Tech Universe: Monday 30 September 2013
- ALL THE RAYS: GPS doesn’t always work well in towns and cities because buildings reflect and interfere with the signals. The VRay antenna scans for millions of virtual signals every second then differentiates the valid GPS signal from the rest of the clutter. That should make GPS more reliable in built-up areas, and possibly even indoors. While this technique has been used before, mainly by the military, it was very costly and needed bulky equipment. The key to the new low-cost device is its small simple receiver that switches at high speed between dozens of elements. It’s always handy t know where you are. New Scientist.
- KEEP YOUR WHEELS ON: The day I found thieves had stolen my car’s wheels was the day I invested in lock nuts. Bikes are even more vulnerable though to such theft. Sphyke’s miniature combination locks aim to keep all the bits safely on your bike. The tiny locks are available for the saddle, stem and front and rear wheels. That’s a small, simple solution. Sphyke.
- NUTTY BOTTLE: If you carry a water bottle with you, do you worry about how clean the water is? The KOR Nava water bottle includes a filter made from activated carbon created from sustainable coconut shells. The careful design means the bottle’s easy to open, but the flip lid protects the spout from dirt and contamination and allows you to sip as though from a straw. The 700 ml bottles are made of BPA-free Eastman Tritan copolyester. Kor Water. Video.
- ROLL UP, ROLL UP: Engineers at the University of California have created a transparent, elastic organic light-emitting device. The OLED can be repeatedly stretched, folded and twisted at room temperature while still working at high efficiency and retaining its original shape. The material has a single layer of an electro-luminescent polymer blend sandwiched between a pair of electrodes made of a network of silver nanowires inlaid into a rubbery polymer. The team speculate that after further development this material could be used as screens for devices, in clothing or for medical tools. Are we heading at last for that roll-up computer? University of California.
- FISHY ROBOT: Can a robot fillet fish? Apparently it can, as the Norwegians know. The robot uses a 3D colour scanner and some handy algorithms to distinguish species, work out the best place to cut the fish and determine volume so serving sizes are equal. The Norwegians plan to set up a fully-automated salmon processing line within the next couple of years. Next let’s get the robots fishing to catch only the right fish and eliminate bycatch. New Scientist.
Tech Universe: Tuesday 01 October 2013
- LOG ON TO THE HEART: As more and more WiFi equipped electronic devices are used inside the body in pacemakers, insulin pumps, defibrillators and the like there’s increasing concern about disruptive hacking. Researchers at Rice University believe they can secure such devices by using the patient’s own heartbeat as a kind of password that works only while a medical worker is actually touching the patient. This could let emergency medical responders work with a device while preventing access by anyone not authorised. Each human heartbeat is slightly different, so an EKG reading could be used like a random number generator to assure communications. Medical equipment will need to be modified though for the system to work. Better keep that heart beating. Rice University.
- REAL-TIME RISKS: It can take 24 to 48 hours to get the results of a test for potentially deadly E. coli bacteria in water. That delay carries a lot of risk. A new specially coated filter from the University of Alberta takes only minutes and changes colour if the water’s infected. This could save lives in developing countries where locals rely on wells. Next researchers want to enable the device to send alerts to locals and nearby health workers if the filter detects infection. Yup, that water you drank a couple of days ago might kill you. University of Alberta.
- PLASTIC NANOTUBES: There are only so many times you can reuse a plastic bag before it rips or develops holes and becomes waste. Researchers at the University of Adelaide developed a process that turns waste plastic bags into carbon nanotube membranes. Those membranes are highly sophisticated and usually expensive, but potentially invaluable for filtration, sensing, energy storage and biomedical innovations. The team vaporised pieces of grocery plastic bags to produce carbon layers that line the pores on nanoporous alumina membranes and create carbon nanotubes. This technique opens up potential manufacturing methods that not only turn waste plastic bags into something useful but avoid the poisonous compounds other techniques generate. And there’s definitely a plentiful supply of plastic bags. University of Adelaide.
- HELLO CARBON NANOTUBES: The silicon chips that power our computer devices are reaching their physical limits. As we pack transistors more and more closely on silicon they increasingly waste energy as heat. Carbon nanotubes could be cooler and more efficient, but imperfections in their manufacture have prevented them from being used. Researchers at Stanford University found a way to either destroy or work around CNTs that had imperfections. They created in their lab a computer with 178 transistors that could count and sort numbers. While 178 transistors won’t get you far, using an industrial fabrication process could lead to real computers one day. Let’s hear it for carbon nanotubes. Stanford University.
- MAGNETIC MAPS: Some animals use the Earth’s geomagnetic field to navigate, and now maybe we can too. IndoorAtlas takes advantage of the fact that magnetic fields are unique in each building, but many smartphone sensors can detect the fields. A building owner adds a floor plan and geographic co-ordinates to IndoorAtlas then uses the Map Creator app on a phone to record the magnetic fields. Finally maps are created and an app can be made available to customers. This could be useful in a large shopping mall or hospital, for example. As a customer walks around inside the building the map shows their location. It seems very labour intensive but could be useful. IndoorAtlas.
Tech Universe: Wednesday 02 October 2013
- CHAIR ON THE SIDE: There’s a fundamental problem when one person is pushing another in a wheelchair: they can’t easily chat because one is behind the other. It would be much easier and more sociable if they could be side by side. The Side by Side handlebar takes care of that. It easily attaches near the front of the chair and is angled so pushing still makes the chair go straight ahead. The handlebar also includes a horn and light the rider can operate for themselves. Rubber grips, hollow metal tubing and a folding mechanism make the handlebar light and affordable. What a difference a little design makes. Wired.
- A LITTLE PUSH: While some metals and polymers may remember their shapes and snap back after being deformed ceramics usually just break because they’re brittle. Now researchers have created shape-memory ceramics — at least in tiny filaments with a diameter of just 1 micrometer. These strong flexible ceramics could be used for medical applications, such as actuators that release drugs in implants. MIT News.
- OPEN HANDED: Prosthetic hands, often made with materials like titanium and carbon fibre, are amazing devices but also very costly. One British inventor is making a low-cost prosthetic hand thanks to a 3D printer. The Dextrus hand connects to an existing prosthesis using a standard connector and picks up signals from its wearer’s muscles. Each finger is individually activated and feedback allows the hand to feel objects, adjusting the grasp to safely handle even delicate items. The project is open source so anyone can use and build on the designs and code. 3D printing in changing lives in such interesting ways. The Open Hand Project.
- THE WIDE VIEW: A normal wide angle lens may capture a lot of a scene but it sacrifices detail. A tiny camera system from the University of California captures big pictures that still have high-resolution. The system can image anything from half a metre to 500 metres with the equivalent of 20/10 human vision. The imagers use monocentric lenses made of concentric glass shells, that are perfectly round like marbles. To send the data to an image sensor without distortion they use a dense array of glass optical fibre bundles polished to a concave curve on one side so they perfectly align with the surface of the lens. The current prototype connects to a 5 megapixel sensor but soon the team expect to build a walnut sized 85 megapixel imager with a 120 degree field of view, more than a dozen sensors, and an F/2 lens. Cameras are becoming tinier and tinier yet more and more sensitive. University of California, San Diego.
- BLOW, YOU’RE OUT: People who play sports may suffer a concussion. Continuing to play can lead to brain damage. Diagnosing a concussion though is very subjective. Researchers at San Diego State University have come up with an objective test by accurately measuring how well a player can balance. Players have their balance measured regularly to establish what’s normal for them. That data is stored in a database that can be accessed by an app on a tablet. A low-cost portable device can be used on the sidelines to accurately check the player’s balance and see if it’s outside their normal readings. Now sportspeople just need to actually use the test and heed the results. San Diego State University.
There was no Tech Universe on Thursday this week.
Tech Universe: Friday 03 October 2013
- HEAR THE PIN DROP: You may think it impossible to listen in from a distance on a private conversation on a busy street, but a new microphone from the Dutch company Microflown Technologies can pinpoint and record specific conversations from up to 20 metres away. Currently such covert eavesdropping requires a large parabolic microphone with a direct, unobstructed view of the subject. The acoustic vector sensor on the other hand is the size of a matchstick and measures the movement of air, disturbed by sound waves. Two parallel heated platinum strips allow air molecules to pass through the gap between them. Software then analyses the temperature change and counts the air molecules to gauge sound intensity and the location of the source. Signal-processing software filters out unwanted noise like wind or traffic commotion. Combine this acoustic sensor with cameras and drones for some very scary surveillance scenarios. You think your email’s being read now? Before long all your spoken conversations could be open to scrutiny too. New Scientist.
- BYO HALL: Do you need a concert hall where there isn’t one? With the Ark Nova you can bring your own. The membrane structure is equipped with the necessary stage and sound equipment. Spend a couple of hours with an air compressor and you can inflate the hall to a width of 30 metres, length of 36 metres and maximum height of 18 metres. 500 seats fit inside. Seats and reflector boards are made from cedar trees felled after the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The New Ark is intended as a symbol of recovery in Japan, helping to rebuild culture and spirit after the disaster. Ark Nova.
- SHAKE YOUR PHONE: Your smart phone can probably flip the screen depending on which way you tilt the device. That’s because it contains a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System accelerometer. Italian seismologists wondered if that accelerometer could be useful around earthquakes, and it seems it could. Testing suggests the accelerometers can detect earthquakes greater than magnitude 5 when located near the epicenter. That could make it possible to dramatically increase coverage when strong earthquakes occur. In fact, smartphones could help create an urban seismic network to send real-time ground motion data to a central location for assessment. Was that a big one? Yup, it seems it was. Science Daily.
- IN THE RED: Who knew that you could even obtain infrared contact lenses? One casino cheat in France did. Accomplices marked cards with invisible ink. The cheat could see the markings thanks to the special contacts and bet accordingly. The authorities still caught him out though because some of his plays only made sense if he were cheating. If you’re going to cheat, be sensible about it. The Telegraph.
- MINE, NO YOURS: As anyone who has studied a foreign language knows, translation is no simple matter. You can’t usually just look up a single word or phrase and get an accurate translation. Instead context, tone of voice and other factors can all make a huge difference to what’s being said. A new approach being developed by Google uses data mining techniques to model the structure of a single language and then compares this to the structure of another language to help generate conversion dictionaries and tables. This approach relies on the idea that every language must describe a similar set of ideas, so the words must also be similar. That makes the relationships between words crucial for translations, and turns the whole thing into a maths problem. The method has managed to be around 95% accurate in translating between English and Spanish. Now try applying that reasoning to folks who think quite differently. Technology Review.