23 to 27 June 2014 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 23 June 2014

The pants say ow.

The pants say ow.

  • OUT OF THE BOX: There’s no getting away from rectangular displays. Or is there? Sharp’s new Free-Form Displays can take any shape that’s required. At the moment the bezel around the perimeter of a display contains a drive circuit. The new display disperses that drive circuit throughout the pixels on the display area, so the bezel need not be as thick. And with that comes the possibility of making the displays in almost any shape. That could mean a car dash with all instruments in one single display, interesting wearable devices with elliptical displays, or signage and large monitors that fit closely into whatever space is available. There’s actual out of the box design. Sharp.
  • QUICK CHARGE: Buses and bus stops go together, which means a quick charge at every stop is perfect for electric buses. The Swiss have just completed a successful pilot of the system, with buses powering up in only 15 seconds at specific stops and at the terminus station. Now the challenge is to make it work in real life. One immediate problem is if two buses arrive at a stop at the same time. Researchers developed algorithms that account for 56 variables in determining the most cost-effective and efficient system for powering buses, including factors such as pay for drivers, weather conditions and numbers of passengers. At 15 seconds for a charge the buses shouldn’t have to wait long in a queue. EPFL.
  • BEAM IN THE EYE: Put a laser on one side of the road and a mirror on the other then shine the beam through passing cars. The reflected light can be analysed and detect whether someone in the car has been drinking alcohol. There are some problems, of course: the beam can’t indicate whether it was the driver or passengers who have been drinking, or even if a bottle has spilled. What’s more air conditioning and open windows can throw the detector off. There’s probably also the problem of making sure the driver doesn’t look into the beam by accident. Popular Science.
  • BREATHE EASY: Oftentimes a heart rate monitor is something you strap around your chest while running, but would you really want to wear it while sleeping? MIT’s breath and heart rate monitor does its work wirelessly and even through walls. Their system can track the rise and fall of a person’s chest and determine their heart rate with 99% accuracy. This could be useful for baby monitors, health tracking and for the military and law enforcement. The system is even capable of tracking up to 4 people at once, which could prove invaluable for those engaged in search and rescue. The system transmits a low-power wireless signal then uses its reflections to track moving humans, even if they’re in closed rooms or hiding behind a wall. Part of the system filters out irrelevant reflections. Since strong emotions affect both heart rate and breathing, the researchers hope to eventually be able to detect emotions too. Surely that system could also be applied to wildlife monitoring. MIT.
  • GOOD VIBRATIONS: As you live and breathe your body vibrates with sounds: from the beating of the heart to the breath in your lungs and the chewing of your food. The BodyBeat system from Cornell University is a microphone that straps to your neck and feeds data to a smartphone. The vibrations from a person’s skin and bone are transmitted wirelessly to software that determines whether a heartbeat is irregular, for example. Such software could also monitor coughing or abdominal sounds. The team are working on making the device smaller and perhaps pairing it with Google Glass. Well, that’s breathing all monitored every which way then. New Scientist.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 24 June 2014

  • THE PANTS SAY OW: Some sports inflict hits and blows in the course of play. Paralysed sportspeople may not be aware of their injuries though. That’s where Bruise Trousers come in. Developed by students at Imperial College London, the light-fitting, breathable, high-waisted Lycra trousers contain a pressure-reactive film. When the film is struck a magenta stain appears. The stronger the impact, the deeper the colour. The students also developed a chart that matches colour to the severity of impacts so wearers of the trousers can gauge whether they need medical assistance. The students hope to develop a complete bruise suit to cater for sports where impacts may occur on other parts of the body. Those trousers must need very careful packing and transport. Imperial College London.
  • CAP THAT: When someone has a stroke they risk brain damage, but speedy action can prevent that. That action depends though on whether the stroke was caused by a leaky blood vessel or one blocked by a clot. Usually a CT scan can show which kind it is, but scanners aren’t always readily available. Now Swedish researchers plan to microwave the brain to determine the cause. They aren’t the same microwaves that cook your food though, or at least, they are nowhere near as powerful. The researchers have developed a prototype cap for use in ambulances that bounces very weak microwaves off the brain. Tests have already found it useful, though not 100% accurate. The team hope that eventually the diagnostic tool could take the form of a pillow rather than a cap. BBC.
  • YARN IN CHARGE: A piece of yarn at Fudan University can be repeatedly stretched to more than 3 times its own length. The yarn is special though. It’s made by winding two carbon nanotubes and lithium oxide composites onto an elastomer substrate and covering the whole with a layer of gel electrolyte. That creates positive and negative electrodes, forming a Lithium ion battery. The stretchable fibre-shaped batteries can then be woven into clothing that can adapt to the body’s movement. Now charge the clothing with kinetic energy from walking and other activity and your phone need never run out of juice. Scientific American.
  • THREE FOLD FUN: The 12 Kg Trikelet will take you to the station or bus stop and then fold small enough to fit in a luggage rack. The electric powered push-type scooter has a range of 15 Km and can travel at up to 20 Kph. With two wheels at the back and one on the front it even has room for a shopping bag or briefcase on the platform. Don’t worry if it’s raining and the wheels get wet: they fold to the inside to contain dirt and water. If you don’t feel like folding it up while not riding it you can just pull it along behind you like a wheeled bag. At the right price that could be a real winner. Trikelet.
  • TAKE 2: It takes 2 minutes to erect the Compact Shelter, and another two to take it down again. Designed for emergencies and disasters, the shelter is made from UV stabilised polypropylene and weighs only 16 Kg. The 2 metre cube packs flat for transport or storage and can shelter two adults and 2 children, though individual units can be joined together to create larger dwellings or two separate rooms. Air vents allow for cool air to enter at floor level and be expelled via the ridge line. At end of life the shelter can even be fully recycled. Grab one as an instant garden shed even. Gizmag.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 25 June 2014

  • OUT FOR THE COUNT: Chicago want to make the city a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live, and are using sensors that measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind to do it. The overall research aim is to discover how modern cities function. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices, but without recording details of those devices. The secure boxes will be installed on light poles on one major street to start with and then gradually installed in numerous other locations around the city. The sensors are connected to power and Internet, and the data could later be made available to other researchers. Because the devices are installed on city property the city has the final say on what data can be collected though and how that data can be used, as a way of protecting privacy. If it improves city planning that’s good, but you have to wonder what business and industry might do with the data. Chicago Tribune.
  • WHAT WASTE?: One of the problems with nuclear reactors is what to do with their spent fuel waste products. Transatomic Power want to use those products as the energy source for a molten salt reactor. This type of reactor uses fuel dissolved in a liquid salt at around 650C instead of the solid fuel rods found in conventional reactors. The reactor would also stop itself, solidifying the salts, if the power failed or if no operators were actively running it. Currently the team are finding funding to prove the technology works through lab experiments. Their next step would then be to build a 5-megawatt demonstration plant at a U.S. national lab site, followed by making the process commercial. That would certainly be a useful way to dispose of currently problematic waste. IEEE Spectrum.
  • DOWN TOOLS: Cordless power tools are very useful, but you still have to remember to plug in and charge up or swap out the battery. Bosch are introducing an 18V induction charging system so all you’ll have to do is rest the tool on the charger when you put it down. The inductive charger won’t have contact points so is durable against the water, dust and dirt that abound on any building site. The lithium-ion batteries stay in the tool so there’s no messing about with removing them or swapping them. Smart software in the charger will adapt the charge to the state of the battery, ensuring that the battery is always optimally charged in every temperature range and has a long lifespan. A frame to hold the charger can be mounted on workbenches, shelves or other work surfaces. Still, wireless power without a specific charger must remain a goal. Bosch.
  • HOT TIN ROOF: Perhaps you use sunshine to generate electricity, or to heat water or a building? Australian manufacturer Bluescope has created steel sheet roofing that combines thin-film solar PV and solar thermal technologies to generate both electricity and heat. The top layer generates electricity in the same way as solar PV modules while heat is trapped and distributed between layers for use in water and space heating. So far the products are only prototypes as the company wants to better understand supply chains and manufacturing costs before launching the system onto the market. Not having to choose between heat and power would be very helpful. Renew Economy.
  • DEGRADING IDEAS: Roads degrade over time, but that degradation takes place even before we can see cracks and other problems. The Federal Highway Administration in the US is testing out tiny sensors that can report their data wirelessly, giving a clear picture of how a road is doing. The sensors can be dropped into the concrete as the road is poured. The next problem is how to power the sensors though. The answer to that comes from the very traffic that wears the road out in the first place: using piezoelectric sensors that accumulate electric charge with mechanical stress, for example from vibrations in the road. That’s powerful thinking. Gizmodo.

Tech Universe: Thursday 26 June 2014

  • SHAPED VIEW: Smart glasses could help people with very limited vision. Researchers at Oxford University are developing glasses that overlay images of nearby objects on the see-through lenses. The idea is to enhance any vision the wearer already has. The glasses include a camera that feeds data to a small processing unit and software that sends images back to the glasses. The software interprets nearby surroundings and overlays shapes of items such as kerbs, tables and chairs, or groups of people on what the wearer can already see. Further development may include facial, object or text recognition, with audio supplied to an earpiece. This suggests interesting possibilities for specialised driving glasses. Oxford University.
  • FAMILIAR FACES: Rare genetic diseases may affect around 6% of the population, but they can be tricky to diagnose. There are genetic tests for some, such as Down’s syndrome, but many haven’t yet been traced back to gene variants. Facial features can often provide a clue though, provided you know what to look for, which most doctors don’t. That’s where facial recognition software can come in. Researchers in the UK have developed software that scans full-frontal facial photos captured with a cellphone or other camera. The software analyses the picture and produces a description of the face which it then compares to a database of faces of people with known disorders. Ultimately it produces a ranking of possible disorders to investigate. The software recognises 90 disorders and tests have shown it to be around 93% accurate. The software could be very useful as a first step in a diagnostic process, especially in countries where genetic screening isn’t available. That’s smart: a doctor shouldn’t have to know things software could do better, such as matching faces to a database. New Scientist.
  • A NEW SORT OF THINGS: Do you really care about the most efficient way to sort a large number of things? You might if that sorting would detect a few tumour cells in a large quantity of biological fluid. Currently analysing samples takes hours or days, but a new inertio-elastic flow focusing sorting technique developed by MIT could mean test results at the bedside in real time. For example, a few litres of fluid drained from a patient’s lungs could contain millions of cells, including some from tumours. Locating those tumour cells could allow a physician to diagnose cancer. Researchers sent biological samples through the channels of a microfluidic device and found ways to adjust the flow so all the larger particles were concentrated at the centre. A high-speed, pulsed-laser imaging system took snapshots of the shapes, sizes, and orientations of the particles as they flew through the device. Ultimately a device like this could be useful in medicine, manufacturing or perhaps water purification. Finding something is always quicker of you know roughly where to look in the first place. MIT.
  • BUILDER BOTS: It’s already been demonstrated that a 3D printer can be used to build a house, but the problem is the printer needs to be bigger than the structure it’s creating. A team at the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia have developed Minibuilders: autonomous bots that divide up tasks to make the construction process cheaper and greener. The bots can work together to build structures of any size, and that don’t require support structures either. At the foundation level robots move in a track to squirt out material that hardens into the shell of the building. Then robots clamp on to the existing structure to build out more layers, frames for windows and doors, and ceilings. Finally vacuum robots add a reinforcing layer. The developers have demonstrated the process as a proof of concept, but now it will need to be scaled up and applied. Security and programming flaws could be the downfall of robot building. Gizmodo. Video:
  • ADDING TO SUBTRACT: Various industries, including those in transport, need materials that are light, stiff and strong. US scientists have created one such material through additive micro-manufacturing processes. Their micro-architected metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit mass density, even at ultralow density. That could make them useful in parts and components for aircraft, automobiles and space vehicles. The lightweight materials can withstand a load of at least 160,000 times their own weight because of their geometric layout at the microscale rather than their chemical composition. The team was able to build microlattices out of polymers, metals and ceramics. While others have created ultra-lightweight lattice materials before now, these are 100 times stiffer. Shaving weight off planes and other vehicles can translate to considerable fuel savings and reduced emissions. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Tech Universe: Friday 27 June 2014

  • FACE THE FACTS: Passwords and PIN numbers are a menace, but perhaps faces could work as a replacement. Researchers in the UK are developing a Facelock system which presents a user with a grid of faces. Users select the faces they know from the grid, having set them up previously. The system allows access based on correctly selected faces. The idea is users establish a set of faces that are well known to them, but are not well known to others. The faces could be from distant relatives perhaps or obscure athletes. Tests showed account holders were very successful at recognising the familiar faces, while unauthorised users were reduced to guessing and largely failing. Unfortunately those who knew the account holder well could guess better, at an unacceptably high 6.6% success rate. There are still many problems to iron out, but the system holds promise. As always though, it’ll be up to each individual to select wisely in the first place. io9.
  • STEAL A PERCH: Current commercial drones can’t fly very far before they have to recharge their batteries. Researchers at MIT though think that one solution to the charging problem is to teach the drones to perch on power lines and use their magnetic fields for a boost. The team’s single-motor glider has on-board sensors and electronics that automatically direct it to slow down, tip its wings, and hook onto a line, even in moderate wind conditions. The control system mimics the way pigeons can stall while flying in order to perch. Hmm, I wonder what the power companies think of that idea? MIT.
  • SHARED POWER: Maybe you can’t put solar panels on your roof, even though you’d like to benefit from solar power. In parts of the US community solar gardens are helping to solve that problem. The idea is that an array of solar panels is put up by a developer in a suitable place and anyone can buy in. In return they receive credit on their electricity bills for the power their panels produce. That definitely beats buying shares in a big power company. New York Times.
  • DEEP SCAN: X-rays are great at letting you see inside things, but the machines tend to be very large and unwieldy. Now the US Military has a handheld backscatter X-ray gun that can see through boxes, bags, car seats and airplane wings to reveal various organic compounds. In tests the gun revealed bricks of simulated cocaine, paper, ammonia and other potentially explosive materials, and even a handful of grapes. The Mini Z generates a continuous beam of X-rays then sends its data to a tablet for display. Organic compounds appear bright white while inorganic material remains dark. Because the device can be easily moved around it doesn’t need to be as powerful as stationary machines because the operator can quickly and easily scan an object from multiple angles. Defense One.
  • SQUEEZE FOR A LIFE: Soldiers and civilians in war zones may suffer pelvic fractures and high leg amputations from IEDs. Medics have only a few seconds to save a life but current tourniquets are of no use for these injuries. The SAM Junctional Tourniquet though is not only designed for those specific injuries but to help a shocked medic apply it correctly. Instructions on the tourniquet explain how to apply it. Pneumatic air bladders under the surface inflate to stanch bleeding but a shut-off valve prevents overinflation. A special buckle provides feedback so the medic knows when it’s correctly set. The tourniquet is light to carry, quick and easy to apply and is already saving lives on battlefields. Good design can be so much more than making something look good. Wired. Video: