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21st April 2014

Transparent solar-powered windows made possible by quantum dot breakthrough

The superior light-emitting properties of quantum dots can be applied to solar energy, helping to more efficiently harvest sunlight.

 

solar powered windows quantum dot technology

 

A house window that doubles as a solar panel could be on the horizon, thanks to recent work by Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers in collaboration with scientists from the University of Milano-Bicocca (UNIMIB), Italy. Their project demonstrates that superior light-emitting properties of quantum dots can be applied in solar energy by helping more efficiently harvest sunlight.

Quantum dots are ultra-small nanocrystals of semiconductor matter that are synthesized with nearly atomic precision. Their emission colour can be tuned by simply varying their dimensions. Colour tunability is combined with high emission efficiencies approaching 100%. These properties have recently become the basis of a new technology – quantum dot displays – employed, for example, in the newest generation of the Kindle Fire e-reader.

A luminescent solar concentrator (LSC) is a photon management device, representing a slab of transparent material that contains highly efficient emitters such as dye molecules or quantum dots. Sunlight absorbed in the slab is re-radiated at longer wavelengths and guided towards the slab edge equipped with a solar cell.

 

luminescent solar concentrator
Quantum dot LSC devices under ultraviolet illumination.

 

Lead researcher Victor Klimov explained: “The LSC serves as a light-harvesting antenna – which concentrates solar radiation collected from a large area onto a much smaller solar cell – and this increases its power output.”

“LSCs are especially attractive because, in addition to gains in efficiency, they can enable new interesting concepts such as photovoltaic windows that can transform house facades into large-area energy generation units,” said his colleague, Sergio Brovelli.

To implement their concept, Los Alamos researchers created a series of cadmium selenide/cadmium sulfide (CdSe/CdS) quantum dots, which were then incorporated by the Italian team into large slabs of transparent polymer. The particles are tiny, only about 10 nanometres (nm) across. For comparison, human hairs are typically 50,000 nm wide.

Spectroscopic measurements indicated virtually no losses to re-absorption on distances of tens of centimetres. Tests using simulated solar radiation demonstrated high photon harvesting efficiencies of around 10% per absorbed photon – achievable in nearly transparent samples – perfectly suited for utilisation as photovoltaic windows.

These findings are published in Nature Photonics. According to a report earlier this year, the quantum dot and quantum dot display (QLED) markets are expected to see a 42-fold growth in the next five years, reaching $6.4 billion by 2019.

 

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18th April 2014

World's first marijuana vending machines are unveiled in Colorado

In a sign of the changing times, marijuana is now publicly available from vending machines in Colorado. American Green, part of Tranzbyte Corporation, has begun distributing "Zazzz Machines" containing the drug. These utilise radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) to track the products, along with biometrics to verify a customer's age. They even accept Bitcoin, a new digital currency. The first machine was unveiled on 12th April and is located at the Herbal Elements store in Avon, Colorado. A recent Gallup poll showed a clear majority of Americans (58%) in favour of marijuana being made fully legal, with growing numbers admitting to have tried it. Colorado expects to collect nearly $100 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana use this year – about 40% more than originally forecast.

 

 

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17th April 2014

Researchers discover groundbreaking method to commercialise graphene for electronics

Graphene has the potential to usher in a new era of next generation electronic devices, including flexible displays and wearable technology.

 

graphene

 

Samsung Electronics have announced a breakthrough synthesis method to speed the commercialisation of graphene, a unique material ideally suited for electronic devices. Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), in partnership with Sungkyunkwan University, became the first in the world to develop this new method.

“This is one of the most significant breakthroughs in graphene research in history,” said the laboratory leaders at SAIT’s Lab. “We expect this discovery to accelerate the commercialisation of graphene, which could unlock the next era of consumer electronic technology.”

Graphene has 100 times greater electron mobility than silicon, the most widely used material in semiconductors today. It is more durable than steel and has high heat conductibility as well as flexibility, which makes it the perfect material for use in flexible displays, wearables and other next generation electronic devices.

 

graphene electronic newspaper



Through its partnership with Sungkyungkwan University’s School of Advanced Materials Science and Engineering, SAIT uncovered a new method of growing large area, single crystal wafer scale graphene. Engineers around the world have invested heavily in research for the commercialisation of graphene, but have faced many obstacles due to the challenges associated with it. In the past, researchers have found that multi-crystal synthesis – the process of synthesising small graphene particles to produce large-area graphene – deteriorated the electric and mechanical properties of the material, limiting its application range.

The new method developed by SAIT and Sungkyunkwan University synthesises large-area graphene into a single crystal on a semiconductor, maintaining its electric and mechanical properties. The new method repeatedly synthesises single crystal graphene on the current semiconductor wafer scale.

 



Over the past several decades, the growth of the semiconductor industry has been driven by the ability to grow the area of a silicon wafer, while steadily decreasing the process node. In order to commercialise graphene to displace the industry’s reliance on silicon, it is vital to develop a new method to grow a single crystal graphene into a large area.

The research results are published in Science Magazine and ScienceExpress, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals.

 

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14th April 2014

A battery that charges in seconds

Nanotechnology startup company, StoreDot, has unveiled a ground-breaking battery capable of charging your smartphone and other devices in under 30 seconds.

 

 

At Microsoft’s Think Next symposium in Tel Aviv, StoreDot demonstrated the prototype of its ultra-fast-charge battery for the first time. This company specialises in technology that is inspired by natural processes. They have produced "nanodots" derived from bio-organic material that, due to their size, have both increased electrode capacitance and electrolyte performance. These nanodots – described as "stable, robust spheres" – have a diameter of just 2.1 nanometres and are made of chemically synthesized peptide molecules, short chains of amino acids that form the building blocks of proteins.

StoreDot’s bio-organic devices, which include smartphone displays, provide much more efficient power consumption, and are eco-friendly. While other nanodot and quantum-dot technologies currently in use are heavy metal based, and therefore toxic, StoreDot's are biocompatible and superior to all previous discoveries in the field. Using their method, the company is hoping to synthesize new nanomaterials for use in a wide variety of applications. Nano-crystals in memory chips, for example, could triple the speed of traditional flash memory, while image sensors could be five times more sensitive.

Furthermore, the nanodots are relatively inexpensive, as they originate naturally, and utilise a basic biological mechanism of self-assembly. They can be made from a vast range of bio-organic raw materials that are readily available and environmentally friendly.

The battery seen in the video above remains in the prototype stage, with a rather bulky form factor. However, the CEO of Storedot, Doron Myersdorf, says he is confident that a smaller version can be developed and on the market by 2017.

“The fast-charge battery is the result of our focus on commercialising the materials we have discovered," he explained. "We’re particularly pleased that this innovative nanotechnology, inspired by nature, not only changes the rules of mobile device capabilities, but is also environmentally-friendly.”

 

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26th March 2014

Oculus VR acquired by Facebook

Oculus VR – the developer of a consumer virtual reality headset planned for 2015 – has been purchased by Facebook for $2 billion.

 

oculus rift vr

 

Following the demonstration of a prototype at E3, the Oculus Rift made headlines in 2012, when a Kickstarter campaign was launched to further develop the product. Within four hours, it had achieved its target of $250,000 and in 36 hours, the campaign surpassed $1 million, eventually securing $2.4 million in funding. Prominent figures from the games industry publicly endorsed the project – including John Carmack, co-founder of Id Software; Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve; and Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Epic Games.

With an extremely wide field of view, high resolution display, and ultra-low latency head tracking, the Rift could provide a truly immersive experience, allowing gamers to step inside their favourite games and explore new worlds like never before. Previous attempts to create VR either lacked the features required for believable immersion, or were far too expensive ($20,000+) and reserved for the military or scientific community. The Rift promised to change all that, with a revolutionary new product designed to maximise immersion and comfort, at a price everyone could afford.

The first "dev kit" began shipping in March 2013, for developers to integrate the device into their games. A 1080p version was demonstrated in June 2013 and the Omni treadmill device was announced in the same month, providing an even greater level of realism and interaction for players. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2014, an updated prototype was unveiled with a special low-persistence of vision OLED display; its new motion tracking system could detect actions like crouching or leaning, to alleviate sickness experienced by some users.

Last week, Oculus VR announced the much-anticipated second development kit (DK2), featuring several improvements over the first – including a higher-resolution low-persistence OLED display, higher refresh rate, head positional tracking, detachable cable and removal of the external control box.

Now a sudden and rather unexpected development has occurred, with Facebook purchasing the company for $2 billion according to press release and personal statement by its founder Mark Zuckerberg. The social media giant intends to expand the device's potential beyond just gaming:

"We're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."

"We are excited to work with Mark and the Facebook team to deliver the very best virtual reality platform in the world," said Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus. "We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it's only just the beginning."

Reactions in the last 24 hours have been negative, however. Facebook shares fell by 6% following the announcement, while the Kickstarter page is being flooded with angry comments. The Oculus founder, 21-year old Palmer Luckey, attempted to explain his decision with a post on Reddit, but has received a similar hostile response. Markus Persson, creator of the popular game Minecraft, states on Twitter: "We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out."

 

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6th March 2014

A wearable ear computer

Controlled by facial expressions, this new "wearable ear PC" can perform a range of functions such as opening apps and monitoring users' health. With a built-in GPS, compass, gyro-sensor, speaker and microphone, the device weighs just 17g. Its creator, Japanese engineer Kazuhiro Taniguchiset, says the device will be launched in 2016.

 

 

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16th February 2014

Marty McFly's "power laces" coming in 2015

Fans of Back to the Future II will be pleased to know that Marty McFly's iconic "power laces" will be arriving in 2015 – the same year in which the classic 1980s time travelling movie is set.

Back in 2011, Nike produced a limited edition shoe known as the Nike Mag, which they claimed to be an exact replica. However, although featuring an electro-luminescent out-sole, space age materials and a rechargeable internal battery, these failed to include their most memorable feature: the self-lacing ability seen in the film.

Now, it seems they will be included after all, with a relaunch of the famous shoe next year. Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield, confirmed this during his appearance at the Jordan Brand's Flight Lab: "Are we gonna see Power Laces in 2015?", he said. "To that, I say yes!"

 

 

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17th January 2014

A smart contact lens for diabetes sufferers

Globally, an estimated 285 million people have diabetes – a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Its incidence is growing rapidly, and by 2030, the number of cases is predicted to almost double. By 2050, as many as one in three U.S. adults could be affected if current trends continue.

To keep their blood sugar levels under control, sufferers need to constantly monitor themselves. This can involve pricking their finger to get a blood sample, two to four times per day. For many people, managing this condition is therefore a painful and disruptive process.

To address this problem, Internet giant Google has announced it is developing a smart contact lens. This wearable tech will measure glucose levels in tears, using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturised sensor, embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. When glucose levels fall below a certain threshold, tiny LED lights will activate themselves to function as a warning system for the wearer.

Google admits it is still "early days" for this technology, but there is clearly great potential for improving the lives of diabetes sufferers around the world. To achieve their goal, they intend to partner with other technology companies who have previous experience of bringing products like this to market. You can read more at the Google Official Blog.

 

google smart contact lens
Credit: Google

 

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11th January 2014

Implantable device can reduce sleep apnea by 70 percent

Implantation of a sleep apnea device called Inspire Upper Airway Stimulation (UAS) therapy can lead to significant improvements for patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. After one year, patients using the device had an average 70 percent reduction in sleep apnea severity, as well as significant reductions in daytime sleepiness.

 

sleep apnea technology
Credit: Inspire

 

Sleep apnea is a disorder characterised by pauses in breathing, or shallow and infrequent breathing, during sleep. Each of these pauses in breathing, called an apnea, can last from seconds to minutes, and may occur 30 times or more an hour. When normal breathing returns (sometimes accompanied by a loud snort or choking sound), the body moves out of deep sleep and into a lighter sleep. This results in poor overall quality of sleep and excessive tiredness during the daytime – increasing a person's risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and even death.

It is estimated that seven percent of Americans are affected by at least moderate sleep apnea. For those in middle age, this figure is higher, with as many as nine percent of women and 24 percent of men in this age group being affected, undiagnosed and untreated.

The costs of untreated sleep apnea reach further than just health issues. It is estimated that in the U.S. the average untreated patient's health care costs $1,336 more annually than an individual without sleep apnea. This may cause up to $3.4 billion/year in additional medical costs.

Treatments can include weight loss, upper airway surgeries, oral appliances, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). However, while CPAP can be successful if used regularly, up to half of patients are unable to use it properly – largely due to discomfort with the mask and/or lack of desire to be tethered to a machine.

That's where a new device created at the University of Pittsburgh may help. Director of the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center, and lead author of the study, Dr Patrick Strollo, explains: "Inspire UAS therapy differs from other traditional sleep apnea devices and surgical procedures in that it targets muscle tone of the throat, rather than just the anatomy. Two thirds of patients using the device had successful control of their apneas, although even more reported improvement in snoring, daytime sleepiness and quality of life measures. Eighty-six percent of patients were still using the device every night at the one year mark, which compares very favourably to CPAP. The results of this trial show a huge potential for a new and effective treatment that can help millions of patients."

The device was fitted in three areas: a stimulation electrode was placed on the hypoglossal nerve, which provides innervation to the muscles of the tongue; a sensing lead was placed between rib muscles to detect breathing effort; and a neurostimulator was implanted in the upper right chest, just below the clavicle bone. Patients used a "controller" to turn on the device at night, so it was only used when the patient slept. The Inspire UAS therapy device was able to sense breathing patterns and to stimulate tongue muscles, thereby enlarging and stabilising the airway for improved breathing.

Kathy Gaberson, one of the study participants: "My short-term memory has improved significantly, and the surgery has made a huge difference in my quality of life. My apnea episodes went from 23 times an hour to just two."

 

inspire sleep deviceCredit: Inspire

 

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7th January 2014

Intel at CES 2014

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Intel Corporation has been showing off its latest innovative technologies. These include an intelligent 3D camera system, a range of new wearable electronics, and a 22nm dual-core PC the size of an SD card.

 

intel edison 22nm dual core pc 2014 technology

 

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has outlined a range of new products, initiatives and strategic relationships aimed at accelerating innovation across a range of mobile and wearable devices. He made the announcements during the pre-show keynote for the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the biggest gathering of the tech industry in the USA.

Krzanich's keynote painted a vision of how the landscape of computing is being re-shaped and where security is too important not to have it embedded in all devices. The world is entering a new era of integrated computing defined not by the device, but the integration of technology into people's lifestyles in ways that offer new utility and value. As examples, he highlighted several immersive and intuitive technologies that Intel will begin offering in 2014, such as Intel RealSense – hardware and software that will bring human senses to Intel-based devices. This will include 3D cameras that deliver more intelligent experiences – improving the way people learn, collaborate and are entertained.

The first Intel RealSense 3D camera features a best-in-class depth sensor and a full 1080p colour camera. It can detect finger level movements enabling highly accurate gesture recognition, facial features for understanding movement and emotions. It can understand foregrounds and backgrounds to allow control, enhance interactive augmented reality (AR), simply scan items in three dimensions, and more.

This camera will be integrated into a growing spectrum of Intel-based devices including 2 in 1, tablet, Ultrabook, notebook, and all-in-one (AIO) designs. Systems with the new camera will be available beginning in the second half of 2014 from Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo and NEC.

To advance the computer's "hearing" sense, a new generation of speech recognition technology will be available on a variety of systems. This conversational personal assistant works with popular websites and applications. It comes with selectable personalities, and allows for ongoing dialogue with Intel-based devices. People can simply tell it to play music, get answers, connect with friends and find content – all by using natural language. This assistant is also capable of calendar checks, getting maps and directions, finding flights or booking a dinner reservation. Available offline, people can control their device, dictate notes and more without an Internet connection.

 

 

Krzanich then explained how Intel aims to accelerate wearable device innovation. A number of reference designs were highlighted including: smart earbuds providing biometric and fitness capabilities, a smart headset that is always ready and can integrate with existing personal assistant technologies, a smart wireless charging bowl, a smart baby onesie and a smart bottle warmer that will start warming milk when the onesie senses the baby is awake and hungry.

The smart earbuds (pictured below) provide full stereo audio, monitor heart rate and pulse all while the applications on the user's phone keep track of running distance and calories burned. The product includes software to precision-tune workouts by automatically choosing music that matches the target heart rate profile. As an added bonus, it harvests energy directly from the audio microphone jack, eliminating the need for a battery or additional power source to charge the product.

 

intel smart earbuds 2014 technology

 

The Intel CEO announced collaborations to increase dialogue and cooperation between fashion and technology industries to explore and bring to market new smart wearable electronics. He also kicked-off the Intel "Make it Wearable" challenge – a global effort aimed at accelerating creativity and innovation with technology. This effort will call upon the smartest and most creative minds to consider factors impacting the proliferation of wearable devices and ubiquitous computing, such as meaningful usages, aesthetics, battery life, security and privacy.

In addition to reference designs for wearable technology, Intel will offer a number of accessible, low-cost entry platforms aimed at lowering entry barriers for individuals and small companies, allowing them to create innovative web-connected wearables or other small form factor devices. Underscoring this point, Krzanich announced Intel Edison – a low-power, 22nm-based computer in an SD card form factor with built-in wireless abilities and support for multiple operating systems. From prototype to production, Intel Edison will enable rapid innovation and product development by a range of inventors, entrepreneurs and consumer product designers when available this summer.

 

intel edison 22nm dual core pc 2014 technology

 

"Wearables are not everywhere today, because they aren't yet solving real problems and they aren't yet integrated with our lifestyles," said Krzanich. "We're focused on addressing this engineering innovation challenge. Our goal is: if something computes and connects, it does it best with Intel inside."

Krzanich also discussed how Intel is addressing a critical issue for the industry as a whole: conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Intel has achieved a critical milestone and the minerals used in microprocessor silicon and packages manufactured in Intel's factories are now "conflict-free", as confirmed by third-party audits.

"Two years ago, I told several colleagues that we needed a hard goal, a commitment to reasonably conclude that the metals used in our microprocessors are conflict-free," Krzanich said. "We felt an obligation to implement changes in our supply chain to ensure that our business and our products were not inadvertently funding human atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though we have reached this milestone, it is just a start. We will continue our audits and resolve issues that are found."

 

intel conflict minerals

 

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4th January 2014

Ford unveils a solar-powered hybrid car

Ford Motor Company has announced the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, a first-of-its-kind Sun-powered car with potential to deliver the best of what a plug-in hybrid offers – without depending on the electric grid for fuel.

 

 

Instead of powering its battery from an electrical outlet, the C-MAX Solar Energi harnesses power from the Sun by using a special concentrator that acts like a magnifying glass – directing intense rays to panels on the vehicle roof.

The result is a concept vehicle that takes a day’s worth of sunlight to deliver the same performance as the conventional C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, which draws its power from the electric grid. Ford C-MAX Energi gets a combined best miles per gallon equivalent in its class, with 108 MPGe city and 92 MPGe highway, for a combined average 100 MPGe. By using renewable power, it reduces the annual greenhouse gas emissions a typical owner would produce by four metric tons.

“Ford C-MAX Solar Energi Concept shines a new light on electric transportation and renewable energy,” said Mike Tinskey, Ford global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure. “As an innovation leader, we want to further the public dialog about the art of the possible in moving the world toward a cleaner future.”

C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, which will be shown at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is a collaborative project of Ford, SunPower Corp and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

 

ford solar powered car 2014 technology

 

Strong electrified vehicle sales

The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept debuts as Ford caps a record year of electrified vehicle sales. The company expects to sell 85,000 hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles for 2013 – the first full year its six new electrified vehicles were available in dealer showrooms.

Ford sold more plug-in vehicles in October and November than both Toyota and Tesla, and it outsold Toyota through the first 11 months of 2013. Plug-in hybrids continue to grow in sales as more customers discover the benefits of using electricity to extend their driving range.

Breakthrough clean technology

SunPower, which has been Ford’s solar technology partner since 2011, is providing high-efficiency solar cells for the roof of this concept car. Because of the extended time it takes to absorb enough energy to fully charge, Ford turned to the Georgia Institute of Technology for a way to amplify sunlight, to make a solar-powered hybrid feasible for daily use.

Researchers developed an off-vehicle solar concentrator (pictured below) with a special Fresnel lens to direct sunlight to the solar cells while boosting the impact of sunlight by a factor of eight. A Fresnel is a compact lens originally developed for use in lighthouses. Similar in concept to a magnifying glass, this patent-pending system tracks the Sun as it moves from east to west, drawing enough power each day to equal a four-hour battery charge (8 kilowatts).

 

ford solar power car technology 2014

 

With a full charge, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept will achieve the same range as a conventional C-MAX Energi hybrid – up to 620 miles, including 21 electric-only miles. Additionally, the vehicle still has a charge port, and can be charged by connecting to a station via cord and plug, so that drivers retain the option to power up via the grid, if desired. 

After the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is shown at CES, Ford and Georgia Tech will begin testing the vehicle in numerous real-world scenarios. The outcome of those tests will help to determine if the concept is feasible as a production car.  

Off-the-grid car

By tapping renewable solar energy with a rooftop solar panel system, the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is not dependent on the traditional electric grid for its battery power. Research by Ford suggests the Sun could power up to 75 percent of all trips made by an average driver in a solar hybrid car. This could be especially important in places where the electric grid is underdeveloped, unreliable or expensive to use.

The vehicle also reinforces MyEnergi Lifestyle, a concept revealed by Ford and several partners at 2013 CES. MyEnergi Lifestyle uses math, science and computer modelling to help homeowners understand how they can take advantage of energy-efficient home appliances, solar power systems and plug-in hybrid vehicles to significantly reduce monthly expenses while also reducing their overall carbon footprint.

The positive environmental impact from Ford C-MAX Solar Energi could be significant. It would reduce yearly CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from the average U.S. car owner by as much as four metric tons – the equivalent of what a U.S. house produces in four months.

If all light-duty vehicles in the United States were to adopt Ford C-MAX Solar Energi Concept technology, annual greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by approximately 1 billion metric tons.

 

ford solar power car technology 2014

 

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22nd December 2013

Bedroom of the future revealed

Self-cleaning blankets, furniture that monitors your health, bedside holograms... all of these features and more could appear in the bedrooms of the future.

 

woman in bed

 

We love our bedrooms. Over two-thirds of us (68%) say this is the room we enjoy spending most of our time in. As the bedroom – and the bed in particular – increasingly becomes the ‘hub of the home’, we're also very clear about what we want from the Bedroom of the Future. According to a recent survey by the Sleep Council, the top five features people would like to see are:

1. Self-cleaning/bacteria-resistant materials, i.e. mattresses with self-sterilisation systems (47%)
2. Heat/humidity adaptive materials, i.e. mattresses that heat/cool in response to conditions (42%)
3. Smart Bed monitoring your vital statistics as you sleep, i.e. warning you if you have an infection, oncoming cold or if you are about to have a heart attack (33%)
4. Seasonally adaptive lighting, i.e. lights that turn on in darker winter months to help you wake up in the morning (32%)
5. Energy-harvesting flooring and fixtures, i.e. carpet that attracts light and transfers this to usable energy (24%)

The survey, which interviewed 2,042 people across the UK, also found:

• 27% now surf the Internet in their bedrooms, compared to only 11% a decade ago
• 17% now talk on the phone in their bedrooms, compared to only 10% a decade ago
• 55% are intimate in the bedroom with their partner, compared to 65% a decade ago
• 62% of 16-24 year olds like to eat in their bedrooms, compared to only 22% of respondents overall. This age group likes to do most things in their bedrooms, in fact: 28% do hobbies/crafts (compared to only 8% overall); 76% listen to music (compared to only 36% overall); and 28% like to exercise (compared to only 12% overall)
• Reading is still among the favourite bedroom activities (65%), second only to sleeping

Some of the quirkier and more interesting responses from people, when asked what features they would like in their bedroom of the future (and bed specifically) were as follows:

- A hologram of Mr Darcy to read to you
- Ambient sounds, e.g. falling asleep to rainfall, or waking to birdsong
- A bed that raises you to standing position on awakening
- Personally adapted supportive mattress to ensure the body wakes up without aches and pains

 

bedroom of the future

 

Design scientist and futurist Melissa Sterry, a leading authority on the homes and cities of the future, said of the survey: “The message we’re getting is clear. While new science and technology presents many novel and interesting applications, the bedroom and the bed of the future that people actually want is that which benefits their health and wellbeing. Four out of the top five features the public chose for their future bedroom enhance comfort, mood and safety and three of the five features relate directly to the bed. So, no matter how many other activities we do in our bedrooms, it seems sleep is – and will remain – the most important of these.”

Carpetright (multi-national carpet and bed retailer): "We see the bed of the future being super high-tech: a sleek and curved bed that floats using clever magnetic forces, helping it to literally become our daily cloud of comfort. Imagine climbing into a bed that recognises you as the sleeper and adjusts accordingly, providing optimum support, comfort and temperature as well as regulating moisture and allergens to provide the perfect sleeping environment and a heavenly night's sleep. By using a single device, such as a portable tablet, we'll be able to control the TV, our daily alarms and the temperature of the room. Of course we'll be able to check social media and emails on it too. It will be an all-in-one futuristic bed that folds itself away into the subfloor when not in use. So no longer will you need to worry about having enough bedroom space, as this perfect invention stores itself away at the click of a button."

 

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2nd December 2013

"Amazon Prime Air" will use drones for 30 minute delivery

Online retailer Amazon has revealed a new rapid delivery method that will use unmanned aerial vehicles to send packages to customers within 30 minutes. Assuming the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves it, this futuristic service – "Amazon Prime Air" – could be introduced by 2015. Read more at the company's press release.

 

 

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11th November 2013

Water-recycling shower cuts bills by over $1000

A futuristic new shower developed by Orbital Systems can reduce water consumption by 90% and energy use by 80%, thanks to its advanced filtration system. The recycling and purification process makes it possible to re-use the heat of the rinsed water, while 99.99% of micron-sized particles are filtered. The water and energy savings translate to at least €1000 ($1351) off a typical utility bill each year. This could prove especially useful in regions hit by water shortages.

 

 

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10th November 2013

Bulletproof nanotechnology suit goes on sale

Luxury bespoke tailoring house, Garrison Bespoke, has launched the first fashion-forward bulletproof suit with a live ammo field-testing event in Toronto, Canada.

 

 

 

Michael Nguyen, co-owner of Garrison Bespoke: "After receiving requests from high-profile clients who travel to dangerous places for work, we set out to develop a lightweight, fashion-forward bulletproof suit as a more discreet and stylish alternative to wearing a bulky vest underneath."

The Garrison Bespoke bulletproof suit is made with carbon nanotubes created using nanotechnology and originally developed to protect the US 19th Special Forces in Iraq. The patented material is thinner, more flexible and 50 percent lighter than Kevlar, which is traditionally used for bulletproof gear. The suit also protects against stabbing – the carbon nanotubes harden on impact to prevent a knife from penetrating.

The live ammo field-testing event was held in the Ajax Rod and Gun Club, Ontario. It demonstrated the suit's ability to shield against 9mm bullets. Nguyen claims the suit can block .45 bullets as well. Garrison Bespoke's latest collection – Town & Country – features a range of new clothing, all of which can be made bulletproof by request, with prices starting from $20,000.

 

bulletproof nanotechnology suit

 

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8th November 2013

Public perceptions of future wearable computing

As scientists develop the next wave of smartwatches and other wearable computing, they might want to continue focusing their attention on the arms and the wrists. According to a recent study, portable electronic devices placed on the collar, torso, waist or legs may cause awkwardness, embarrassment or strange looks.

 

people in lift

 

In a paper titled “Don’t Mind Me Touching My Wrist,” Georgia Tech researchers reported a case study of interaction with on-body technology in public. Specifically, they surveyed people in both the United States and South Korea to gain cultural insights into perceptions of e-textiles, or electronic devices, stitched into everyday clothing.

For the study, researchers directed participants to watch videos of people receiving incoming alerts from e-textile interfaces on various parts of their body including wrists, forearms, collarbones, torsos, waists and front pant pocket. They were asked to describe their thoughts about the interaction (such as whether it appeared normal, silly or awkward) and its placement on the body.

In general, the study found that in both countries, the wrist and forearm were the most preferred locations for e-textiles, as well as the most normal placement when watching someone use the devices.

“This may be due to the fact that these locations are already being used for wearable technology,” said Halley Profita, former Georgia Tech industrial design graduate student, who led the study. “People strap smartphones or MP3 players to their arms while exercising. Runners wear GPS watches.”

 

wearable computing
Credit: heapsylon

 

According to the study:

  • Gender of the technology user affected opinions about the interaction. For example, Americans were uncomfortable when men used a device located at the front pant pocket region or when women reached for their torsos or collarbones.

  • South Koreans reported exceptionally low acceptance of women using the devices anywhere except for their arms.

  • Respondents expressed differing views on the most important factors on deciding how to use e-textiles. Americans focused on ease of operation and accessibility; South Koreans raised personal perception issues.

“The South Koreans also said they wanted an easy-to-use system – but the technology should not make them look awkward or weird,” Profita said. “This isn’t surprising, because their culture emphasises modesty, politeness and avoidance of embarrassing situations.”

The findings were presented at the International Symposium in Wearable Computing, held in Switzerland.

 

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26th October 2013

A clear majority of Americans want marijuana to be legal

A new poll by Gallup has revealed that 58% of Americans now support the legalisation of marijuana. Only 39% are now against.

 

gallup poll marijuana

 

When Gallup first asked the question back in 1969, only 12% favoured legalisation of the drug. This figure had more than doubled by 1980. It then levelled off during the next two decades, before rising steadily again. In 2011, support reached a majority for the first time with 50% in favour and 46% against. The gap has now widened further – by a dramatic amount, in fact – as shown by the graph above.

Support for legalisation has risen across the political spectrum, but remains weakest among Republican voters, with only 35% in favour. For Democrats, the figure is 65%, up from 61% in 2012. The largest increase, by far, has occurred with independent voters, whose support has increased by a massive 12% – from 50% in 2012, to 62% now.

 

voters

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, age makes a difference too, with younger people more likely to be in favour. Among those aged between 18 and 29, over two-thirds believe marijuana should be legal. This decreases to 45% for those 65 and older.

 

age ranges

 

In the last year, recreational use of pot became legal in two states – Colorado and Washington. Over 20 states allow marijuana use for medical purposes. A sizable percentage of Americans (38%) this year admitted to having tried the drug, which may be a contributing factor to its greater acceptance.

 

how many americans have tried pot

 

If these trends continue, and with Generation X playing a greater role in politics, there may come a tipping point in the not-too-distant future when marijuana is legal across many more states and – eventually – the entire nation. Taxing and regulating the drug could be financially beneficial, while freeing up police time, allowing officers to concentrate on more serious crimes.

 

marijuana usa map
Credit: Lokal_Profil (CC BY-SA 2.5)

 

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5th October 2013

World's most fuel-efficient car makes U.S. debut

The Volkswagen XL1 – the most aerodynamic and fuel-efficient car ever built – made its U.S. debut this week at the 23rd Annual Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) Conference held in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

 

XL1

 

The XL1 offers a European combined fuel consumption rating of 261 miles per gallon (more than 200 mpg estimated in the U.S. cycle). By way of comparison, the U.S. average for new passenger vehicles is currently around 32 mpg and forecast to reach 54 mpg by 2025. The XL1 goes 32 miles in all-electric mode as a zero-emissions car, with top speed of 99 mph, accelerating from 0 to 62 mph in 12.7 seconds.

“The XL1 offers a glimpse into Volkswagen’s present and future eco-mobility capabilities, and highlights the ultimate successes of ‘Thinking Blue’,” said Oliver Schmidt, General Manager of the Engineering and Environmental Office (EEO), Volkswagen Group of America. “Volkswagen is proud to debut this ultra-fuel-efficient vehicle before the Society of Environmental Journalists, a group that shares in our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

The XL1 follows pure sports-car design principles: light weight (1753 pounds), exceptional aerodynamics (Cd 0.19), and a low centre of gravity. This super-efficient vehicle has the ability to cruise down the road at a constant 62 mph while using just 8.4 PS (6.2kW) horsepower. In all-electric mode, it requires less than 0.1 kWh to cover more than a kilometre.

The car emits just 21 g/km of CO2, thanks to its high-tech lightweight design, aerodynamic efficiency, and plug-in hybrid system consisting of a 48 PS (35kW) two-cylinder TDI engine, 27-hp electric motor, seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, and lithium-ion battery.

 

Click to enlarge

XL1 schematic

 

Conceptually, the XL1 is the third evolutionary stage of Volkswagen’s 1-litre car strategy. When the new millennium was ushered in, Professor Ferdinand Piëch – now Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen – formulated the visionary goal of putting into production a practical car with combined fuel consumption of one litre per 100 km (235 mpg). In the two-seat XL1, this vision has become a reality.

Despite the tremendous efficiency of the car, its engineers and designers successfully came up with a body design which delivers more everyday utility than the two previous prototypes. In the L1, shown in 2002 and 2009, driver and passenger sat in a "tandem" arrangement for optimal aerodynamics; in the XL1, the two occupants sit slightly offset, side by side, almost like a conventional vehicle.

The XL1 is 153.1 inches long, 65.6 inches wide, and just 45.4 inches tall. By comparison, a Volkswagen Polo is slightly longer (156.3 in) and wider (66.2 in), but is significantly taller (57.6 in). Even a purebred sports car like today’s Porsche Boxster is 5.1 inches taller. The XL1 will look spectacular going down the highway – a car of the future, built for today.

This technology comes at a price, of course. The XL1 will be sold at $146,000 with only 250 being produced.

 

Click to enlarge

         
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13th September 2013

Americans living longer, healthier lives

Overall, Americans today are living longer and more healthily than the previous generation, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. There was a 3.8 year increase in average life expectancy during the last two decades, with quality-adjusted life expectancy (QALE) also increasing. However, there was a notable rise in anxiety among young and middle-aged people, beginning in 2001.

 

americans living longer healthier lives

 

Thanks to medical advances, better treatments and new drugs not available a generation ago, the average American born today can expect to live 3.8 years longer than a person born two decades ago. Despite all these new technologies, however, is our increased life expectancy actually providing more active and healthy years of life? That question has remained largely unanswered – until now. In a first-of-its-kind study, the University of Massachusetts Medical School has found that the average 25-year-old American today can look forward to 2.4 more years of healthy life than 20 years ago while a 65-year-old today has gained 1.7 years.

Synthesising data from multiple government-sponsored health surveys conducted over the last 21 years, the researchers were able, for the first time, to measure how the quality-adjusted life expectancy (QALE) of all Americans has changed over time. The study’s findings are described in a paper published yesterday in the American Journal of Public Health.

“QALE tells us more than how long a person can expect to live,” said Dr. Allison Rosen, associate professor of quantitative health sciences. “It tells us what the relative qualities of those added years are in terms of physical, emotional and mental well-being. Though many studies have measured this in different ways, this is really the first time we’ve been able to capture this type of information across the whole U.S. population over an extended period.”

Overall, the data shows that Americans are living longer, reporting fewer symptoms of disease, have more energy and show less impairment in everyday tasks than a generation ago. According to the study, a 25-year-old person today can expect to live 6 percent or 2.4 quality years longer than their 1987 counterpart. Meanwhile, a 65-year-old person will gain 1.7 quality years, a 14 percent increase from a generation ago.

Thanks to improvements in health care, many conditions are far more treatable today than 25 years ago, Rosen said. Heart disease, for instance, was potentially much more debilitating a generation ago and patients often suffered a decline in quality of life as a result. “Today, it is far less likely that a patient recovering from a heart attack will become institutionalised or need around-the-clock care the way they once might have,” Rosen said.

 

heart health

 

Today, Americans are more likely to see quality of life declines related to chronic, degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, while younger Americans appear to be experiencing problems related to a sedentary lifestyle. The authors also identified some troubling health trends. Among these was an increase in anxiety among young and middle-aged people, beginning in 2001. They also found that health gains made as a result of smoking cessation programs were being off-set, in part, by increases in obesity.

In the past, researchers have had a difficult time measuring population health beyond simple life expectancy because quality of life incorporates so many variables – physical well-being, mental health, pain, vitality, energy, emotional state – that it’s difficult to bring all these things together cohesively into a single number. Making it even more challenging, surveys measuring quality of life are rarely consistent with each other as they all define health and life quality differently.

Using multiple national surveys that asked Americans about their health in various ways over the last 21 years, Rosen and her colleagues solved this problem by identifying areas where the studies overlapped – allowing them to build a single, large data set that covered the entire adult population over more than two decades.

“Comprehensive measures of the overall health of the nation are practically non-existent,” said Rosen. “This study shows how existing national data can be used to systematically measure whether the population is getting healthier – not just living longer.”

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) goes into effect from 2014–2020, the value of a single, consistent way of measuring improvements in health over a large population will be invaluable in assessing the impact of these pending changes, according to the authors.

“Having a consistent measure of population health represents a major advance in our ability to measure the impact of health care reform on the health – not just the health care use – of all Americans,” said Rosen. “The bottom line in assessing the success of the ACA is whether or not we are getting the most health from our investment of increasingly limited resources. Are we getting the most health bang for our bucks?”

 

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28th August 2013

Nissan plans to sell affordable self-driving cars by 2020

Japanese automaker Nissan has announced that it will provide multiple, commercially-viable autonomous drive vehicles by 2020.

Nissan claims that its engineers have been carrying out intensive research on the technology for years, alongside teams from the world's top universities including MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Tokyo.

Work is already underway in Japan to build a dedicated autonomous driving proving ground, to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2014. Featuring real townscapes – masonry not mock-ups – it will be used to push vehicle testing beyond the limits possible on public roads to ensure the technology is safe.

The company says its autonomous driving will be achieved at realistic prices for consumers. The goal is availability across the model range within two vehicle generations.

"Nissan Motor Company's willingness to question conventional thinking and to drive progress – is what sets us apart," said CEO Carlos Ghosn. "In 2007 I pledged that – by 2010 – Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle. Today, the Nissan LEAF is the best-selling electric vehicle in history. Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realise it."

 

 

A revolutionary concept like autonomous drive will have implications throughout the design and construction of cars. Collision-avoidance by machines able to react more rapidly and with more complex movements than a human driver will place new demands on the chassis and traction control, for example.

Six million crashes in the US per year cost $160 billion and rank as the leading cause of death for four- to 34-year olds. 93% of accidents are due to human error, typically due to inattention. With autonomous drive, companies like Nissan will have the technology to detect and avoid these life-threatening situations.

In the future, autonomous drive also means less input from the driver. US drivers average 48 minutes per day on the road – hundreds of hours per year that could be used more productively. For the aged, or those with disabilities, there is another benefit: true independence and mobility for all.

Last week, a report from Navigant Research claimed that sales of autonomous vehicles will reach almost 100 million annually by 2035.

 

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21st August 2013

Autonomous vehicles will reach nearly 100 million in annual sales by 2035

Combinations of advanced driver assistance features – such as adaptive speed control, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning – are now being brought together in some 2014 vehicle models, making semi-autonomous driving a reality in many markets for the first time. Increasing production volumes and technology improvements, leading to cost reductions, are now making it feasible to install the multiple sensors necessary for such capabilities.

According to a new report from Navigant Research, sales of autonomous vehicles will grow from less than 8,000 annually in 2020 to more than 95.4 million in 2035, representing 75 percent of all light-duty vehicle sales by that time.

 

self driving car
Image: Google

 

“Fully autonomous vehicles are unlikely to reach the market suddenly,” says David Alexander, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. “Instead, progressively more capable systems that can assume control of certain aspects of driving will be introduced gradually. The first features will most likely be self-parking, traffic jam assistance, and freeway cruising – well-defined situations that lend themselves to control by upgraded versions of today’s onboard systems.”

One of the main barriers to fully automated vehicles driving is the legal requirement in many countries that all vehicles must have a driver in control at all times. Some U.S. states and European countries have begun to issue licenses for companies to conduct testing of autonomous driving features on public highways under controlled conditions. However, before full autonomous driving capability becomes available, liability issues must be clarified. Automakers will be reluctant to assume responsibility for not only supplying the vehicles, but also safely operating them, says the report.

The report, “Autonomous Vehicles”, provides a detailed examination of the emerging market for advanced driver assistance systems leading to semi-autonomous and autonomous driving. The report includes profiles of the leading vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, along with analysis of the drivers and inhibitors for sales of these vehicles. Forecasts for revenue and sales volumes, segmented by region, extend through 2035. It also includes a review of the core driver assistance technologies that make self-driving vehicles possible. An Executive Summary is available for free download.

 

Autonomous vehicles will reach nearly 100 million in annual sales by 2035

 

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15th August 2013

Smartphone sales grew 47 percent in the second quarter of 2013 and overtook basic feature handsets for the first time

Worldwide, mobile phone sales totalled 435 million units in the second quarter of 2013 – an increase of 3.6 percent from the same period in 2012 – according to research firm Gartner. Smartphone sales reached 225 million units, up 47 percent from last year, while basic feature phones totalled 210 million units, a decline of nearly 25 percent.

Asia/Pacific, Latin America and Eastern Europe had the highest smartphone growth rates of 74.1 percent, 55.7 percent and 31.6 percent respectively, as smartphone sales grew in all regions.

 

phone sales

 

Samsung maintained the no. 1 position in the global smartphone market, as its share of sales reached 31.7 percent, up from 29.7 percent in the second quarter of 2012. Apple’s smartphone sales reached 32 million units in the second quarter of 2013, up 10.2 percent from a year ago.

Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner: “With second quarter of 2013 sales broadly on track, we see little need to adjust our expectations for worldwide mobile phone sales forecast to total 1.82 billion units this year. Flagship devices brought to market in time for the holidays, and the continued price reduction of smartphones will drive consumer adoption in the second half of the year.”

In the smartphone operating system (OS) market, Microsoft took over BlackBerry for the first time, taking the no. 3 spot with 3.3 percent market share in the second quarter of 2013. “While Microsoft has managed to increase share and volume in the quarter, it should continue to focus on growing interest from app developers to help grow its appeal among users,” said Mr. Gupta. The Android OS continued to increase its lead, garnering 79 percent of the market in the second quarter, followed by Apple's iOS with 14.2%.

Basic feature phones will be a hard sell in about five to 10 years time, says Gupta: "It will reach a point where sales of a new model of feature phone will not be able to justify the amount of time and money that is spent into developing it."

 

phones

 

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5th August 2013

World's first lab-grown burger

The first burger made entirely of lab-grown in-vitro meat has been cooked and eaten in London.

Last year, Dutch scientists demonstrated a rudimentary form of synthetic meat, consisting of thin strips of muscle tissue derived from a cow's stem cells. They have now gone a step further by producing a complete hamburger – cooked by chef Richard McGeown and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald. It was mixed with salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs to improve the taste, with a colouring of red beetroot juice and saffron.

The world is currently using 70% of agricultural capacity to obtain meat from livestock. On current trends, meat demand is forecast to double by 2050. To produce a single hamburger requires 2,400 litres of water and involves the transport and slaughtering of animals, while a kilogram of beef has a carbon footprint of 17 kg (37.5 lb). Artificially-grown meat has enormous potential in terms of reducing this environmental impact and providing a more ethical way of creating food. Independent studies have shown that it would use 45% less energy, produce 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and require 99% less land than traditional methods.

The burger seen in this video cost nearly £250,000 ($384,000) to make. Billionaire co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, funded the project, saying he was doing it for "animal welfare reasons". It could be 15-20 years before such food is affordable and mainstream, but this is clearly a major step towards that eventual goal.

 

 

 

 

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21st July 2013

The world's first full-colour 3D desktop printer

London and New York-based company botObjects recently announced the ProDesk3D, which they claimed to be the first full-colour 3D printer small enough to fit on a desktop. In addition to its colour abilities and compactness, they confirmed that it would print at 25 microns – some four times more accurate than its competitors (Makerbot's Replicator 2 has a resolution of 100 microns).

 

prodesk3d

 

This gives an extremely smooth finish, overcoming the issue of surface grooves which often appear in 3D-printed objects. The machine uses different-coloured cartridges on the fly, just like an inkjet printer, instead of requiring single-colour spools of raw plastic to be swapped out. This includes a palette of new "translucent" PLA colours for some impressive blending effects, customisable with software on Windows 7 and Mac OS X. There is no complex or tricky set up, as the ProDesk3D arrives out-of-the-box complete.

 

prodesk3d software screenshot

 

The company has received over 100,000 enquiries and expects to ship its first orders by 1st October 2013. The standard and limited edition models both have a somewhat hefty price tag of nearly $3,000 each, making them high-end products. However, the cost of 3D printing has fallen rapidly in recent years and if this continues, it is expected to become a mainstream consumer technology by 2015. Following their recent announcement, the company has now released a video of the product in action:

 

 

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13th July 2013

Nokia reveals smartphone with 41 megapixel camera

Nokia has revealed the Lumia 1020 – a Windows 8 smartphone that includes a 41 megapixel camera sensor, PureView technology, Optical Image Stabilisation and high-resolution zoom.

This is Nokia's second phone to feature such a camera. Last year, the company launched the Pureview 808 model. However, this was based on the ageing Symbian operating system, which limited its appeal. The new Lumia 1020 instead runs on the latest Microsoft OS with over 160,000 apps.

As well as its ultra-high resolution (7712 × 5360 pixels), the camera uses a process called "oversampling". This generates a smaller 5MP version of the image that removes unwanted visual noise, achieves higher definition and light sensitivity, and enables lossless zoom. Unlike its predecessor, the Lumia 1020 can save both types at the same time, meaning that the owner does not need to worry about switching settings.

In addition, the camera's video mode takes advantage of the higher resolution, by allowing the user to zoom in four times while filming at 1080p without any loss of quality, and six times at 720p. The lens system is mounted on ball-bearings and is fitted with a gyroscope and motors to counteract movement and camera shake.

Given the exponential progress of digital technology, these sort of cameras should be fairly standard and low cost within the next few years. By the 2020s, we will probably be saying the same about gigapixel cameras.

 

 

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22nd June 2013

Drone mosquitoes? U.S. companies developing tiny surveillance devices to snoop inside homes

The FBI confirmed this week that drones are carrying out surveillance within the USA, without regulations in place to address privacy concerns. Speaking to Democracy Now!, Heidi Boghosian – National Lawyers Guild executive director and author of the forthcoming book, "Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance" – explains the technologies being developed to expand drone surveillance in the near future. These include drones the size of mosquitoes, capable of entering apartment buildings and remaining airborne inside to spy without detection. You can watch the full interview here.

 

 

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16th June 2013

Automated 'coach' could help with social interactions

A new software system from MIT could help people improve their conversational and interview skills.

 

 

Social phobias affect about 15 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and surveys show that public speaking is high on the list of such phobias. For some people, these fears of social situations can be especially acute: individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, for example, often have difficulty making eye contact and reacting appropriately to social cues. But with appropriate training, such difficulties can often be overcome.

Now, new software developed at MIT can be used to help people practice their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. The software, called MACH (short for My Automated Conversation coacH), uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behaviour analysis and synthesis software, to simulate face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on their interactions.

The research was led by doctoral student M. Ehsan Hoque. A paper documenting the software’s development and testing has been accepted for presentation at the 2013 International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, known as UbiComp, to be held in September.

“Interpersonal skills are the key to being successful at work and at home,” Hoque says. “How we appear and how we convey our feelings to others define us. But there isn’t much help out there to improve on that segment of interaction.”

Many people with social phobias, Hoque says, want “the possibility of having some kind of automated system so that they can practice social interactions in their own environment. … They desire to control the pace of the interaction, practice as many times as they wish, and own their data.”

 

mach on screen

 

The MACH software offers all those features, Hoque says. In fact, in randomised tests with 90 MIT juniors who volunteered for the research, the software showed its value.

First, the test subjects – all of whom were native English speakers – were randomly divided into three groups. Each group participated in two simulated job interviews, a week apart, with MIT career counselors.

But between the two interviews, unbeknownst to the counselors, the students received help: One group watched videos of interview advice, while a second group had a practice session with the MACH simulated interviewer, but received no feedback other than a video of their own performance. Finally, a third group used MACH and then saw videos of themselves accompanied by analysis of such measures as how often they smiled, how well they maintained eye contact, how well they modulated their voices, and how often they used filler words such as “like,” “basically” and “umm.”

Evaluations by another group of career counselors showed statistically significant improvement by members of the third group on measures including “appears excited about the job,” “overall performance,” and “would you recommend hiring this person?” In all of these categories, by comparison, there was no significant change for the other two groups.

The software behind these improvements was developed over two years as part of Hoque’s doctoral thesis with help from his advisor, professor of media arts and sciences Rosalind Picard, as well as Matthieu Courgeon and Jean-Claude Martin from LIMSI-CNRS in France, Bilge Mutlu from the University of Wisconsin, and MIT undergraduate Sumit Gogia.

Designed to run on an ordinary laptop, the system uses the computer’s webcam to monitor a user’s facial expressions and movements, and its microphone to capture the subject’s speech. The MACH system then analyses the user’s smiles, head gestures, speech volume and speed, and use of filler words, among other things. The automated interviewer — a life-size, three-dimensional simulated face — can smile and nod in response to the subject’s speech and motions, ask questions and give responses. While this initial implementation was focused on helping job candidates, Hoque says training with the software could be helpful in many kinds of social interactions.

MACH: My Automated Conversation coacH [PDF]

 

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