24 to 28 March 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 24 March 2014

  • GET THE HUMP: Cyclists and cars need a certain amount of separation. That’s something that Armadillos, made of recycled plastic help with. The bike lane dividers are made from 100% recycled PVC then bolted into the ground and spaced out so that cyclists can enter or exit the cycle lanes as needed yet forming a small barrier for cars. Emergency vehicles can still roll over the Armadillos without damage and painted stripes help make them visible. London is currently experimenting with the barriers, but they have already found success in Europe. Keeping vulnerable cyclists separate from cars is a very desirable goal. CycleHoop.
  • THE FOLDING: One of the problems of biking to work is what to do with the bike when you get there. The Gi electric Bike folds up in a flash. The bike also includes a LiFoPo4 battery that will drive the bike 65 Km, carbon drive belts to avoid maintenance, smartphone integration, an anti-theft lock system, smart lights and an unusual design. Think how many of them would fit in a single car parking space. Gi Bike.
  • EYES ON THE JOB: The standard equipment your ophthalmologist uses to take photos of your eyes is expensive and requires extensive training to use properly. Such equipment, and the training, is rare in GP surgeries, emergency departments and rural areas though. That’s why researchers at Stanford have created a couple of adapters that fit a smartphone and quickly take high quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters mean anyone with minimal training can take images to share with other health practitioners or store in the patient’s electronic record. After creating and refining a prototype from cheap plastic parts 3D-printed versions have taken over. Initially the low-cost EyeGo adapters will be available only for research purposes, but eventually the creators aim to seek FDA approval. It’s amazing sometimes how small a part telephony plays in the role of smartphones. Stanford.
  • FLASH OF INSIGHT: Power lines are everywhere. Now researchers have now found that power lines give off random and unpredictable flashes of ultraviolet light. Those flashes, invisible to us but visible to many animals, may be having negative effects on wildlife, affecting habitats and migration. The researchers made their discovery after noticing that Arctic reindeer would stay as much as 5 Km away from power lines crossing the tundra. The flashes occur because power cables aren’t perfect: where current meets resistance from damage or an imperfection a UV flash may occur. We’re sometimes blissfully unaware of the damage we do. BBC.
  • THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Engineers from Duke University can reroute sound waves to both hide an object and hide the cloaking device itself. The sound waves behave as though there is only a flat surface. The cloaking device is a pyramid made of metamaterials and incorporating strategically placed holes. The geometry of the device interacts with sound waves, slowing them so when reflected they appear to have bounced off a flat surface. The technique could have applications in auditoriums and concert halls, and also for military sonar avoidance. Since the metamaterial slows the soundwaves it must be absorbing some of their energy, perhaps increasing its own vibration or temperature, so maybe it’ll give itself away by some other measure. KurzweilAI.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 25 March 2014

  • THE FLUSH THAT BURNS: When we flush a toilet the waste probably goes to a septic tank or through pipes to the town’s sewage treatment plant. But 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have that luxury. A toilet being developed at the University of Colorado instead heats human waste to a high enough temperature to sterilise it and create biochar, a highly porous charcoal that can be used in agriculture to stabilise soil. The work’s done by 8 parabolic mirrors. They focus concentrated sunlight on a postage stamp sized spot on a quartz-glass rod connected to 8 bundles of fibre-optic cables, each consisting of thousands of intertwined, fused fibres. That energy then heats up a reaction chamber to over 315 C to treat the waste material, disinfect pathogens in both faeces and urine, and produce char. The toilet could serve 4 to 6 people a day and costs less than 5 cents per day to run. The next step is to test the toilet beyond the lab. It’d be great to see a scaled down model for disposing of dog poop in dog parks. University of Colorado.
  • SUN LIGHT, SUN BRIGHT: Solar power is considered a good thing with few downsides. One big drawback has emerged for the Ivanpah solar power plant in the US though: the huge array of 170,000 garage door-sized mirrors track and reflect sunlight as they should to the towering central collectors but they’re also blinding pilots who fly nearby. In late morning and early afternoon, pilots flying from the northeast to the southwest find the glare blinding. The glare is potentially affecting more than 100 flights per day. KCET.
  • AN ORDERLY CLEAN: Using laser mapping the BotVac from Neato Robotics not only scans to map its environment but plans the most efficient vacuuming course. Because of its mapping ability it methodically vacuums in straight lines, instead of bumping around a room randomly. If it has to stop in the middle to recharge it returns to the spot where it left off to finish the job. Pet owners may want to schedule automatic daily cleanings. So long as the floor ends up clean do straight lines really matter? Neato Robotics. Video:
  • LIGHT FINGERED: With a $40 add-on a smartphone could soon be helping pregnant women in developing countries stay alive. The Phone Oximeter from LionsGate measures blood oxygen levels through a hospital-standard light sensor attached to a person’s fingertip. The data is fed to a smartphone where an app provides medical workers with crucial diagnostic information. The system has an accuracy of 80%, a great deal better than no diagnosis at all. KurzweilAI.
  • COLLISION ALERT: The Samsung Galaxy Core Advance phone can take an Ultrasonic Cover that emits a high-frequency sound the human ear can’t hear. The case then listens to the sound that bounces back, like a radar. If it detects a person or object up to 2 metres away it vibrates or uses text to speech to alert the user. This could be especially helpful for people with vision impairments. Meanwhile the Optical Scan Stand lets the phone user put their phone in a cradle over a page so an app can scan the text and read it aloud. I guess you wouldn’t want to take that case into crowded places. Samsung.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 26 March 2014

  • POUNDING SECURITY: There are around 45 million fake £1 coins circulating in the UK and the Treasury aren’t very happy about it. In 2017 a new £1 coin will be minted, incorporating Integrated Secure Identification System technology to help defeat counterfeiters. ISIS has three tiers of banknote-strength security and can be authenticated via high-speed automated detection. The 12 sided coin will be composed of two different coloured metals, making it harder to mimic. Wouldn’t it be better for counterfeiters to work with larger denominations for greater rewards? Reuters.
  • WATER WATER EVERYWHERE: The oceans play a critical role in regulating the changing climate and weather. The better we understand the oceans, the better our weather and climate information can be. The mission of the 16 Challenger autonomous underwater Gliders is to cover 128,000 Km around the five ocean basins. They will sample the most energetic currents associated with the basin scale gyres and gather data about the oceans. Each Glider is a 2.2 metre autonomous underwater vehicle that moves through the ocean at a forward speed of 25 to 35 Km per day in a saw tooth-shaped gliding trajectory. It derives its forward propulsion through a buoyancy change and steering by means of a tail fin-rudder. A GPS and various sensors provide dead-reckoned navigation. The gliders will carry sensors that capture continuous readings of ocean temperature, salinity, and currents. Rutgers University.
  • DEEP VISION: Infrared imaging usually requires a combination of technologies to see near-, mid- and far-infrared radiation all at once, and some sensors typically need to be kept very cold. Graphene sensors can see the whole spectrum but don’t absorb enough light to be useful — until now. US researchers added an insulating barrier layer between two graphene sheets so they could explore how light-induced electrical charges in the graphene affected a nearby current. They were able to measure the current changes in top and bottom layers and deduce the brightness of the light hitting the graphene. They created a tiny device that could eventually find its way into contact lenses so you could spot people in the dark, heat leaks in houses, monitor blood flow, identify chemicals in the environment and even see deep into the layers of paint in an artwork. Not quite X-ray vision, but maybe better! University of Michigan.
  • THE PRICE OF VIDEO: Most shops you go into probably use ordinary light bulbs, creating a fairly uniform illumination across the store. Panasonic’s Space Player changes that. The system combines the functions of traditional lighting and video projectors into a projection spotlight. A laser works as the light source to both light an object and project video or product descriptions onto the surrounding space. The light can be controlled remotely and play from SD cards, tablets, computers or over a Wi-Fi network. It’ll be interesting to see how that could develop in the hands of very creative people, and maybe it could find a use in theatre too. Far East Gizmos.
  • GET THE DROP ON DRUGS: The Mission district of San Francisco doesn’t have many tall buildings and is fairly flat which makes it a good spot for drones to deliver drugstore items because aerial mapping is easier. The company QuiQui intends to use drones that will fly below 150 metres any time of day or night, delivering orders in less than 15 minutes. When the drone arrives at its destination it will text the buyer who will use an app to release the package. That should help stop thieves from intercepting parcels and delivery to a wrong address. Now train the dog to fetch the parcel and you won’t even need to leave your sickbed. SFGate.

Tech Universe: Thursday 27 March 2014

  • A VOICE LIKE YOURS: Millions of people have severe speech impediments and may use a computer to speak for them. Those computer voices are notoriously robotic though and VocaliD would like to humanise them, with prosthetic voices created from a Human Voicebank Initiative. VocaliD first assess what the voice of the person they’re helping might be like, based on sounds they can produce. A voice might be high-pitched, raspy or breathy, for example. Then they record several thousand sample sentences from a donor who is similar in age and the same sex. Finally they use software to blend the surrogate’s voice with the recipient’s, stripping it down into tiny components that make up speech. It’s a time-consuming process that the team hope to speed up by having donors record their voices with an iPhone app. That’s one time when you really can speak for someone else. New Scientist.
  • EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE: Every time we exhale our breath contains trace amounts of gases that can be used in health diagnostics — acetone may indicate diabetes, while methane provides clues about the health of our intestines. Toshiba’s working on a prototype compact breath analyser that irradiates exhalations with an infrared laser. The resulting absorption spectrum is currently able to reveal acetaldehyde, methane and acetone in the breath, but the developers aim to extend to other gases too. One day perhaps the forensic experts will be able to identify folks by their breath prints. Toshiba.
  • ONE DROP AT A TIME: A lancet gathers a drop of blood while test strips assess your blood sugar level. The Dario personalised diabetes assistant includes a glucose meter that plugs directly into a smartphone or tablet. An app includes a database of foods and favourite meals, tracks insulin and exercise, and lets you record and analyse blood glucose readings. Data is stored online and you can send reports to your doctor. If you have to prick your finger anyway, having an automated recording system could only be useful. LabStyle Innovations.
  • GO ON THE RED: That blob of strange goo on your carton of milk may not be something to wipe off, but instead an indicator of whether the milk’s gone bad or not. Researchers in China developed low cost time-temperature indicators made of tiny silver and gold nanorods and other chemicals, including chloride and vitamin C, that track a product’s exposure to extreme temperatures and the amount of time at that temperature. The tag starts out red, indicating that the food is fresh, then cycles through orange, yellow and green as the food loses freshness. Bright green means the product is spoiled. Red shows good while green shows bad: that won’t confuse anyone at all. Business Insider Australia.
  • FOREVER BLUE: Is that coat of paint looking a bit faded? Paints and dyes usually absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect the remainder. The absorbed energy gradually changes the material, causing the molecules to deteriorate, so fading occurs. Structural colour though is created when an object’s nanostructure amplifies a specific wavelength, as is the case with the feathers of the spangled cotinga bird. Researchers at Harvard aim to create materials that would never fade by using tuneable capsules whose average distance between particles determines their colour. Such materials could be used in displays that create pixels with coloured particles, or in paints and dyes. That could be specially handy for warning signs. Harvard.

Tech Universe: Friday 28 March 2014

    Moon detail.

    Moon detail.

  • A FROTH OF TREES: Expandable foam is a good insulator to help keep your house warm, but it’s based on petrochemical plastics. Now the Fraunhofer Institute have found a way to create foam from wood particles. First they grind wood very finely until it’s a slimy mass. Next they add gas to create a frothy foam that is then hardened, with or without added chemicals. The wood foam makes a lightweight base material that can then be made into rigid foam boards and flexible foam mats. Tests on the foam showed it did well on thermo-insulating, moisture-related and mechanical properties. Now the researchers are experimenting with different types of wood to discover which tree species make the best basis for their product, and sorting out how best to mass produce it. The other good news is that wood foam could perhaps replace polystyrene for some packaging products. How is it in the fire hazard area though? Fraunhofer Institute.
  • A SICKLY COLOUR: Colorimetric tests are widely used for medical monitoring, drug testing and environmental analysis. They’re fairly simple: small strips produce colour change in a solution. The intensity of the colour reflects the concentration of that solution. But the problems start there, with accurately assessing the colour. That’s where Colorimetrix, an app developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, comes in. The user takes a sample of urine, saliva or other bodily fluid and applies it to a colour strip. Then they use an app on their phone to take a photo of the result. The app analyses the colours of the test, compares them with a pre-recorded calibration, and displays a numerical result. The result can then be stored, sent to a healthcare professional, or directly analysed by the phone for diagnosis. The app is available at the moment only for research, and is being further developed. And how does the ambient light affect things? University of Cambridge.
  • KEEP YOUR BOTTLE: If you like or need to carry water with you the Öko Odyssey configurable bottle might be of interest. The standard carbon based filter handles chlorine and odour in tap water, or slot in the Level-2 filter to take out bacteria such as giardia lamblia, cryptosporidium and other seriously harmful contaminants. At the bottom of the bottle is a 220 ml container for food which doubles as a drinking cup or a storage container. Or replace that with a flashlight adapter. Reverse the flashlight to turn the bottle full of water into a lantern. What’s the betting you always need the flashlight if you brought the food storage container? ÖKO.
  • BIG DATA: The GMAX3005 is a massively high resolution 150 megapixel CMOS image sensor from China, designed for medical and industrial applications. The sensor can run at 10 frames per second at full frame or at higher frame rates in row-windowing mode. The wafer-scale sensor has a 167.6 mm x 30.1 mm chip size including a 165 mm x 27.5 mm photon-sensitive area. Long exposures are possible without active cooling, making the sensor suitable for high end industrial work. That’s not a chip for your point and shoot. Business Wire.
  • MOON ONLINE: NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has spent the last 5 years mapping the surface of the Moon with 2 Narrow Angle Cameras and a Wide Angle Camera. Out of that comes imagery of most of the Moon with a pixel scale of 2 metres. NASA now have the LROC Northern Polar Mosaic image online, with 867 billion total pixels, of which 681 billion pixels have image data. Some 10,581 images were used to cover around 2.5 million square kilometres of Moon surface. To download the whole lot you’d need to set aside almost a terabyte of space, but images are optimised so that only a few tens of kilobytes are needed to see any given location at full resolution using the web view. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.