27 to 31 January 2014 Tech Universe Digest

There was no Tech Universe on Monday 27 January 2014.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 28 January 2014

  • HOUSE IN PRINT: Imagine you’re having a new house built. Workers prepare the building site then a 6 metre tall crane-like gantry is brought in and installed on rails either side of the house. The machine rolls back and forth extruding fast-drying concrete and building up your house layer by layer. In 24 hours it’s done, including conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning and the gantry is removed. The machine can create a 230 square metre house over a couple of working days. This 3D printer is being developed at the University of Southern California and uses contour crafting, a method of building by layering. The technology could be used for many purposes, including emergency housing and building habitats on other planets or the Moon. Just how much concrete is there on the Moon? NDTV.
  • BOUNCING BALLS OF LIGHT: It takes a lot to put a mirror in space, so they’re necessarily smaller than some astronomers would like. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology are exploring an idea that could create a huge mirror in space using lasers. They used a single laser to trap polystyrene beads 150 micrometres across against a sheet of glass. Because the beads were grouped together the light didn’t bounce off in all directions but instead created a flat reflective surface that acted exactly like a mirror. The researchers hope that in future a mirror 35 metres across yet weighing only 100 grams could be possible, but acknowledge there are quite a few problems to solve first. And as for the notion of releasing polystyrene bedas in space … New Scientist.
  • FIRE THE MICROPARTICLES: After a heart attack inflammatory cells may turn up and damage the muscle tissue. Researchers at the University of Sydney found they could prevent major damage with an injection of microparticles less than 24 hours after the heart attack. What they injected were balls of a biodegradable compound, poly lactic-co-glycolic acid, 200 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. The microparticles are picked up by the inflammatory cells and diverted to waste disposal systems and to the spleen. The microparticles could also help reduce inflammatory damage with problems like multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, peritonitis, viral inflammation of the brain and kidney transplant. Clinical trials should begin within a couple of years. That’s clever: distracting the inflammatory cells on their way to create mayhem. University of Sydney.
  • SWEET EYES: Using miniature electronics embedded in a contact lens researchers at Google[x] hope to change how people with diabetes monitor their blood sugar. They’ve developed a lens that has a tiny wireless chip and a miniaturised glucose sensor embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. Prototypes may be able to generate a reading once per second. The developers hope others will join them to take the prototype and develop apps and working lenses to change lives. OK, but somehow it will need to be charged up. Google Blog.
  • POWER STRIP: Researchers at the University of Illinois created piezoelectric strips that generate 0.2 microwatts per square centimetre of electricity when attached to a beating heart in animals roughly the same size as humans. That’s enough energy to power a pacemaker. The lead zirconate titanate on a flexible silicone base conforms to the changing shape of a moving organ. Having demonstrated that the strips can successfully generate power the researchers now need to test what happens when the strips stay inside the body for a long time, perhaps years. There’s a start to a wired body. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 29 January 2014

  • NOT THE EDIBLE KIND OF SPAM: You might not be too surprised if a friend’s computer were compromised and used to send out spam, but what if you heard it was their smart TV or fridge that did it? Earlier this year a spam attack sent out around 750,000 messages, of which 25% didn’t pass through laptops, desktops or smartphones. Instead, kitchen appliances, home media systems and web-connected TVs were infected by malware and used to send out spam. Many such devices have poor security, are poorly configured or use default passwords so can be compromised by smart spammers. Oh great: now we’ll have to set up, remember and use passwords for all our appliances too? BBC.
  • HEAT TO LIGHT: Conventional photovoltaic cells collect energy directly from some wavelengths of sunshine. Researchers at MIT though believe photovoltaic cells could be much more efficient and are working on solar thermophotovoltaic cells. An outer array of multiwalled carbon nanotubes very efficiently absorbs a broad spectrum of sunlight and turns it to heat. Bonded to that array is a layer of photonic crystal which collects the heat and glows with infrared light that can be collected by a conventional photovoltaic cell. That whole process allows the solar panel to collect energy from wavelengths of light that ordinarily go to waste, improving performance. Hey, if the sun’s shining it’s only fair to make the most of it. MIT News.
  • WALK SOFTLY: Some people with neuromuscular disorders of the foot and ankle must wear a brace to help them walk, but over time their muscles can atrophy rather than being simply supported. A rigid exoskeleton may help but also restricts the motion of the foot. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are working on a soft orthotic device with artificial tendons and pneumatic artificial muscles. Because it’s soft it’s harder to control, so it uses a touch-sensitive artificial skin made of rubber sheets whose microchannels are filled with a liquid metal alloy. Stretching or pressing the sheet causes changes in the electrical resistance of the alloy. The device needs more development before it can be tested on patients though. For one thing its artificial muscles are very bulky. Carnegie Mellon University.
  • AT A STRETCH: Sensors to measure strain, pressure, human touch and bioelectronic signals such as electrocardiograms are often somewhat fragile: try bending or stretching them and they’ll break. That limits their usefulness. Scientists at North Carolina State University took an insulating material and screen printed silver nanowires on to it to create highly conductive and elastic sensors. The sensors respond in only 40 milliseconds so can be used to monitor strain, pressure and finger touch in real time. As the sensors can be stretched to 150% or more of their original length without losing functionality, they could be useful in controlling robotic or prosthetic devices. No word on how often the sensors can be stretched. North Carolina State University.
  • PARTIAL PRINTS: It can be annoying to print an entire page when all you want is an address or coupon. The tiny 220 gram Cocodori prints only what you’ve selected on screen onto 75mm wide roll paper. Two types of paper are available: a memo roll suitable for printing coupons and a Fusen type that is slightly sticky like a Post-it. But does it connect to a smartphone or tablet or only a PC? Akihabara News.

Tech Universe: Thursday 30 January 2014

Full face snorkel.

Full face snorkel.

  • BREATHE NORMALLY: To use a standard snorkel mask you need to breathe only through your mouth which may not come easy to nose-breathers. The Easybreath mask is a full-face snorkel mask that offers the wearer an unobstructed 180 degree field of vision, and uses a double air-flow system to prevent fogging. The wearer can breathe normally inside the mask, while a special mechanism plugs the top of the snorkel tube if it goes under water. It sounds like the new standard to meet. Tribord.
  • FROZEN RABBIT: China’s Jade Rabbit Lunar Rover landed in mid-December 2013 for a 3 month mission of geological surveys and astronomical observations. Unfortunately it has now suffered a mechanical control abnormality that may prevent it from closing its solar panels for the upcoming 2 week lunar night. The lunar daytime temperature can reach 100 degrees Celsius, while at night it plunges to minus 180C. If the rover can’t close the panels vital internal electrical components may freeze and stop working even after the rover wakes up again. It sure is a harsh environment up there. South China Morning Post.
  • A CLEAR BENEFIT: SolTech roof panels collect heat from the sun, but they aren’t standard solar panels. Instead they’re tiles made of clear glass laid over a black nylon canvas that absorbs the sun’s rays. Below that layer of canvas are columns of air that absorb the heat and in turn warm water that is connected to the house’s heating system via an accumulator. The system generates about 350 kWh heat per square metre. A glass roof to catch the sun: a simple but clever idea. InHabitat.
  • IF THE SUIT FITS: Buying clothes online can be a risky business: should you choose the Small or Medium size, or perhaps the Large, and would you like a tight or loose fit? Fits.me is a virtual fitting room that aims to help online shoppers try on clothes before they buy. Customers take a photo of themselves then upload it to the site. They tell the computer where their hands and feet are and provide information about their height, weight, age and gender. A server cleans up the photo to remove the background and works out the buyer’s body shape. Using data provided by the retailer, the software then recommends the correct size for the shopper and shows the garment on a mannequin. That could boost online sales of clothing enormously. BBC.
  • SMART PHONE, CLEAN PHONE: The Gorilla Glass in your smartphone already resists cracks and scratches but in future it will kill bacteria too. Corning announced they will add silver ions to the mix that creates Gorilla Glass. Since silver has natural antimicrobial properties that should help keep the nasties that might accumulate on your phone at bay. Washing your hands could help too. A New Domain.

Tech Universe: Friday 31 January 2014

  • GAME, SET, DATA MATCH: The Babolat Play Pure Drive is a flash name for a tennis racquet, but it does a few interesting things apart from allowing you to hit the ball. The handle of the racquet includes sensors that detect string vibration and movement and analyse your game. The racquet connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth or a computer via USB. The racquet counts swings such as forehand and backhand, the spin you put on the ball and other features of your game. The rules of the International Tennis Federation allow for the use of Player Analysis Technology like this racquet in games, but players may only access the data once the match is over. The next problem of course is sporting espionage where a competitor is able to spy on a player’s data and use it to their advantage. How about using this to create virtual tennis matches where players don’t even need to be in the same country? BBC.
  • FIT FOR WORK: Data shows that in the US adults may spend up to 11 hours per day sitting while they work on a computer or watch TV. They are also likely to add around 1 Kg of weight each year. More exercise would help stop that weight gain. Researchers at Penn State University had test subjects use a compact elliptical device to increase physical activity while sitting in a standard office chair. The device is low cost, quiet and takes only a small amount of space. They found that the majority of the participants could expend enough energy in one hour a day to prevent weight gain. Add a little generator and perhaps you could pedal to charge your phone too. Penn State.
  • SOMETHING IN THE AIR: Firefighters have a challenging job that could be helped with an accurate view of a fire, and that’s where drones come in. Dubai Civil Defence aim to use 15 quadcopters to patrol high-risk areas, such as industrial zones, to monitor and record fires. The drones can be deployed from patrol bikes, and start imaging a fire while the firefighters are still on their way. Flying in smoke and heat will be challenging for the little robots. The National.
  • SOMETHING’S AFOOT: Swedish researchers have developed a system to help track firefighters as they move around a burning building. Sensors inside the boot include an accelerometer and gyroscope, along with a processor. Data goes to a wireless module on the shoulder and then on to operational command. In practice the system worked even when firefighters were 25 metres below ground. Precise information about locations and movements helps emergency coordinators ensure that firefighters remain effective and safe in extremely dangerous conditions. The current system puts sensors in the heel of a boot but further development aims to use them in an insole that would allow more flexibility and more uses. That wireless module on the shoulder seems to be a point of weakness though. KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
  • LIFT THE GAME: What does the lift in your building know about you? In the Microsoft Research Centre a smart lift can figure out where you’re going without prior programming or facial recognition. Instead the lift studies the motions of people in hallways and learns that certain types of people go to certain places at certain times of the day. After 3 months of training the lift correctly intuited the destinations of its passengers in a trial. The developers say the system could be made even more accurate with the addition of more sensors. And when it gets it wrong? Would you like to start your work day fighting with the lift? io9.