Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 19, 2008

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Issue 19, 2008

This week's headlines:

Experts unveil 'cloak of silence'
June 12, 2008

Being woken in the dead of night by noisy neighbours blasting out music could soon be a thing of the past. Scientists at the Polytechnic University of Valencia have shown off the blueprint for an 'acoustic cloak', which could make objects impervious to sound waves.

The team believe the key to a practical device are so-called 'sonic crystals'. These artificial composites - also known as 'meta-materials' - can be engineered to produce specific acoustical effects. These would be used to channel any sound around an object, like water flowing around a rock in a stream.

The researchers believe a material that consists of arrays of tiny cylinders would achieve this effect. Simulations showed that 200 layers of this metamaterial could effectively shield an object from noise. Thinner stacks would shield an object from certain frequencies.

The material could have many applications. Walls of the material could be built to soundproof houses or it could be used in concert halls to enhance acoustics or direct noise away from certain areas. The military may also be interested, the researchers believe, to conceal submarines from detection by sonar or to create a new class of stealth ships.

Full story: BBC News / New Journal of Physics Back to top

Fastest supercomputer in the world proves one in a million billion
June 10, 2008

Roadrunner was always expected to be fast out of the blocks. And after a test run one night its creators are far from disappointed. Built by IBM from microchips originally destined for games consoles, Roadrunner has been officially crowned the fastest computer around, having performed a record million billion calculations per second.

As an indication of how fast this is, manufacturers explained that if 6 billion people were to do one sum a second on calculator, it would take 46 years to do what RoadRunner could do in a day.

By harnessing the power of 116,640 processors working in concert, Roadrunner surpassed a milestone in computing power, to enter a new era of what those familiar with such things call petaflop computing. Peta means a million billion, while a flop is a type of calculation.

Next month, the 230-tonne machine will be loaded on to 21 trucks and hauled across the country, from IBM's east coast facility to New Mexico. There, it will become the American military's latest toy, when it is installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Full story: The Guardian Back to top

Surgeons get Minority Report-style display
June 11, 2008

In the movie Minority Report, the agents of a police state monitor people's lives to stop crimes before they are committed, using giant computer screens that they operate using mid-air hand gestures. But in the real world surgeons, not spies, may be the first to handle data in this way. It is a great way to avoid hospital-acquired infections like MRSA, which can easily be spread via a keyboard or mouse.

Researchers at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel, describe a screen and gesture-recognition system that allows surgeons to flip back and forth through radiology images, such as MRI and CT scans, by simply groping in mid-air. Their system, called Gestix, comprises a colour video camera above a flat, widescreen monitor placed next to the operating table. The video signal from the camera is fed to a PC, where software trained to detect the colour of the surgeon's gloves tracks the movements of their hand.

Unlike the EyeToy and Wii gaming systems, which require the user to hit target areas on a screen or hold a controller, Gestix simply requires the surgeon to learn eight gestures. These include swishing the hand right or left to go back or forth through a preloaded image sequence, or clockwise and counterclockwise to zoom in and out. In tests of the sterile browsing system during brain surgery, the researchers say the system did what it was asked to do 96 per cent of the time.

Full story: New Scientist / Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association Back to top

'Camera pill' goes on incredible voyage
June 05, 2008

Medical scientists have developed tiny cameras that can be swallowed by a patient and steered around the body to deliver images of the oesophagus. The first-ever control system for the 'camera pill' is a joint development by manufacturer Given Imaging, the Israelite Hospital in Hamburg, Royal Imperial College in London and the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT).

The team developed a magnetic device roughly the size of a bar of chocolate which the doctor can hold in his hand during the examination and move up and down the patient's body. The steerable camera pill consists of a camera, a transmitter that sends the images to the receiver, a battery and several cold-light diodes which briefly flare up like a torch every time a picture is taken.

One prototype of the camera pill has already passed its first practical test in the human body. The researchers demonstrated that the camera can be kept in the oesophagus for about 10 minutes even if the patient is sitting upright.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Researchers develop 'gait recognition' biometrics
June 10, 2008

Researchers in India are developing a pioneering approach to biometrics which they claim can identify individuals by the way they walk.

Researchers at the Vidya Vikas Institute of Engineering & Technology and the S J College of Engineering in Mysore, India, say that human gait typifies the motion characteristics of an individual. Viewed from the side, we each have a unique gait that makes us 'easily recognisable', according to the researchers.

A camera with a side view records a set of key frames, or stances, as an individual completes a full walk cycle. This can then be converted into silhouette form and analysed with height measurements and the periodicity of the gait to identify the person.

The researchers claim that gait recognition has a significant advantage over more well-known biometrics, such as fingerprinting and iris scanning, in that it is entirely unobtrusive and can be used to identify an individual from a distance.

Full story: VNUnet UK / International Journal of Biometrics Back to top

Robotic fish ace swim test - as a team
June 11, 2008

A trio of robotic fish sporting tails and fins recently aced their first swim team test. While most underwater robots rely on guidance from a scientist or satellite, the new robots, called Robofish, can work as a team by wirelessly communicating only with each other.

The fish, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, are about two feet long and wiggle through the water by using their fish-like tails and fins. Fins have advantages over propellers that are commonly used for underwater robots, in that fins produce less drag and noise, and allow the robots to make tight turns.

In the future, schools of ocean-going robots could work together to track groups of whales or dolphins or even explore hard-to-reach caves, such as those tucked beneath ice.

In the lab, the researchers programmed the robotic fish to either swim in the same direction or in different directions. In the latter case, each one would swim about 120 degrees from its neighbour. With three coordinated robots, they can relay their locality to teammates and signal the others to collect information at another 'happening' spot.

Full story: MSNBC / Back to top

Algae oil promises truly green fuel
June 10, 2008

Algae oil is a biofuel that lives up to its green billing in more ways than one. It is an emerald-green crude oil, produced by photosynthesis in algae, which could fuel cars, trucks and aircraft - without consuming crops that can be used as food.

'This product can go right into today's oil pipeline,' claims Jason Pyle of Sapphire Energy in San Diego, California, which developed the fuel. He says the 'green crude' is similar in quality to naturally occurring crude oil. It is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis by a genetically engineered strain of algae, housed in tanks of treated waste-water and exposed to sunlight. The tanks can be placed on non-arable land.

Gasoline, diesel and jet fuel have already been refined from the green crude, and the company aims to produce 10,000 barrels per day within five years.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Invention: Fraud-beating magnetic banknotes
June 09, 2008

There is a continual battle between counterfeiters and banknote manufacturers. But researchers at UK military research company Qinetiq think they have designed the only technology that makes it possible for anyone to spot a fake by touch alone.

Most anti-counterfeiting techniques use visual cues such as watermarks or holograms, or machine-readable features like markings that only become visible under ultraviolet light. Qinetiq's idea is to use spots of magnetic inks on a document such as a banknote, with alternating polarity. To check a note's authenticity, you simply fold the note and rub it to feel the alternate attraction and repulsion as the inks move past each other.

The sensation would make a smooth piece of paper feel rippled, say the group, who think the technology could work on anything from passports to legal letters. A touch-based system would have advantages in places where lighting is poor such as pubs and clubs, as well as being a useful aid to the visually impaired.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top