Pinching, pulling, and gliding with your fingers to use your iPhone? That’s so 2008. The New Year may bring another way to control your Apple devices: waving your fingers above the touch pad or screen. Apple is applying for a patent for technology that embeds arrays of infrared LEDs and light-sensing photodiodes in touch screens. These sensors can tell when a fingertip is hovering above a button so that functions can be activated without actually making contact with the surface. It’s like using a gaming glove without the glove–and it may make you able to use your iPod just by lifting a finger.
Hidden Messages in Software
Finding the message within the message is always kind of tricky, especially when no one wants you to discover it. New software developed by Yun Shi, a researcher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, may help steganographers read between the lines. Steganography is the art and science of hiding information so that nobody but the sender and receiver knows it is there. Cryptography, on the other hand, doesn’t hide a transmission but makes it impossible for an eavesdropper to read it. Shi’s software focuses on hidden messages inside digital files that make up electronic images. These provide good hiding places because images tend to be noisy and complex, providing the perfect background against which a message can blend in. Shi designed software that analyzes the features in noise that may have an image and then looks for elements that do not match those features.
Deep Space Internet
Need the Net when you’re far from home? So does NASA, apparently. NASA successfully tested the first forays into Internet for deep space and set the stage for more Internet ventures into the great beyond. Using software called Disruption-Tolerant Networking, engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab transmitted dozens of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located about more than 20 million miles from Earth. DTN works differently than mere Earth-bound Internet protocols–if a data packet can’t be delivered, it’s stored rather than discarded. That’s important because glitches happen all the time in space. So when a spacecraft moves behind a planet or when there is a solar storm, long communication delays occur. According to NASA, the delay in sending or receiving data from Mars takes between three-and-a-half to 20 minutes at the speed of light. What’s next? Testing the DTN software on board the International Space Station starting next summer.
Having to regularly change batteries sure is annoying. And then there is all the toxic goo that leaks out when you throw them away. Engineers at Kansas State University have found a way around all that: with a NASA-inspired energy-harvesting radio . NASA researchers are helping Peregrine, a semiconductor manufacturer, to develop a radio that can transmit important information–such as stats on the stress forces on a bridge–without ever needing fresh battery juice. The radios can transmit all sorts of important data and will be able to work from several sources of energy, including solar, electrochemical, mechanical, or thermal. When the stored data is ready to be transmitted, the radio sends out a data-burst, which is like one computer sending a text message to another computer, the researchers say.
Cell Networks Bid For You
Need a new phone or wireless network in 2009? How about no network at all? A new patent application filed by Google employees would create a system where all networks bid for your business instantly. Devices using the system would send networks a description of their requirements–for example, a phone call or access to the Internet– and receive back bids with a per-minute cost or a flat rate to make the connection. Users could either manually accept the most attractive bid or program the phone to choose one automatically, based on pre-determined criteria. The patent does not list any specific connection technologies, so GSM, 3G, or WiFi networks would all be up for bids. Bye-bye, contracts and hello auctions for phone calls!
Busting Bootleg CDs
Pirated CDs are a big headache for people who actually gain their income from software and music. Now, researchers at the University of Grenada have developed a fast-and-cheap way to tell if a CD or DVD is an original or a copy with the use of light diffraction. While original CDs are created with a printing process, copies are burned with a laser-recording device–and the two processes result in similar but slightly different diffraction models. The researchers say their technique works with DVDs as well, and they plan to broaden their bootleg-busting technology to include Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs.
Turn Anything Into a Laser
Who wants to turn their telephone or toaster into a laser beam-emitting weapon? While warfare with waffle makers may still be far out, engineers at Princeton have created a way to make common electronic materials emit laser beams. The group used a device called quantum-cascade laser, in which an electric current flowing through a specially designed material produces a laser beam. The scientists found that their laser also generated a second beam with very unusual properties, including the need for less electrical power than the conventional beam. They say their discovery will help lasers function more efficiently and at higher temperatures, which can help scientists with environmental monitoring and medical diagnostics. Unlike other lasers, quantum-cascade lasers work in the mid- and far-infrared range, and can be used to detect even minute traces of water vapor, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, and other gases that absorb infrared light. The new discovery should help make smaller, more-efficient, and more-sensitive devices to test for trace gases.
Clear Computer Chip
The future is clear: see-through electronic devices are on the way. A group of scientists in Korea has fabricated a working computer chip that is almost completely transparent. The new technology is called transparent resistive random access memory and is similar to existing complementary metal-oxide semiconductor memory used in USB flash drives and other devices–except this device is transparent. Why make electronics that you can see right through? The team says that clear electronics may make rooms or walls feel more spacious by consolidating or stacking electronic devices. The technology may also enable the development of clear computer monitors and televisions that are imbedded inside glass or transparent plastic. As long as transparent devices don’t get lost in the shuffle, the future seems clearly rosy!
Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), which are used in some high-end flat-screen TVs and cell phone displays, might soon become a lot cheaper to make. European researchers have developed a new, cheaper method for manufacturing the ultra-thin and energy-efficient displays by using a process similar to that of printing a newspaper. The technology gives better image quality, wider viewing angles, and lighter power consumption than the current-generation of LCD and plasma flat-panel TVs. OLEDs’ unique properties also mean they can be put to a far wider range of use, from electronic paper to adaptive clothing–as long as the cost of producing them isn’t prohibitively high. And that’s what the European researchers have accomplished: a way to use printing processes to lay OLEDs down on flexible films in large batches. They hope the technology will be used for smart food packaging, advertising, and more.
Your car gets scratched as you squeeze into a miniscule mall parking space – but a day later the paint has healed over like a wound. The technology to make paints that fix themselves got a boost in early December with the announcement of a process to cover polymer particles with a layer of silica-based nano-particles. The result, say the researchers at the University of Warwick, is a very versatile latex product. In addition to scratch-resistant paints, the technology could also lead to better packaging that could be adjusted to allow precise levels of air or water to pass through.
Stronger, Faster Batteries
Making a battery that doesn’t fail fast has long been a Holy Grail of technology. Mobile devices that require a lot of energy, such as mobile telephones, digital cameras, and notebook computers, usually use rechargeable lithium ion batteries. The problem is that their capacity is dismal. A notebook computer, for example, usually runs only about two hours. Now, a research team in Korea has developed a new material for anodes, which could lead to a new generation of better batteries. The team used highly porous silicon to craft anodes that would attract more lithium ions. In addition, the silicon anodes make the lithium ions travel faster, meaning quicker charges when it’s necessary to plug in for more juice.
Twisting, bending, and flexing are not typically actions you ask of your consumer electronics. But a team of engineers based at Northwestern University has developed a new type of circuit that can flex to more poses than a yoga guru. In the past, most circuits have been flat and unbendable, mostly because silicon, the principal component of all electronics, is brittle and inflexible. Bending or stretching would break the silicon and render the device dead on arrival. The team of researchers found a bendy way to get around this problem by making the circuits tiny, and arranging metal “pop-up bridges” to fit between them. They hope the tech will be used in places where flat, rigid electronics would fail, like medical devices and flexible solar panels.
Ring in the New Year with ringing in your ears … all with the help of a lot of sound from thin speakers. A lab in China has created speakers with the ability to boom, except that they are thinner than a sheet of paper. The bass-boosters are made from transparent carbon nano-tube films, which are flexible and can be lined up in a cylinder (like the photo) to emit sound in all directions. They can also be bent to work in earbuds or buzzers. Throw out those woofers in your Mazda–this is a new era of transparent, paper-thin sound!
Car Stability Chip
If you are fishtailing all over the road this holiday season, take hope–help may be on the way with a new stability chip. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have created a tiny 1.7 millimeter-wide device that helps automobiles become more stable and more able to pass through slippery roads and sharp turns. The device is a micro-electro-mechanical systems gyroscope. It is designed to maintain a constant center of gravity and alerts the safety system to correct stability when it detects that the car is beginning to take a tumble off the road. Electronic stability control is available in some luxury cars already, but sensors made from quartz were too expensive for widespread installation. The new generation of gyroscope technology is possible to install cheaply and the research team expects the sensors to be widely deployed after about four years of testing. So the worry of rolling your car on slick roads may get a little less scary in a few more Christmases.
Vehicles that can take care of you are an idea that’s speeding faster than a getaway car. This month, a group of researchers at the University of Utah has developed a car ignition key that prevents drivers from using a cell phone while at the wheel. When the key is inserted in the car's ignition slot, it uses a Bluetooth link to block texting and calls on the mobile device. And if you’re thinking you’re smart enough to prevent all this silence, the software also can’t be blocked when the driver turns off the cell phone's Bluetooth function. That’s useful, say the researchers, considering that about 6% of travelers on the road at any time are talking on a cell phone and 10% of teen drivers are talking or texting. Studies have shown that driving while using a mobile phone increases the risk of an accident by four times–so any car that can baby sit you is worth its weight in oil.
Using radioactive decay to create electricity for batteries has been the stuff of science fiction–but the fact is that engineers are getting closer all the time to harnessing nuclear power for batteries. A common way is to try using a radioactive isotope, such as a variant of hydrogen called tritium. Tritium emits electrons as it decays, and when the electrons crash into semi-conductive material nearby, a current is generated. The problem is that the efficiency is super-low, so not too much juice is created by all this electron-crashing. Now, a group of scientists at Rice University has made much better nuclear-powered batteries by using a thin layer of liquid polymer containing the radioactive isotope. They have applied for a patent for their batteries, saying their long-lasting invention could be used in spacecraft or medical devices where battery changes are costly and dangerous.
It’s not exactly consumer technology, but a robotic clam was invented recently–and any robotic shellfish deserve a little bit of attention. A group of engineers at MIT created the lightweight clam-bot to study how the razor clam burrows so quickly into the sand and also to come up with a better way for boats to drop anchor on sandy shores. Razor clams are the Ferraris of digging mollusks, according to the team, because they can bury themselves quickly (about a centimeter per second) and go deep (up to 70 centimeters). The sneaky mollusks propel themselves through wet sand using a muscular foot, and they use the lack of drag in wet sand to push themselves fast. The team replicated these habits with a robotic clam, which they say could be useful as tethers for small robotic submarines or when buried in the sand to detonate buried underwater mines.