04 to 08 August 2014 Tech Universe Digest (final digest)

Note: unfortunately these are the last Tech Universe columns, as the Herald Online has decided to restructure its Tech pages. It’s been fun to do, but after 4 years it is also time to stop. Thanks so much for reading.

Tech Universe Favourites: Monday 04 August 2014

Full face snorkel.

Full face snorkel.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • HANDS MAKE WORK FOR THE IDLE: Some people and institutions have 3D printers that lie idle for much of the time. Meanwhile some people need a hand — literally, because they were born without a hand or an accident has lost them their hand. The Robohand project aims to match up these two groups to allow people to get a prosthetic hand for thousands of dollars less than it would normally cost. Free designs are published on Thingiverse and candidates are assessed by the organisation before prints are made using materials like medical Orthoplastic and stainless steel. Brilliant! GigaOm.
  • 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.
  • PILL POST: Some people have to take numerous prescriptions at specific times. Managing all the pills can be a difficult chore. The PillPack service in the US takes most of the work out of it. Send the prescriptions to the online pharmacy and they return labelled sealed packets of combinations of pills, dated and timestamped. All you have to do then is open a packet at the time it shows and take the contents. The service manages refills and ships out the packages every 2 weeks. That’s good thinking. PillPack.

Tech Universe Favourites: Tuesday 05 August 2014

  • EASY AS ONE TWO: When people are prescribed opioids it can be too easy to accidentally overdose, especially if they’re using other prescription medicines too. In case of an overdose an injection of naloxone hydrochloride can save their life. But such injections are tricky to administer and probably require a trip to a medical centre or hospital. Evzio is a handheld device that can be prescribed alongside the opioid and that anyone can use to deliver the lifesaving injection, following either written or verbal instructions. A user removes a safety guard then presses the gadget against the thigh for 5 seconds. The Evzio delivers the injection and also advises calling for qualified medical help. Almost anyone should be able to remove a safety guard and press. Evzio.
  • STICKY SOLUTION: If you earn less than $2 per day you’re hardly likely to own a computer, and that’s a reality of life for millions of people around the world. Keepod though aim to bring computers to some of the poorest, including the half million people in the slums of Nairobi. Keepod is a USB flash drive that includes a unique desktop version of Google’s Android 4.4 operating system. The idea is that the drive can be plugged into old PCs without hard drives to boot the computer and as a place for saving files. It also keeps settings, passwords and browser history. That means that schools could use old PCs without the problems associated with multiple users. Keepod aim to extend the plan to India, Israel, southern Italy, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a slick solution to a big problem. BBC.
  • 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.
  • HEART IN HAND: When one surgeon in the US faced a particularly tricky operation on the heart of a 12 month old child he discussed the case with colleagues who gave him conflicting advice. The next step then was to create a 3D printed model of the child’s heart, in 3 sections, and at twice the size. With the heart in hand, the surgeon could see what he had to do. The model was built using additive printing with a flexible polymer called Ninja Flex that is similar in feel to that of the heart. The replica took around 20 hours to print. What a difference a day makes. Courier-Journal.
  • CUTTING EDGE: Surgeons removing cancerous tumours must cut carefully to remove cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. Even with high-powered magnifiers it’s hard to spot cancer cells. Special glasses from Washington University will make it easier. The glasses use video, a head-mounted display and a targeted molecular agent that attaches to cancer cells, making them glow when viewed with the glasses. Tumours as small as 1 mm in diameter can be spotted with the aid of the glasses. That’s a great boost to precision and accuracy. Washington University. Video: <>

Tech Universe Favourites: Wednesday 06 August 2014

  • THIS IS NOT A DRILL: Don’t care for the dentist’s drill? It may not be long before your dentist puts away the drill. A tooth develops decay when minerals leach out through a microscopic defect, undermining the enamel and possibly leading to a physical cavity. At the moment dentists drill out the decay and fill the tooth with amalgam or composite resin. The new technique uses a tiny electric current to speed up the re-entry of calcium and phosphate minerals into the tooth to repair a defect — that’s the way nature would do it, but more slowly. The technique doesn’t need a drill or an injection and the tiny electric current can’t even be felt by the patient. And presumably your face isn’t numb for hours afterwards either. King’s College London.
  • A CHEAP LOOK: What could you do with an expensive microscope? Identify giardia or malaria perhaps? All you really need is a correctly folded sheet of paper with a tiny lens, an LED and a watch battery, at a total cost of $1. Scientists from Stanford have devised such a microscope that can be easily printed on a sheet of card, then cut out and folded. It can magnify up to 2,000X, enough to see the parasites that cause malaria and other diseases. With certain coloured LEDs it can see specific proteins or other biomolecules labeled with fluorescent dyes. You don’t even need a glass slide for samples, as sticky tape will do the job. At $1 per microscope it could become possible for a billion people or more to be tested each year. This could create the opportunity to actually wipe out malaria. Wired.
  • AWAKE AT THE WHEEL: A car driver may grow drowsy and risk being involved in an accident. Researchers have tried various methods of detecting that drowsiness, including watching eye movements or establishing that a car is drifting out of its lane. Now researchers at Washington State University have developed a system that analyses the movements of the steering wheel to detect driver drowsiness. Data analysis from simulations showed that variability in steering wheel movements and variability in lane position best predict driver fatigue, and that steering wheel variability predicts lane drift. A low cost and easily installed sensor can check for steering wheel variability and could be installed during the manufacture of the car or as an after-market accessory. Sometimes solutions are simpler than we think. Washington State University.
  • WHEELS OF FUN: Using a wheelchair shouldn’t stop you from enjoying off-road adventures, so the three wheeled Horizon all-terrain electric bike could come in very useful. The bike has two wheels on the front, and an electric motor driven by a lithium battery on the rear wheel. The bike can take foot or hand pedals or a footrest and be controlled by various means, such as tri-pin controls for those with limited use of their hands. Handlebars fold down and the seat can be raised for easy entry and exit, while the low centre of gravity makes balance easy. The Horizon can run on the road, grass, gravel and mud, but isn’t designed for use indoors. That looks like a whole lot of fun. Horizon.
  • WHEELS UP: So you’re a wheelchair user who drives a car. That involves a lot of messing about transferring to and from the car, folding and unfolding the chair, stowing the chair and so on. Kenguru takes a different approach: you stay in your chair. The car has a single large rear door, operated by remote, that lifts up, and a ramp that drops down to allow the wheelchair to enter. The single-person electric car has a top speed of 40 Kph, a range of 96 Km and takes 8 hours to fully recharge. The steering wheel comes in the form of a handlebar or joystick, while large windows provide great visibility. A simple, clever idea that could transform lives. Kenguru.

Tech Universe Favourites: Thursday 07 August 2014

  • CUP IN HAND: Whether you have the shakes or are on a picnic, having a stable cup that’s easy to hold yet hard to knock over and spill is a bonus. The Kangaroo Cup fits the profile. Its 11 year old inventor wanted to help her grandfather whose Parkinson’s Disease meant he often spilled his drinks. She started out with mouldable prototyping plastic and iterated through several designs to come up with one that worked. Three legs that function as handles make for a stable cup, even on uneven surfaces, and also elevate the part that holds the liquid so it doesn’t touch the table. That means no coaster or saucer is needed. After experimenting with ceramics, the cups are now made from BPA-free plastic, and are safe for dishwasher and microwave. These could be a huge asset in childcare facilities, rest homes, hospitals and for a day at the beach. Kangaroo Cup.
  • A SEPARATE ANSWER: Unless you remember to carry your keeper cup with you all the time if you stop to buy a coffee from a roadside vendor you’ll end up throwing away the laminated paper cup it comes in. The plastic keeps the drink warm and stops the liquid from soaking through the paper but because it’s bonded to the paper the cup can’t be recycled. In the UK more than 2.5 billion such paper cups end up in landfill each year. The Green Your Cup though instead lightly glues a thin plastic liner into a recyclable paper cup. The two elements easily come apart during recycling, yet as far as the person drinking the coffee is concerned the cup looks, feels and tastes the same. There’s a neat solution to something that shouldn’t be a problem. Green Your Cup Video:
  • THE WHEEL OF TRASH: Rubbish gets carried out to harbours by storm water. In Baltimore though they’re intercepting that trash before it can get loose in the harbour, thanks to a Solar Powered Water Wheel Trash Interceptor. The water wheel includes a floating dumpster and a trash-loading conveyor system powered by water current and solar power. A floating boom funnels debris, such as logs, bottles, tires, takeaway cups and whatever else comes along to the front of the conveyor where it is scooped up by the conveyor belt before it falls into the dumpster barge. In the wheel’s first 3 months of operation it collected around 59,000 Kg of debris. That’s a great use for a wheel that could be copied by a great many places with harbours. Gizmodo.
  • SENSIBLE TRIGGERS: Sentinl’s Identilock can be attached to any gun to cover the trigger and prevent firing. Press a finger on the fingerprint reader though and if it’s a registered print, the guard detaches so the gun can be fired. Multiple fingerprints can be stored, and if necessary the lock can be overridden with a key. The idea of the device is to help avoid accidental shootings, for example if a child picks up the gun, while allowing an owner quick access in an emergency. And no wearing gloves while firing the gun either. Sentinl.
  • ON THE CARDS: Press a special smartcard against someone’s skin so it picks up some sweat. Then feed the card into a portable reader and find out in moments if that person has been using cocaine. That’s one of the things the European LABONFOIL can do. The diagnostic system uses a portable device that reads smart cards and skin patches then sends results via WiFi to a remote computer, a tablet or smartphone. The system can already detect cocaine consumption, monitor colon cancer, identify bacteria in food and analyse environmental contamination, though other tests are planned. To identify colon cancer the card needs a few drops of blood to identify a specific protein. Each card includes a sophisticated electronic circuit and different chemical components that react to defined substances. Cordis.
  • WALK THIS WAY: The inspiration behind the Lechal shoe was to help blind people navigate. The production version though helps everyone navigate the streets. A custom insole takes a rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery in the heel and communicates via Bluetooth with a smartphone. Set a destination on the phone, then the insole vibrates to indicate the direction to choose. The app and insoles can also count steps and track calories, point out tourist sites and alert you if you’ve left your phone behind. Excuse me, your shoes are buzzing. Lechal.

Tech Universe Favourites: Friday, 8 August 2014

  • BLOWING IN THE WIND: Liam seems like a perfectly good name for an almost silent wind turbine you could have at home. Its yearly output averages between 300 and 2500 kilowatts, depending on wind speed and roof height. The turbine itself weighs only 55 Kg and has a diameter of 1.5 metres, though a miniature version is also available with a diameter of 75 cm. Liam produces only around 45 decibels of sound, or around the same level as rain. The spiral shape of the blades draws wind into the turbine, so others can be placed nearby without being affected. It seems like every home could have one. Inhabitat.
  • PRESS ONE FOR RESUSCITATION: If you had to perform CPR to save a life would you know how to do it? Just watching a few TV shows probably won’t equip you to carry it out correctly and without harming the person needing help. The Cardio First Angel doesn’t need batteries or power to help you perform CPR correctly. It’s a large padded button you place on the patient’s chest. The design and shape of the device help ensure it’s correctly positioned. Press the button to perform compressions. The button clicks when you press hard enough and clicks twice when your timing is right, at 80 to120 compressions per minute. That’s one for the office first aid kit. Cardio First Angel.
  • BIONICS FUN: The Paralympics and the Olympics are well known sporting events, and maybe in time the Cybathlon, an Olympics for bionic athletes, will be too. The games are to take place in Switzerland in October 2016. Events will include races between avatars of folks paralysed from the neck down using a brain interface for control, and races for competitors wearing prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons. One aim of the games is to push development of assistive technologies towards devices that people can really use in everyday life. The games will also allow people to compete who have never had the opportunity before, as even the Paralympics excludes some technology. An element of fun can push many things along. BBC.
  • BLOOD LOSS: Getting a blood test is no fun, especially as you watch several vials filling up with the stuff. The Theranos system though needs only a single drop of blood, even for hundreds of tests, from standard cholesterol checks to sophisticated genetic analyses. Because the process is automated the results are also faster, more accurate, and cheaper than current tests. Results can be available after 4 hours, even for tests like viruses where traditionally a culture would take several days. This system instead quickly measures the DNA of the pathogen. Wired. Video:
  • 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.