Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 10, 2013

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 10, 2013

This week's headlines:

New glasses-free 3-D breakthrough
March 21, 2013

Fancy watching a movie on your mobile phone, where figures leap out from the screen in 3D? US researchers at Hewlett-Packard say they have moved that vision a pixel closer with the development of a three-dimensional image display that can be viewed without special glasses and is intended for cellphones, tablets and watches. Their small prototype display is flat, backlit and uses a technology called diffractive optics to give 3D images that can be viewed from multiple angles.

Humans view the world stereoscopically, meaning our two eyes see two slightly different images because they are separated by about six centimetres. Two-dimensional screening provides a single flat image, which means the two eyes both see the same picture on the screen; 3D imaging, therefore, has to present a slightly different image to each eye. Glasses-based systems work by having two lenses that each polarise the light in different directions, or by having lenses of red and green.

Current glasses-free systems use thin lenses called lenticules or parallax barriers that send an image towards each eye. But the 3D effect is limited and can only be perceived if the viewer is positioned in a narrow zone so that the correct eye gets the correct image.

The new 'autostereoscopic multiview display' uses a backlight whose surface has been etched with tiny refractors. Each of these microscopic deflectors send individual points of light in specific directions. These individual pixels, put together, comprise the different images sent to each eyeball. The demonstration models can send light in 14 distinct viewing directions, providing the 3D effect in an angle of 90 degrees at a distance of up to a metre. The scientists say the design can be ramped up to produce up to 64 directions, further widening the viewing zone.

Using glass of high refractive index, the field of view could be close to 180 degrees, they add.

Full story: ABC News / AFP Back to top

Cheap 'nano-tablet' purifies water for up to six months
March 15, 2013

Researchers have developed a water purification tablet comprised of nanoparticles that can be used by developing world communities with no access to clean water. The tablet, MadiDrop, invented by PureMadi, a non-profit organisation of the University of Virginia, US, was presented at the organisation's one-year celebration event last week.

It consists of a small ceramic disk filled with silver or copper nanoparticles that is placed inside a water vessel, where it can repeatedly disinfect water for up to six months. The tablet is capable of treating 20 litres of water per day.

Only trace amounts of silver and copper nanoparticles are released into the water at levels that are safe for human consumption, but high enough to kill waterborne pathogenic micro-organisms.

Full story: SciDev Back to top

World's thinnest endoscope is width of a human hair
March 20, 2013

Thin as a human hair and with a resolution four times that of similar devices, the world's slimmest endoscope could soon visualise the parts other scopes cannot reach.

Endoscopes are used to look inside the body, and usually consist of a bundle of fibres that transmit light and images. Researchers at Stanford University, California, have now created one out of just a single optical fibre. Usually, single fibres scramble the light signal, so the team developed an algorithm to reconstruct images.

Currently, the prototype can show objects 2.5 micrometres in size – a third of the diameter of a red blood cell – but the team reckons it will be able to improve the resolution to 0.3 micrometres.

The endoscope could be used to observe brain activity in minute detail or to detect cancer cells.

Full story: New Scientist / Optics Express Back to top

Scientists work to resurrect extinct frog
March 18, 2013

A team of Australian scientists has managed to grow embryos containing the revived DNA of the extinct gastric-brooding frog, a species that incubated the prejuvenile stages of their offspring in the stomach of the mother.

The team - part of the aptly named Lazarus project - inserted the dead genetic material of the extinct amphibian into the donor eggs of another species of living frog. The eggs continued to grow into three-day-old embryos, which scientists refer to as blastulas.

The project to resurrect the gastric-brooding frog has apparently been ongoing for five years, in an initiative led by University of NSW palaeontologist Mike Archer.

And while the embryos had yet to develop into tadpoles, genetic tests confirmed the dividing cells contained the DNA of the extinct frog.

Full story: TG Daily Back to top

Plutonium tests offer hope for dark space missions
March 15, 2013

The future is looking brighter for missions to the solar system's dark corners. Plutonium needed to power the spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power has been created in the US for the first time in 25 years – albeit in small quantities.

Some destinations, such as the outer solar system or the polar regions of Mars, receive too little sunlight for ambitious missions to use solar panels there. Instead, heat from the decay of the radioactive isotope plutonium-238 is needed to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, stores of the stuff are running out. The US stopped producing the isotope – which had been generated as a by-product of cold-war nuclear weapons programmes – in 1988. Its remaining stocks have been estimated at just 16.8 kilograms.

Now, however, the US has taken the first steps towards restarting its plutonium-238 production line. A few grams of the isotope have been created in tests at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the past year, and the results suggest the lab could scale up to 1.5 kg annually, in line to meet NASA's goals.

In the tests inside a reactor at Oak Ridge, neutrons were fired at an aluminium target filled with radioactive neptunium-237. Later, the resulting plutonium-238 was chemically separated from the neptunium target, which was then reused.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Pump iron the smart way with a motion-capture coach
March 21, 2013

Elbows up, back straight! Like a personal weightlifting coach, a new workout tracking system can monitor your exercise, making sure that you complete your reps and sets correctly – improving how you pump iron and cutting the risk of injury.

Devices that use on-body or ambient sensors to log sports activity are commonplace, but they mostly rely on accelerometers to tally up how much you move and detect which activity you are performing, be it running or walking. They don't provide feedback on your technique.

Eduardo Velloso at Lancaster University, UK, built a system that uses the depth-sensing camera from a Microsoft Kinect gaming sensor to capture a weightlifter's motion in three dimensions. The set-up monitors form during lifting movements and provides real-time feedback on an LCD panel. Green or red signals let the lifter know if their back, feet and elbows are in the right position, and show the range of motion and speed of each lift. In tests, novice weightlifters made 23% fewer mistakes during lateral dumbbell raises, and nearly 80% fewer mistakes during biceps curls than they did when unaided.

While the prototype system needed to be preprogrammed to track the components of each movement, Velloso has since expanded its capabilities to monitor and provide feedback on any physical activity, without the need for explicit instructions or programming. The idea is that the system will ultimately be able to watch an expert perform an athletic motion, break it down into components, and compare those with the way a beginner performs the same movement. It can then provide instant feedback to correct any flaws.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top