors. The system can pinpoint the spot that was touched by calculating the difference in time it takes the vibrations to reach the various sensors. That could mean that an image could be projected on a wall and viewers could interact with it by tapping on the wall. It could definitely make doorbells obsolete, and more interesting. GigaOm.
- KICKING ALONG: AlterG’s 3.6 Kg Bionic Leg is intended for those who have injured their leg or knee, or perhaps suffered a stroke, and need some help with rehabilitation. An insole that contains 4 pressure sensors fits into an ordinary shoe. The pressure of your foot combined with the effort exerted by your knee provide crucial information about whether you’re sitting, standing, climbing stairs and so on. The Bionic Leg provides motorised assistance with extension, flexion and swinging the leg forward between steps. The device can easily be set to provide full or limited assistance, while a battery pack keeps the leg working. It makes things easy that the insole fits in a normal shoe. Gizmodo.
- SMOKE SIGNALS: Surgeons use electrosurgical knives to cut and cauterise blood vessels. Those knives create smoke whose lipid profiles reflect what kind of tissue is being cut. That means, for example, that smoke from a tumour can be differentiated from that from other tissue. The hitch is that it takes a mass spectrometer to tell the difference. A team from Imperial College London have created an intelligent surgical knife. It captures the smoke from the tissue it cuts and sends it through a mass spectrometer. Lights on a display indicate within 3 seconds what kind of tissue it is. Ultimately the aim is for surgeons to be easily able to cut out all of a tumour while leaving behind healthy tissue. Meanwhile patients may need less time under anesthesia. More confidence, lower costs. sounds like a win all round. Science.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 23 July 2013
- A NEW STEP IN SKATING: As skateboards go the Stair-Rover is an odd looking thing, with its 8 wheels, four each at front and back. The board’s designed to adapt to the environment of cities, with all their variable surfaces, including concrete steps. And that’s where the extra wheels do their job, as they bounce up and down independently and conform to the shape of each step. The boards weigh 5 Kg and are 88 x 27 x 15 cm. Now it’s bumping instead of jumping. Stair-Rover.
- SPARKS OF CHANGE: Around 66% of Peru’s 24 million people have access to electricity, but that’s changing for the better. The National Photovoltaic Household Electrification Program aims to bring solar energy to more than two million of Peru’s poorest residents. 1600 solar panels have already been installed in the northeast of Peru, but more are planned. The programme’s aim is for 95% of Peruvians to have access to electricity by the end of 2016. It’s a great goal to bring power to all the people. Latin American Herald Tribune.
- RINGS OF CHANGE: Chemists from the USA and Japan have synthesised the first example of a new form of carbon which consists of many identical pieces of grossly warped graphene. The molecules are known as grossly warped nanographenes. The new material contains exactly 80 carbon atoms joined together in a network of 26 rings, with 30 hydrogen atoms decorating the rim. It’s more soluble than 2D nanographene and has a different colour. Let’s hope it’s also useful for something. Boston College.
- SPEEDIER LIGHT: Researchers at the University of Bath demonstrated that graphene could respond a hundred times faster than current materials when used as an optical switch. Such switches are an important part of communications systems such as the Internet as they convert signals into a series of light pulses. That could mean big increases in speed for telecommunications. We like faster comms. University of Bath.
- SMOOTHING THE WAY: We have a long history of discovering that incredibly useful materials have their down side, with effects on the atmosphere, plants and animals, the oceans, and our own bodies. Graphene may soon be immensely valuable in electronic devices, solar cells, batteries, and medical devices. It’s strong, flexible, stretchy, conductive, and self-cooling, and only a single atom thick. But that thinness is where danger lies. Brown University researchers found that graphene has jagged edges that can easily pierce and disrupt cells. That means if it finds its way inside our bodies, perhaps during manufacturing processes, it could do some real damage. It sounds like some polishing of the rough edges is required. io9.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 24 July 2013
- THIS LUNCH LOOKS OFF: Apparently to a shark a human being in a traditional black wetsuit can look just like lunch. Research shows though that sharks have several weaknesses in their visual system, such as that they see in black and white. That’s why Shark Attack Mitigation Systems now have wetsuit and other designs that make the wearers look dangerous or camouflage them against the background. One style is effectively black and white stripes that make the wearer look like something sharks would rather avoid. The other is a blue and white disrupted pattern that make the wearer difficult for sharks to see in the water. If it’s just a matter of colours and patterns that could make a difference it sounds like your next wetsuit should use this. Shark Attack Mitigation Systems.
- YOUR SHIRT IS CALLING: OMsignal shirts include a 3-axis accelerometer, an EKG and a breathing sensor that measures ribcage extension and contraction. The sensors continuously monitor heart rate, breathing, calories burned and daily steps, along with Heart Rate Variability and stores the information on a memory card. A Bluetooth connection sends the information to a smartphone app. The smartphone in turn displays graphical interpretations and alerts users if a sharp increase in bio signals is detected, such as an abnormal heart rate or unusual breathing pattern. Data is retained on the memory card for 7 days, while the battery lasts 16 hours, and can be recharged via USB. Clothing is just getting smarter all round. OMsignal.
- HOT AND COLD: Many industrial processes create heat that’s just wasted. One example is power stations, though car exhausts are a more everyday example. Thermocells harness that difference in temperature between two surfaces and convert it into electricity. A small team of researchers at Monash University has developed an ionic liquid-based thermocell that has high power outputs but doesn’t create CO2. The device is cheap and flexible, and works at temperatures of around 100 to 200 C. Why waste heat when you can exploit it? Monash University.
- CHEAP CHEEPS: Scientists from the University of Puerto Rico have put iPods to good use: wrapped up in a waterproof case, with a cheap microphone and an antenna that can transmit data to a base station up to 40 Km away, along with a solar panel and a car battery for power, the units are part of a project to study biodiversity. The sounds they record are analysed by machine-learning algorithms that scan the frequencies for patterns that indicate a specific species. This automated remote biodiversity monitoring network aims to get around the problem of researchers not having enough time to make best use of the extensive recordings they have. The team who created the system say the devices are like biodiversity weather stations that have already accumulated important data about a local endangered frog. Let’s just monitor all the things. Wired.
- LIKE LASERS FOR INTERNET: I think we’d all be happy to get our Internet at 31 terabits per second — until the bill comes in, of course. Researchers from Bell Labs successfully sent data at speeds of 31 Terabits per second over 7200 Km, the highest ever capacity for undersea data transmission on a single fibre. The experiment used 155 lasers, each operating at a different frequency and carrying 200 Gbit/s over a 50 GHz frequency grid. Now, of course, they have to shift from doing that once in an experiment to making it routine in the real world, but it’s nice to dream. Alcatel-Lucent.
Tech Universe: Thursday 25 July 2013
- RESEARCH AT A CRAWL: The Crabster CR200 is a robot exploration vehicle from Korea, designed for turbulent coastal waters. Rather than using the propellers that drive other vehicles it has 6 articulated legs. It also has thrusters so it can fly just above the sea floor. The front two legs can be used as manipulator arms so the robot can pick up and store items of interest. The legs allow the vehicle to navigate even in the strong currents that would cause propeller-driven vehicles to drift off course. The whole thing is about the size of a Smart car. It must be the legs that make it much scarier though. Gizmodo.
- PHONE WITH A VIEW: The Surround-See prototype is a very interesting idea. A student at the University of Alberta modified his smartphone by adding an omni-directional camera that enables peripheral vision around the device. Meanwhile the software allows the phone to use what the camera sees and learn from it. The phone can detect, for example, that the user is in a car and warn them not to use the phone while driving, or allow the user to control the volume of nearby speakers with a wave. It can even simply report on its location. The camera adds an inconvenient lump to the phone, but if it could be better integrated such a device could be very powerful. Discovery News.
- THIS TOUCHSCREEN LIKES FINGERPRINTS: Security is a problem many are concerned with these days. Biometric measures such as fingerprints could be useful in areas like banking apps, but fingerprint readers are a whole separate device. The Fiberio from the University of Potsdam is a touch screen that also reads fingerprints. It’s a rear-projected tabletop system that identifies users based on their fingerprints during each interaction, such as when approving invoices. At the heart of the system is a fibre optic plate that diffuses light on transmission, allowing it to act as projection surface. It also reflects light allowing for fingerprint recognition. The setup requires a high-res camera, a projector and a light source. Provided the glass doesn’t smear from all the fingerprints, that kind of device could be very useful for bank tellers. Hasso Plattner Institute.
- OPEN AND SHUT: People with diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar levels and use insulin to keep things in balance. Researchers at North Carolina State developed a special sponge that could deliver drugs as they’re needed. The researchers created a spherical sponge-like matrix that surrounds a reservoir of insulin. The whole thing is only 250 micrometers in diameter and can be injected. An increase in blood sugar triggers a reaction in the sponge, essentially making the holes larger, allowing insulin to escape into the bloodstream. When blood sugar drops again the sponge closes up and the flow of insulin stops. The technique has been shown to work in lab mice and could perhaps be used for delivering cancer drugs by adapting the sponge. Anything to make the process easier. North Carolina State.
- BUMPS SMOOTH THE RIDE: United Airlines are adding a little something to their planes in order to save fuel and money; Along with a winglet, or upturned end on the wings, they’re adding a ventral strake that goes under the fuselage. The additions help smooth the passage of air round the body of the plane and cut down on turbulent flow and drag. That in turn reduces fuel consumption. Tiny tweaks with a massive effect. Forbes.
Note: Friday’s Tech Universe was published on Monday 29 July 2013.