Tech Universe: Monday 25 February 2013
- FULL TIME HANDYMAN: Soon one man in Rome will receive a prosthetic hand. That’s not so rare these days, but his new hand is different: it’ll be connected directly to nerves in his arm so he can both control it and receive touch signals from its skin sensors. All the fingertips, the palm and the wrist will send sensations into his nervous system. Only experience will show whether he can wear his new hand full time or will need to remove it for a rest. The sensitivity will need to be carefully tuned too. The Independent.
- FLIPPER FLAP: In Japan there’s at least one lucky Loggerhead Turtle. 25 year old Yu lost her front legs during a shark attack, but that doesn’t stop her swimming: now she wears rubber flippers attached to a vest. Workers at the Suma Aqualife Park, where Yu lives, have developed various versions of the prosthetics over the last 4 years, but using the vest seems to be the most successful. Kindness to animals is one of the best traits in humans. Phys.org.
- CHIPPING AWAY AT IMAGES: Your smartphone photos aren’t necessarily very smart, and improving them in software can suck up both battery and time. A chip developed by MIT is designed to improve photos in hardware, making the process both quicker and less energy intensive. For example, the chip could handle creating a high dynamic range photo by blending 3 exposures. Where software might take several seconds to perform the processing, the new chip could do it in a few hundred milliseconds. A working prototype of the chip already exists, but now the challenge is to get it into gadgets. More, bigger, better photos — of course we want it. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- SOAKING IN IT: Coal-fired power stations create a lot of carbon dioxide that is expensive and energy intensive to capture. Current methods use liquid capture materials that are then heated. A new material may make things easier and cheaper though. It’s a photosensitive metal organic framework that soaks up lots of CO2. A single gram of the material has a huge internal surface area — as big as a football field. Once the material has soaked up as much CO2 as it can hold it can be exposed to sunlight to release the gas. You have to wonder what other gases are produced that aren’t being captured. Monash University.
- PHOTON LOCK: Electricity grids are becoming more complex, as more sources of energy start contributing. That means that control messages must be sent around to ensure a smooth supply. But those messages must be both trustworthy and delivered without delays, and also secured from people with bad intent. The key to achieving this may be quantum cryptography which uses single photons to produce secure random numbers between users. The random numbers are then used for authentication and encryption. Demonstrations have shown that this technique can work quickly and effectively, and can be scaled up as needed. It’s all handled by a small device known as a QKarD. This is where light controls electricity, rather than the other way round. Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 26 February 2013
- DRIVEN TO DRINK: Billboards don’t need to simply be blots on the landscape. Lima, Peru is a place where it seldom rains, although humidity is usually around 98%. The University of Engineering and Technology created a billboard beside the highway that harvests moisture in the air to make fresh, drinkable water, available through taps at the base. The billboard is expected to generate some 96 litres of water every day for the community. It sounds like the kind of thing that should catch on quickly. Discovery News.
- CHARGE CHARGE: In the UK the government will cover up to 75% of the estimated £1,000 to £1,500 cost of installing charging points for electric vehicles in garages and driveways. They also have funding available for local councils and train operators to install publicly available charging points. That may help get electric vehicles moving. BBC.
- POWER POWER: Residents of Feldheim, Germany, decided to take their town off the grid ond go with 100% renewable energy instead. 47 wind turbines and an array of solar panels provide the power they need, though residents must carefully monitor and adjust their usage. Locally produced agricultural wastes help feed a biogas plant that runs heating systems, and helps reduce smells previously caused by the wastes. Residents now enjoy lower than average costs for electricity. Their next plan is to build storage facilities that can hold enough power to meet demand for 2 days. Ah, the power of collective action. TreeHugger.
- BETTER THAN A MIRROR: Stand in front of one store in Tokyo and move around. The mannequin in the window will mimic your movements. The MarionetteBot uses a Kinect to capture and analyse the movements of a person in front of it. Then a motor moves 16 wires to make the mannequin’s pose match. The mannequin was a hit with passers-by. How long did it take before passers-by tried rude gestures? Technabob.
- STRING THEORY: The Vo-96 Acoustic Synth is a small device that uses the harmonic content from strings, or any musical instrument, to create new sounds. On an acoustic guitar the battery-powered device sits between the sound hole and bridge and changes the waveforms the guitar produces as it’s being played. That’s different from an electronic synthesiser that alters the sounds after they’ve been created. Fresh sounds are on their way. Create Digital Music.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 27 February 2013
- FLIPPING MINI: Maybe you’ve done a backflip or two in your time, but were you ever driving a Mini Cooper at the time? Guerlain Chicherit, rally driver and freestyle skiier, was. He drove the highly modified Mini up a ramp like those used for a standard quarter pipe, did the backflip and landed as planned on a snow bank. Definitely don’t try that one at home. Wired.
- GETTING THE DROP: Sick of your windscreen fogging up? If we understood better how water droplets adhere to surfaces then perhaps we could do something about that. Researchers at MIT were able to adapt a scanning electron microscope to push and pull droplets across a surface with a tiny wire. They found that a key factor in determining whether a droplet sticks to the surface is the angle of the droplet’s leading and trailing edges relative to the surface. They also found that surface texture is crucial to adhesion, and droplets stick more on a rough surface. The researchers have now developed a mathematical system for precisely predicting droplet behaviour. Or maybe make windscreens with superhydrophobic coatings? MIT News.
- UP IN THE AIR: When you draw with a pen on paper you’re applying ink in 2 dimensions. The 3Doodler is a different kind of pen. It resembles a soldering iron, but its heated tip extrudes 3mm ABS or PLA melted plastic so you can draw 3D shapes by lifting it up in the air. The pen weighs less than 200 grams and measures 180mm by 24mm. You may need a steady hand for this. 3Doodler.
- BRAIN BOX: Many of us spend all day looking at a computer screen, filling our heads with information, some of it useless. What say the computer could read our mind and adjust the information flow to suit our needs? A team at Tufts University are working on that. They’ve created a headset that beams infrared light into the wearer’s prefrontal cortex. Some light is absorbed while the rest is reflected back. By measuring the reflected light the system can tell when the wearer is concentrating intently. When that data is matched to what’s on the computer screen the system can make better predictions about what’s useful and what’s not. This kind of flow control could be specially useful for drivers or air traffic controllers. And employers. New Scientist.
- FALLING ELECTRICITY: What do you do if you have an old open-pit mine lying around that you no longer need? Well, you could turn it into a hydroelectric energy scheme. In Ontario one power company has plans to use an abandoned open-pit iron ore mine for a pumped storage hydroelectric project. It would create a waterfall 5 times the height of Niagara Falls from the slag mountain to the mine pit below. At night the company would use cheap electricity to pump water up to a reservoir. Then releasing the water during the day would generate 400-megawatts of power they could sell at high prices. Buy low, sell high is a handy maxim. The Globe and Mail.
Tech Universe: Thursday 28 February 2013
- HOLD THE PHONE: Fujitsu’s Stylistic S01 is a specialised Android smartphone designed for elderly users. The large handset is waterproof, easy to hold and includes a phsyical shutter button for the camera. On the back is a special tab that can be pulled out in an emergency to activate an alarm and send out text messages. The phone has large buttons and simplified widgets on the touchscreen, designed for those with less dexterity. A single touch selects an option but doesn’t launch an app, so it’s hard for accidental touches make unexpected things happen. A press and hold is needed to launch the app you want. Slide the phone into a cradle to charge, or use the included microUSB port. Sometimes making things harder to use is a good idea. Engadget.
- BUTTON SPEECH: After a violent attack almost 3 decades ago one UK man was left unable to speak. Now, thanks to a tablet computer and specialised app he can finally speak again. The tablet displays buttons he can tap for words and phrases then speaks for him. A simple but life-changing app. BBC.
- A WEEK IN SPACE: The ArduSat from Nanosatisfi is a tiny satellite that’s open for anyone in the general public to run experiments, take pictures or design and run games in space, all for a tiny fee. The satellite is 10 cm on each side, weighs 1 Kg, and filled with sensors such as cameras, a Geiger counter, spectrometer, magnetometer, and Arduinos. Set up an experiment, send it in and after some checking it runs for a week before results are returned. Who’d have thought space exploration could be so accessible? Nanosatisfi.
- INCOMING!: The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System, ATLAS, being set up by the University of Hawai’i will identify small asteroids that could potentially hit the Earth. Two observatories, around 100 Km apart will each use four 25.4 cm telescopes, with 100 megapixel cameras to scan the visible sky twice each night and flag anything that moves for closer observation. Although the telescopes are fairly small the system is very detailed and can pinpoint threats. ATLAS isn’t the only programme hunting for asteroids but it can quickly identify the smaller space rocks, while others are making slower and deeper surveys. Spotting asteroid threats is fantastic, but then what do we do? Gizmodo.
- WAVING NOT TOUCHING: A flat, flexible, transparent polymer sheet may not sound very exciting, but researchers in Austria have made one do some very interesting things with images. Fluorescent particles that suffuse the sheet capture incoming light and channel some of it to optical sensors around the edges. A computer then combines the signals to construct a greyscale image. The trick is in working out where each bit of light that strikes the edge sensors actually came from. Because light dims as it travels, brightness is the key. The resolution on the prototype is low, but advanced sampling techniques can enhance it. The film could be used as a transparent overlay on TV images to allow viewers to use gestures rather than touch to interact with the display. That’s an interesting step in gesture control. Optical Society of America.
Tech Universe: Friday 01 March 2013
- AT A STRETCH: Stretchy electronics could make it possible for us to wear all kinds of smart gear. But such things always need a source of power, and that’s usually batteries. If the battery doesn’t stretch then there’s a problem. A team at Northwestern University are on track to solve that problem with a battery that can stretch to 3 times its size without a loss in performance, and also be charged by induction. The battery, which resembles a sticking plaster, uses islands of energy-storing materials dotted on a stretchy polymer. The wires that connect the pockets of power are looped into S shapes, so they straighten out as the material stretches. Unfortunately the prototype only runs through 20 charge and discharge cycles, so there’s a bit of development yet to do. Get ready to wear your smartphone. BBC.
- HIGH-FLYING PLASTIC: Flying a single engine Cessna from Sydney to London is quite a feat, but Jeremy Rowsell will be doing it on his own, and using an unconventional and untested fuel. Rather than standard aviation fuel, he’ll be using a fuel that’s made only from recycled plastic waste. His purpose is to raise awareness about this type of fuel, along with breaking a record or two. If all that waste plastic can be turned into something useful then why aren’t we doing it already? At Altitude.
- MORE LIGHT AND HEAT: Supermarkets use nearly 10 times as much energy as a normal household. They need to keep food frozen or just cool, shoppers pleasantly warm and the store well-lit. Fraunhofer Institute has developed ways to cut the power bills by 25%, mainly through clever systems for dealing with heating, cooling and light. A combined central refrigeration system takes waste heat from freezers and uses it to warm the store. Surplus heat is turned into cool air through a geothermal heat pump and used to reduce the power required for chillers. Meanwhile, to reduce the energy needed for lighting they had the novel idea of installing windows in the roof. They did fit the skylights out though with microscreens that allow only indirect light to pass through. I bet shoppers spend more under natural light too. Fraunhofer Institute.
- A NEW LIGHT: Retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases cause the eye’s photoreceptors to degenerate and eventually die, which means the person goes blind. Retina Implant, a German company, has developed an artificial retina that may restore some vision. The artificial retina is a 3 millimeter square chip that contains 1,500 photodiodes. Light strikes the diodes which then give off a weak electrical signal. That signal’s boosted to allow the wearer to see. A battery behind the ear provides the power. In a study most patients had some limited vision restored, being able to see cutlery, letters, their own hands or the faces of family members. Presumably more diodes means better vision. Technology Review.
- A SOUND SUIT: The SpiderSense suit from the University of Illinois uses ultrasonic reflections to alert the wearer to nearby objects or people. The suit has microphones embedded, so when the ultrasound detects someone approaching small robotic arms in the suit exert a growing pressure on the body. The wearer can then feel the pressure and avoid the approaching object. In tests wearers were able to detect someone approaching 95% of the time. With more sensors the suit could have a higher resolution. The creators believe a device like this could be useful for cyclists or for blind people. It’s that other 5% you have to worry about. New Scientist.