Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 22, 2011

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Issue 22, 2011

This week's headlines:

Netherlands makes net neutrality a law
June 23, 2011

The Dutch may become the first in Europe to use web-based services on smartphones for no extra charge. On 22 June, the Dutch Parliament passed a law stopping mobile operators from blocking or charging extra for voice calling done via the net. The bill must now pass through the senate, but its passage is expected to be a formality. The move may prove crucial in Europe's on-going debate over net neutrality.

The idea of net neutrality enshrines is that all internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of its type - be it video, audio, e-mail, or the text of a web page. However, ISPs said they need to discriminate because unchecked traffic from some applications, such as games or file-sharing programs, can slow down their entire network for all customers. As a result many ISPs throttle, block or charge extra for many bandwidth hungry applications and content.

The EU endorses net neutrality principles, which state that telecommunication companies may charge extra for some services, but need to tell customers what they are doing. The European Commission has adopted a 'wait and see' approach.

So far, the Netherlands is the second country to enshrine the net neutrality concept into national law, after Chile. While advocates of net neutrality idea praised the Dutch government for the move, the country's telecommunications companies were disappointed. All major mobile network providers, including Vodafone, T-Mobile and the former Dutch state telecom Royal KPN NV, had lobbied against the bill, warning that they may raise subscription prices if the law was passed.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

High-speed 'space wedge' on track
June 23, 2011

The European Space Agency (ESA) is pressing ahead with its re-entry demonstrator known as the IXV, which it expects to launch in 2013. This distinctive wedge-shaped vehicle will be put at an altitude above 400km from where it will begin its flight back to Earth.

Its suite of sensors should give engineers new insights into how objects fall back through the atmosphere. Ultimately, the data should inform better spacecraft design. Even probes sent to land on other worlds like Mars should benefit from the knowledge. ESA signed an agreement at the Paris Air Show that will lead to manufacture of the demonstrator by Thales Alenia Space in Italy. The company's facility in Turin has spent the past two years researching the concept.

The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) is a car-sized, two-tonne automated craft that can be seen as a follow-on to the Advanced Re-entry Demonstrator flown by ESA in 1998. But whereas ARD was a traditional cone-shaped object, IXV is very different; it has flaps and thrusters to control its descent trajectory. A ceramic heatshield on its underside will prevent IXV from burning up. The vehicle will launch from French Guiana on ESA's forthcoming small rocket, Vega. The top stage of Vega will put IXV on a sub-orbital trajectory around the Earth that will bring the demonstrator down in Pacific. A parachute will be deployed to bring it to a gentle splash-down.

The knowledge gained from the flight is expected to feed into materials research and the computer models that are used to describe the energetic physics that occurs when an object plunges through atmospheric gases at several kilometres per second.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Red wine's heart health chemical unlocked at last
June 22, 2011

Fancy receiving the heart protecting abilities of red wine without having to drink a glass every day? Soon you may be able to, thanks to the synthesis of chemicals derived from resveratrol, the molecule believed to give wine its protective powers. The chemicals have the potential to fight many diseases, including cancer.

Plants make a huge variety of chemicals, called polyphenols, from resveratrol to protect themselves against invaders, particularly fungi. But they only make tiny amounts of each chemical, making it extremely difficult for scientists to isolate and utilise them. The unstable nature of resveratrol has also hindered attempts at building new compounds from the chemical itself.

But now researchers at Columbia University in New York have found a way around this: building polyphenols from compounds that resemble, but are subtly different to, resveratrol. These differences make the process much easier. Using these alternative starting materials, they have made dozens of natural polyphenols, including vaticanol C, which is known to kill cancer cells.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Back to top

New camera does away with focussing
June 22, 2011

News of a camera that promises to put an end to unfocussed photos forever broke overnight, as Silicon Valley startup Lytro announced a camera for consumers based on research at Stanford University.

The company is building a 'plenoptic' or 'light field' camera, which features an array of small lenses between the conventional lens and the sensor. That enables the camera to collect more light, from a wider range of directions than a conventional one.

Researchers have been tinkering with the idea for years and shown that the rich information captured that way allows for features cameras do not have today. Lytro's camera will record the light information it collects in a special file format that allows a photographer to choose what depth they want to focus to on their computer.

Each of the micro-lenses in a plenoptic camera's array views a scene from a slightly different angle and those views can be compared to deduce the distance to the objects in front of the camera.

Full story: Technology Review Back to top

Hand-hacking lets you pluck strings like a musical pro
June 23, 2011

Want to learn a musical instrument, but can't find the time to practise? A new device can take control of your hand and teach you how to play a tune. PossessedHand, being developed jointly by the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories, electrically stimulates the muscles in the forearm that move your fingers. A belt worn around that part of the subject's arm contains 28 electrode pads, which flex the joints between the three bones of each finger and the two bones of the thumb, and provide two wrist movements.

Having successfully hijacked a hand, the researchers tried to teach it how to play the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. Koto players wear different picks on three fingers, but pluck the strings with all five fingertips, so each finger produces a distinctive sound. A koto score tells players which fingers should be moved and when, and from this Tamaki and her team were able to generate instructions telling their device how and when to stimulate the wearer's muscles.

PossessedHand does not generate enough force to pluck the koto strings, but it could help novice players by teaching them the correct finger movements. The team found that two beginner players made a total of four timing errors when using PossessedHand, compared with 13 when playing unassisted. After prompting from the device, the players also made one less mistake about which finger to use.

As well as helping would-be musicians, PossessedHand could be used to rehabilitate people who have suffered a stroke or other injury that impairs muscle control. Therapists already use electrical muscle stimulation to help these people, but existing non-invasive devices can only achieve crude movements such as contracting the entire arm.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top