What’s new? Blow Up Space Pods; Far Side Of The Sun; Roboshuffle; Dumb Robot; Learn Robot Learn. Invisible Computers; Public Tweet Is Public; Cactus Phone; Rugged Good Looks; Very Touching. 3 Wheel Drive; Air Drive; Bumpy Drive; Efficiency Drive; Drive You Crazy. Snow Float; DIY Ultrasound; Simple Phone; World Wide Where; Fizzy Fuel. Uniscooter; Slippery As A Plane; Woven Car; Warning Breath; Creative Cap.
Tech Universe: Monday 14 February 2011
- BLOW UP SPACE PODS: Bigelow Aerospace plans to mass produce inflatable habitats for orbit and lease out space on them to nations, businesses and researchers. They hope to base a commercial spaceport in Florida. Bigelow expect to launch the first operational outpost in orbit in 2015 and launch 25 missions per year. With strict rules, I hope, about leaving nothing behind but footprints.
- FAR SIDE OF THE SUN: NASA’s two STEREO probes orbit the sun in the same path as the Earth. When they lined up on opposite sides of the sun recently they captured the first ever panoramic view showing the whole star at once. Coronal Mass Ejections from the sun can disrupt satellite-based technology such as GPS and even the power supply, but if they form on the side we can’t see we have little warning. The STEREO probes will give up to 2 days warning of possible disruptions. Not that we can actually do anything, but it’s nice to know trouble’s on its way.
- ROBOSHUFFLE: CHARLI ‘s walk looks more like dancing. This humanoid robot stands 1.4 metres tall, weighs 12 Kg and walks at around 300 millimetres per second, or about 1 Kilometre per hour. CHARLI’s the creation of a team of students at Virginia Tech, and will play soccer in this year’s RoboCup. I’m waiting for Dance with the Robots.
- DUMB ROBOT: Not all of the US troops in Afghanistan are human, and we’re not talking about the dogs. According to a US Marine Corps handler there are also more than 2,000 ground robots. They roll, they crawl but they’re a bit dumb. Some robots defuse or detect mines, while others inspect vehicles and still others carry out classified missions. But they all need close supervision, especially to handle unexpected obstacles. So maybe they need RoboEarth…
- LEARN ROBOT LEARN: So how about letting robots learn from their peers? European scientists and engineers designed RoboEarth. It’s a “World Wide Web for robots”, collecting, collating and sharing information so robots can learn from one another. The system collects, stores and shares data for recognising objects, navigation, and tasks. It’s kind of a WikiRobot, really.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 15 February 2011
- INVISIBLE COMPUTERS: Back in the 1940s computers were people, not machines. They were people who computed, did maths, often working out weapons trajectories that were sent along to soldiers in the field. “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II” is a documentary about the thousands of women computers who filled those crucial roles. Some of the women went on to program such giants as the 30 ton ENIAC with its 18,000 vacuum tubes. The shame is, the women are still largely invisible in computing.
- PUBLIC TWEET IS PUBLIC: Fancy that! Something you’ve said on the Internet for all the world to see isn’t private. The UK Press Complaints Commission has ruled that one user’s tweets, republished in a couple of daily newspapers, were publicly accessible. The complainant didn’t take any steps to tweet anonymously or restrict her messages. They denied that the user’s privacy had been invaded. This puts me in mind of those warnings that tell you a hot coffee is hot.
- CACTUS PHONE: Robert Voit is aGerman who photographs “New Trees” — fake trees, cacti and other plants that disguise cell towers. The first such fake trees appeared in the 1990s, sometimes to create a more pleasant environment, and sometimes to hide the towers from vandals. His book comes out soon. Are you sure that really tall tree down the road is real? Take another look.
- RUGGED GOOD LOOKS: The Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS point and shoot camera is the one to take climbing, white water rafting or on any other outdoor adventure. It’s shockproof and rugged enough to withstand a drop of a couple of metres. It’s waterproof to 11 metres, and crushproof too. Heat, cold and dust don’t bother it. It has a 14 megapixel sensor and an HDMI port for showing off your photos and videos. GPS helps prove you really did climb that rockface. It sounds as though it should be in the TV soaps or a Mills and Boon.
- VERY TOUCHING: There’s a touchscreen at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands that’s big enough for several people to work on at once. It can detect up to 100 simultaneous touch inputs. The 10 metre wide transparent screen has a curvature of 135 degrees and is 2.8 metres high. It looks like all play and no work, judging by the video.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 16 February 2011
- 3 WHEEL DRIVE: Paved footpaths, wide doorways and ready access to spare parts — in some parts of the world wheelchair users take these for granted. In other countries though, such as India and Uganda, cost and rough ground are huge barriers. The Leveraged Freedom Chair from MIT can be cheaply manufactured and repaired by bike shops. A third wheel at the front lends stability, while tall levers allow the user to ‘change gears’ and choose between speed and torque. A swept up version for rich countries will help pay for chairs in developing countries. It may not do front flips, but see how it handles off-road.
- AIR DRIVE: City driving: you speed up, you brake, you speed up, you brake. How about taking the kinetic energy from braking to compress air and then using that compressed air to power the car? Lund University in Sweden is experimenting with air hybrid engines. They claim fuel consumption of city buses could be reduced by as much as 60%. That could work specially well in Wellington.
- BUMPY DRIVE: Many smartphones contain both an accelerometer and a GPS receiver. If the smartphone’s resting on a car’s dashboard the accelerometer can detect that the car’s gone over a bump, such as a pothole. The city of Boston suffers from some 19,000 potholes each year, at a cost of about $2 million. Now they’re working on a smartphone app called Street Bump that can detect and automatically report potholes. Faster detection could mean faster repairs. Remember to quit the app before horse-riding or other ‘bumpy’ activities.
- EFFICIENCY DRIVE: The Cray XT5 Jaguar is a 1.75 petaflop supercomputer (peaking at 2.3 petaflops), only recently beaten out as world’s fastest. When it was used to model air flows around semi trucks some areas for significant fuel and cost savings showed up. By adding special wind deflectors trucks in the US could reduce their fuel bills by about $5 billion and reduce CO2 by 16.4 million tons per year. Better for prices, better for the planet.
- DRIVE YOU CRAZY: In 2010 most computers in the European Union had security software installed, but even so almost one third still caught a computer virus. Bulgarians were worst affected with 58% of people reporting their PC had caught a virus. The good news is that only 3% of European users reported losing money to phishing attacks or fraudulent payments. Update, update, update.
Tech Universe: Thursday 17 February 2011
- SNOW FLOAT: 246.5 metres is the distance a Norwegian ski flier achieved recently after hurtling down the world’s longest ski jump. He broke world records doing it. The Vikersundbakke ski flying hill, in southern Norway, is 135 metres tall, 225 metres long and breaks records itself. Jumpers take off at a 38 degree angle and achieve speeds of around 105 Kph on the downward run. It seems a more straightforward sport than ski jumping.
- DIY ULTRASOUND: Time for an ultrasound? Well, get the gear ready: wand, gel, smartphone. Mobisante’s MobiUS ultrasound imaging system is low cost and portable. A wand captures the images and transmits them to a Windows Mobile cellphone that can send them on via WiFi or 3G. All that’s needed now are the hashtags and Flickr sets.
- SIMPLE PHONE: A new device from Softbank takes the cellphone idea and simplifies it down to essentials. The handset has a single button to call a programmed number. The call is followed automatically by an email with a GPS location. “Uh oh, granddad’s gone walkabout again.”
- WORLD WIDE WHERE: That GPS we’re relying on now? It was only on 14 February 1989 that the first satellite in the Global Positioning System was sent into orbit. Since 1993 GPS has been available for the general public to use. That’s about the same time the Web got underway. It’s taken a surprisingly long time really to mesh the two together — almost 20 years.
- FIZZY FUEL: Flat lemonade and stale beer don’t usually top any list of useful products. In New Brunswick, Canada, though a new pilot processing plant is opening. It will take waste fizzy drinks and beer, usually poured into landfill, and convert them into nearly 200,000 litres of ethanol fuel. That’s yet another opportunity to mine ‘waste’.
Tech Universe: Friday 18 February 2011
- UNISCOOTER: The 9Kg electric Solowheel isn’t exactly a unicycle, though it sort of is. It’s a single wheel with footpegs, but no seat. Step on, push off and let the self-balancing gyroscopes and 1000 Watt motor take you down the road. Or footpath. A rechargeable Lithium-ion battery keeps you going. It all looks a bit precarious to me.
- SLIPPERY AS A PLANE: EasyJet has found a way to polish its planes so they suffer less friction and drag. That saves fuel and reduces CO2. The secret ingredient is tripleO, a nanotech polymer that cross links and bonds with the surface materials to create a perfectly smooth finish. TripleO can also be applied to cars and other vehicles. I imagine Olympic competitors will be looking closely at how it can help them too.
- WOVEN CAR: The limited edition Lexus LFA is made from carbon fibre and plastic. It’s slow to come off the assembly line — they produce one car per day. But it’s how the car’s made that’s noteworthy. A circular loom, guided by lasers weaves carbon fibres into 3D parts that are later moulded and injected with resin. The woven materials are light and strong. Thank heaven they’re woven and not knitted. That just wouldn’t sound as impressive.
- WARNING BREATH: A new handheld breath sensor from Siemens uses a potassium permanganate catalyst to measure levels of nitrogen monoxide. An increase could indicate inflamed bronchial tubes and perhaps the onset of an asthma attack. Sufferers could have up to 24 hours warning of an imminent attack — enough time to take preventative medication. Every bit of extra warning helps save lives.
- CREATIVE CAP: Australian researchers have found that stimulating the scalp can help with lateral thinking. Their ‘thinking cap’ applies low-level electrical pulses for 10 to 15 minutes to the anterior temporal lobes. Test subjects were 3 times as likely to solve complex problems in new ways while wearing the cap and for up to an hour afterwards. This has to be essential office equipment.
Notes: I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Above are the links from last week.
While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.