Tech Universe: Monday 08 July 2013
- MINED ON THE JOB: Unexploded landmines are still a huge problem around the world, and people are out there all the time risking their lives to clear them. One UK designer is experimenting with 3D printed electronic mines as training devices. Handle them incorrectly and they’ll detonate, but harmlessly with a red flash and a loud noise. The purpose of the fake mine is to teach deminers about pressure and sensitivity. For training, mines are laid in pairs, with one above ground that uses light and sound to warn that the mine below ground is close to its trigger pressure as the deminer probes around. That definitely beats learning by experience of the real thing. New Scientist.
- HELLO YELLOW: Generally when farmers spray herbicides they may be targeting the weeds but the crops get their fair share of spray too. The Danish ASETA project is exploring the idea that a drone aircraft could identify patches of weed by their colour and send lightweight automated ground vehicles to target the weedkiller to the weeds alone. This could reduce consumption of weedkiller, reduce potential damage on the ground and reduce fuel use for ground vehicles. On the aircraft, a camera is tuned to pick up parts of the light spectrum that correspond to the reflective signatures of particular weeds and crops. For example, thistle absorbs yellow light more than surrounding beet plants. The craft sends data back to a central computer that analyses the images and dispatches ground craft with sprayers. One day the drone will do the whole job. New Scientist.
- SPEED RING: While companies are busy laying out fibre optic cables to bring high-speed broadband to the masses the DSL Rings system claims to achieve the same thing at a fraction of the cost and without all the disruption. The system effectively bonds together the copper cables currently in use to create a single large channel rather than multiple small channels. Then it uses a RING configuration from each house to the cable that is claimed to bring higher speed and more bandwidth. The key thing is that DSL speeds drop off over distance, and some houses are further from the all-important box on the street than others. Meanwhile the distance between houses is fairly constant, so speeds can be maintained. There’s a great power in clubbing together. Genesis Technical Systems.
- THE GLASS CEILING: It seems a bit wasteful to put a roof on a building and then put solar panels on top of that. Couldn’t a roof be made of solar panels? Corning’s Willow glass might make that possible. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US made flexible solar cells out of Willow glass that could perhaps be used as a roof instead of on it. Being made of glass such roof shingles could be long-lasting and durable, strong and resilient. The glass also makes it possible to use cadmium telluride, rather than silicon, as the solar cell material. Unfortunately the researchers were testing the idea rather than producing commercial solar panels, but maybe the idea will be picked up by others. Technology Review.
- VOICES IN YOUR HEAD: If you’re on a train in Germany soon and start to hear voices in your head, don’t worry — it might be the window talking to you. One ad company is considering using bone conduction technology to transmit ads directly into the heads of those who lean against the train windows. The Talking Window campaign relies on a special transmitter attached to the window that sends out inaudible high frequency vibrations. When a passenger leans their head against the window they hear audio, such as an advertising message. I’d bet the transmitters won’t last more than a day before they disappear or malfunction, with a little help, of course. BBC.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 09 July 2013
- INTO THE SKIN: Computer generated characters in movies have come a long way in recent years, looking more and more like real live people and creatures. But not quite, if you look really closely — the skin is often just too perfect. Researchers at the University of Southern California aim to create simulated CGI skin, faithful down to the level of individual cells. They developed a special lighting system and camera and took photos of real skin at a resolution of about 10 micrometres. That level of detail spreads one skin cell across 3 pixels. Then they created a 3D model of skin and applied an algorithm to simulate light reflecting and scattering off the surface. The result was highly realistic CGI skin complete with pores and tiny wrinkles. This CGI skin could obviously be used in movies, but the technique could also be used at make-up counters to show how different cosmetics would look. No-one at a make-up counter will want to see all their otherwise invisible pores and wrinkles. New Scientist.
- TOP THAT: Not only does Mount Everest have cellphone service, it now has 4G service up to 5,200 metres above sea level. Huawei has been providing GSM coverage to the mountain since 2007 to help keep climbers safe, but now streaming video won’t be a problem either. I guess battery life is now a big problem for climbers though. Huawei.
- CAR UNDER A HOT ROOF: Solar powered cars tend to be single-seaters, and rather compact at that. Stella is a low-slung family-sized solar car from the Solar Team Eindhoven. It’s made of lightweight carbon and aluminium and can travel around 600 Km on a single charge. What’s more the solar panels generate more energy than needed to drive the car. That’s surplus that can be sent back into the power grid. The car has a somewhat aerodynamic shape and looks to be about a metre tall, with the roof covered in solar panels. Stella will participate in the World Solar Challenge in Australia this October. Gizmodo.
- LIGHT AND SOUND: Did you know that some diseases, such as malaria, can alter the shape of red blood cells? That means that if a doctor can assess the shape of blood cells they may be able to more quickly make a diagnosis. A photoacoustics scientist at Ryerson University in Toronto developed a laser that pulses every 760 nanoseconds. When a material absorbs light from a pulsing light source it produces sound waves. When the laser is directed at red blood cells they emit sound waves with frequencies of more than 100MHz and reveal the tiniest details about the shapes of the cells. The approach could accurately distinguish malaria from sickle cell anemia and requires as few as 21 red blood cells. The technique shaves hours off a standard blood test and could save lives when transfusions are needed. The downside though is the high cost of the equipment. Sadly that implies that the equipment will be least available where it’s most useful. ScienceNOW.
- NOW HEAR THIS: Millions of people around the world are affected by hearing loss. Hearing aids can help many, but are often quite expensive, and getting them correctly adjusted can be time consuming. Sound World Solutions has devised a low cost aid that works in conjunction with a smartphone and a Bluetooth connection. The low cost CS10 Personal Sound Amplifier fits in the ear, and looks like any Bluetooth headset, but can be adjusted manually or via a smartphone app. The device increases sound volume, but also helps make speech more intelligible and reduces ambient noise, thanks to its tunable settings. Tech seems to get cheaper every day. NPR.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 10 July 2013
- SMELLING SORTS: What if we could capture smells as easily as we capture photos, especially since they’re so evocative? Designer Amy Radcliffe is working on a smell camera she calls the Madeleine. A funnel covers the object whose scent should be captured, while a pump sucks the air across an odour trap. The trap’s made of a porous polymer resin that captures the volatile particles that make up the smell. Then a gas chromatography–mass spectrometer processes the particles and produces a graph-like formula that represents the smell. The precise odour can then be reproduced artificially, and the graph recorded for posterity. It’ll be a while before this all happens in your smartphone though. The Guardian. Video:
- COOKED BY SUNSHINE: Here’s one for the caravan: the SunOven. The SunOven is a small oven in a box, and with reflector panels to catch the sun. Put the food in, close the glass door and point the insulated box towards the sun. Adjust the position every 30 minutes or so to allow for the sun’s movement and after a while the food is cooked. Temperatures inside the box reach around 175 C. The direct sunlight is what counts, rather than outside temperature, so the oven can cook year round. The oven doesn’t get hot on the outside and folds up to the size of a small suitcase. There’s a new challenge for the TV cooking competitions. SunOven.
- EYES FRONT: It can be enormously useful to have a GPS in the car to help you figure out how to get to where you’re going. Attaching it in the best place to see it can be a problem though. The Garmin HUD avoids that problem by projecting directions onto a transparent film on the windshield or an attached reflector lens so drivers can keep their eyes on the road. The HUD receives its navigation information from a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, and displays turn arrows, distance to the next turn, current speed and speed limit, as well as estimated time of arrival. The smartphone or a Bluetooth connected speaker can also play spoken turn by turn directions. You still have to secure the projector to the dash though. Garmin.
- THE SUGAR SCAN: Medical workers may inject someone with radioactive material before an MRI scan to detect cancerous tumours. But radioactive materials are never a good thing, so how about if they could be replaced by sugar? Scientists at the University College of London realised that to sustain their growth tumours consume much more glucose than normal healthy tissues. Then they tuned an MRI scanner to be more sensitive to glucose uptake and found that tumours appeared as bright images on MRI scans of mice. This finding could mean people who need more scans than most can avoid the additional exposure to radiation. See, sugar can be good for you. University College London.
- HOLE IN TWO: Imagine a window with holes in it. The holes let air in, but keep noise out, meaning inner city dwellers could enjoy fresh air without having to hear the traffic. South Korean researchers designed a sound resonance chamber that stops sound from passing through. The way sound moves within the chamber and small holes in the walls allows sound in but strongly attenuates it before it can get out. meanwhile the holes allow air to pass through freely. Tests using a wall of building blocks made in this way showed sound levels reduced by 20 to 35 decibels over a sound range of 700 Hz to 2,200 Hz. The researchers say that changing the size of the holes could tune the windows to screen out only certain frequencies, perhaps blocking out machinery noise while letting in the sound of the ocean. Now, about the car fumes for those inner city dwellers … Technology Review.
Tech Universe: Thursday 11 July 2013
- BLACK NIGHT WHITE LIGHT: Bright city lights might keep you from seeing the wonders of the night sky, but Starry Lights lamps can still give you a glimpse of the stars. They’re manufactured by hand in Hungary. The LED lamp itself sends a warm white light downwards, while constellation-patterned holes in the hemispheric shade allow a soft indirect light to project stars on the ceiling. The patterns represent what is actually visible on a dark night at 45 degrees North, but the shades can be custom-made with other skies too. The inner surface of the shade includes subtle lines marking out the constellations. All that handcrafted realism doesn’t come cheap though. How about preserving the real thing instead? Starry Lights.
- WISH THE LADS WERE CLEANER: One Latvian designer aims to reduce water use while encouraging men to wash their hands after using the bathroom so he’s redesigned the urinal. His Stand design puts the sink right above the urinal. A hands-free sensor-activated tap encourages hand washing and then the waste water flushes the urinal below. It seems very economical. NPR.
- THE POWER OF WIND: The London Array is a massive wind farm off the coasts of Kent and Essex that can provide 630MW of electricity per year to power over half-a-million homes. The farm that took 4 years to build with 175 huge wind turbines spread over 100 square kilometres has now been inaugurated. That’s a lot of homes the farm powers, but there are millions more to feed too. GigaOm.
- WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?: The Power Jacket MK3 from Japan’s Sagawa Electronics is a 2.25 metre tall exoskeleton. This larger than life device weighs 25 Kg thanks to the aluminium and carbon fibre frame. A person is strapped in to the frame so when they move their arms and legs the exoskeleton moves accordingly. The arms can lift 15 Kg, but the hands can also pick up an egg without breaking it. The suit’s a novelty item with its root in anime, but you never know where something like that can end up. Gizmag.
- RELAX, DON’T DO IT: We all know how stressful life can be, though we don’t always realise just how very stressed we are. Our body reacts to stress in many ways. One giveaway is that blood rushes to the extremities and causes us to sweat more. That changes the conductivity of the skin. The PIP is a tiny gadget held between the thumb and forefinger. It measures the skin’s galvanic response and sends data to a smartphone or tablet to assess our stress levels. The smartphone connection offers games, where to go faster, for example, the player has to relax, or a lie detector game where untruthful answers are revealed by increased stress. The PIP could be used just for fun, or by parents or doctors to help deal with stress. Just don’t crush the device. The PIP.
Tech Universe: Friday 12 July 2013
- ALL IN THE HEAD: Measuring physical characteristics of the brain is tricky, yet it’s important to know if a brain is swelling, whether from disease or injury. Usually doctors have to drill a small hole in the skull and insert a catheter to find out what’s going on. That’s a risky business though as it opens the skull up to possible infection. HeadSense are taking a different approach. Disposable earbuds emit a series of low-pitch beeps and record changes to the signals after they cross the brain. The headphones send the data via Bluetooth link to an app that instantly converts signal modulations to units of intracranial pressure. I hope the app has alerts such as “Warning, your head may explode”. GE Reports.
- DATA IS META: Researchers gather extremely useful information from tracking birds and animals. A new Environmental-Data Automated Track Annotation system can handle millions of data points and serve a hundred scientists simultaneously by combining GPS tracking with weather and land information. In a case study, the system tracked individual birds via GPS and combined that information with satellite data on weather patterns and chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean associated with food sources. The additional data helped explain features of the migration pattern. It’s always about combining the data. North Carolina State University.
- CODED SIGNALS: Parents: one more thing to do when you change the baby’s nappies: haul out the smartphone and grab a photo of a QR code. The Smart Diapers project adds a colour-coded QR code to the outside of a diaper. Scan that code with a smartphone to track urinary tract infection, prolonged dehydration and developing kidney problems. The code is included on a reagent panel that doesn’t actually come into contact with the baby’s skin but that reveals information about the urine. It sounds simple enough. Smart Diapers.
- HARD BUBBLES: Plastic bubble wrap is lightweight and fun to play with but it doesn’t stand up very well to heat or chemicals. Sheets of metal on the other hand are tough, but they’re heavy, thick and hard to bend. A new metallic bubble wrap could perhaps be used for the wing edges of planes, in motorcycle helmets or panels of cars. It’s thin, light and flexible, as well as strong and inexpensive to produce. Thin sheets of aluminium are bonded together, but a foaming agent between them produces the bubbles. The technique could be applied to other metals too. I’m not sure I’d want even metal bubble wrap on the wings of a plane. North Carolina State University.
- STEAM CLEAN: Even in remote areas doctors need to sterilise instruments. Those same areas though may not have electricity to power an autoclave, or even very clean water. Rice University created a solar-powered sanitiser out of off-the-shelf parts and nanotechnology. A parabolic mirror focuses the sun onto a chamber full of water and nanoparticles of carbon and metal. The particles have a large surface area so they transfer a lot of heat to the water. Leaving the heavy nanoparticles behind, steam then passes through simple pipes to a pressure chamber where it sterilises anything inside. The now pure water could be cycled again through the system or used for another purpose. A similar system could be used to treat sewage on a small scale too. It sounds as though the only hard part is the nanoparticles. Discovery News.