Welcome to the April 6, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Can You Vote for the Next President on Your Smartphone? Not Just Yet.
The Washington Post (04/06/15) Amrita Jayakumar
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission last week approved a measure to update the security and accessibility guidelines for voting machines, potentially bringing the U.S. one step closer to voting with mobile devices. "The guidelines we have now are so old that the iPhone hadn't even come out when they were written," says Commission chairwoman Christy McCormick. The new guidelines will enable voting machine manufacturers to test their machines against modern security and disability standards to get them certified for use in the 2016 presidential election. However, it is unlikely Internet voting will be widespread in the U.S. by the 2016 election. Previous experiments in Internet-based voting in the District of Columbia, around the U.S., and abroad have yielded mixed results as security concerns still loom large over such methods. For example, following the 2014 elections, Joseph Kiniry and a fellow researcher published a paper demonstrating a method of hacking the PDF-based online voting system used in Alaska. Because of these security concerns, many experts advocate for systems that in some way utilize a paper ballot, even if they are collected and counted by machines. Meanwhile, online and mobile technologies increasingly are being used for voter registration and directing voters to the proper polling place.
Software Development Without Barriers
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (04/02/15) Monika Landgraf
The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology's Study Center for the Visually Impaired (SZS) is working with the FZI Research Center for Information Technology to enable software development of visually impaired IT experts as part of the Cooperate-New Paths of Cooperation for Diversity Teams in Software Development project. "Due to their highly visual part, conventional modeling languages, such as the Unified Modeling Language [UML], represent a big obstacle for [visually impaired] persons," notes SZS' Karin Muller. Over the next several years, the project's experts will develop a cooperation tool for diversity teams that makes content available in both graphical and textual format and provides various output modes, such as magnification, Braille, or audio output, depending on the visual disability. The goal is to enable all team members to work in a convenient representation mode regardless of whether they are or are not visually impaired. Providing correct and real-time updates of all representation forms after changes marks a key challenge for developing an accessible environment for diversity teams. "If this requirement is met, persons without visual impairment may also profit from alternatives to graphical processing," says FZI's Henning Groenda. The researchers also will develop training materials for visually impaired programmers in conjunction with the creation of the cooperation tool.
Eek! How Your Face Reveals Your Body's Real Age
New Scientist (03/31/15) Andy Coghlan
Shanghai Institutes of Biological Science professor Jing-Dong Han led a study that used three-dimensional (3D) facial images to predict biological age in a human population to detect those aging quickly and slowly, so family physicians will be able to identify prematurely aging patients. The researchers analyzed the facial images of 332 Chinese volunteers between the ages of 17 and 77, and they identified age-impacted characteristics such as the slope of the eye, the distance between the mouth and the nose, and skin smoothness. The information was used to generate a composite map of the face as it ages, which was then compared to each individual's 3D map, revealing the difference between real and facial age rose after 40 years. Prediction accuracy was vetted by blood samples from volunteers to read biomarkers such as cholesterol and albumin. Han says the facial age predictor offers the first non-invasive technique for measuring differences between biological and chronological age. "We will package our predictor into a downloadable app, and doctors will be able to use it provided they can upload a 3D image of their patient into it," he says. King's College London's Stephen Harridge notes Han's work leaves out some factors that could affect facial appearance and biological fitness, such as physical exercise.
Where No Smartphone Has Gone Before
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (04/01/15)
Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) are working to turn smartphones into powerful hyperspectral sensors, capable of identifying the chemical components of objects from a distance. The optical component combined with newly designed image-processing software will deliver superior imaging performance and hyperspectral imaging capabilities. "The optical element acts as a tunable filter and the software--an image fusion library--would support this new component and extract all the relevant information from the image," says TAU professor David Mendlovic. He notes the imaging works in both video and still photography. The optical component is based on existing microelectromechanical technology, suitable for mass production and compatible with standard smartphone camera designs. The sensors could be used for remote health monitoring and industrial quality control, or for identifying the properties of crops. Every material object has a hyperspectral signature, its own unique chemical fingerprint. Once the camera acquires an image, the data would be further analyzed to extract the hyperspectral content at any part of the image. The team is close to producing a prototype, according to Mendlovic. "We predict hyperspectral imaging will play a major role in consumer electronics, the automotive industry, biotechnology, and homeland security," he says.
Sabina, New Domestic Service Robot
National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics engineer Eduardo Morales Manzanares has developed software that enables a domestic service robot named Sabina to learn under user guidance via remote control, voice commands, or by being shown the tasks. The software can be programmed by people without specialized expertise in robotics, as it is designed to interact naturally with the robot and to identify patterns in the environment so the robot can avoid collisions and autonomously learn to conduct various daily tasks. Manzanares notes by having the learning mechanism exist separate from the robot, the program can obtain information for use in other robots. Sabina complements its learning process with laser sensors and an Xbox Kinect to identify individuals and their position via a depth camera that captures three-dimensional information. Manzanares notes in one example the user can move his arm and Sabina will copy the movement, perceiving body language and learning to execute tasks. The voice commands Sabina follows can be either Spanish or English, because the robot regularly participates in international competitions, which required designing a larger vocabulary to enable more natural communication. Sabina can choose from a set of possible actions and receive feedback from the environment or the user, who observes the robot performing the task.
Wear Your Social Network
MIT News (03/31/15) Nicole Morell
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab students hope to make it easier for people to make real-world connections by broadcasting their social media likes and interests offline. The team from the Fluid Interfaces and Tangible Media groups is developing a wearable social network called Social Textiles. The wearable network consists of t-shirts that light up when wearers share a common interest. When people wearing Social Textiles are within 12 feet of one another, their shirts will give a quick buzz on the shoulder to alert them that someone with a common interest is near. "Online is good at connecting us at a distance, but not connecting us when we're close," notes MIT's Viirj Kan. "We wanted to change that." When the wearers identify each other and physically touch, their shirts will light up and reveal their shared interest. The shirts do not store information from the wearers' profiles on established social networks, but connect and light up around a common interest such as a community they belong to or a brand. "If you were to buy your shirt through a certain blog, that blog would be your connection and interest," Kan says.
Researchers Build Brain-Machine Interface to Control Prosthetic Hand
University of Houston News (03/31/15) Jeannie Kever
Researchers at the University of Houston have demonstrated a non-invasive technique for using an electroencephalogram (EEG)-based brain-machine interface to enable a subject to directly control a prosthetic hand using only their thoughts. The subject, a 56-year-old man whose right hand had been amputated, was able to use the system to grasp objects like a water bottle and a credit card about 80 percent of the time. Previous research using surgically-implanted electrodes or sensors detecting electrical signals from muscles in the arm have shown similar success rates. The researchers used an EEG to monitor the brain activity of five able-bodied, right-handed participants as they grasped and picked up objects. The data were used to create decoders of neural activity into motor signals that could translate the thoughts of the amputee subject into movement commands relayed to the prosthetic hand. Beyond demonstrating that non-invasive EEG control of prosthetics is possible, the researchers believe their findings also could be applied to the rehabilitation of serious neurological injuries such as stroke and spinal cord injuries. The research was able to show brain activity anticipates and predicts motor commands, rather than simply reflects them.
Do Girls Like Math? The Answer Matters
National Science Foundation (03/31/15) Maria C. Zacharias
Although the gender imbalance in science and technology is a major issue in affluent countries such as the U.S., it is almost non-existent in many less developed countries. For example, women earn the largest share of science degrees in countries such as Iran, Romania, and Malaysia. In Indonesia, women earn nearly half of all engineering degrees. U.S. National Science Foundation-funded research led by Maria Charles, chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests this is because female students in these countries are not under nearly as much social pressure to dislike math. In a study published last year based on a survey of the attitudes toward math held by 8th grade boys and girls in 53 countries, Charles and her colleagues found a much more pronounced gender gap in advanced industrial societies. Girls in those societies were far less likely to say they enjoyed math or to express an interest in pursuing a math-related career. Charles says this is because adolescents in affluent societies are told to pursue their interests, but are simultaneously very sensitive to cultural attitudes about what those interests should be. In affluent countries math and technology are strongly stereotyped as male-dominated, whereas these stereotypes have not taken hold in many poorer countries.
Internet of Things Should Be Developable for All
Aalborg University (03/30/2015)
About 100 billion devices are expected to be online within the next five to 10 years, and the European Commission supports a project that for the past several years has been focused on developing a universal programming language to enable machine-to-machine communication. Millions of devices already are linked to the Internet, and machines sharing each other's data could greatly improve information accuracy, but only if the chasm between the virtual and the physical realm is narrowed to ensure the information's stability and reliability. An open source platform that is available and free to all is essential, and Aalborg University's Sofoklis Kyriazakos says involving all programmers in the platform's development will help it to improve. Moreover, an open platform can accelerate and reduce the cost of communication-enabled product development. The European project that developed the BETaaS system presented open source software in 2014, which has so far been tested in both a private residential environment and in a smart city infrastructure. Aalborg Center for TeleInfrastructure director Ramjee Prasad envisions the Internet of Things changing people's lives and work. "Consumers will enjoy a large number of innovative services, while from a business perspective we can generate value by exploiting Internet-connected objects for the creation of innovative applications," he says.
Professor Uses Online Data to Predict Future Fashion Trends
Penn State News (03/30/15) Moriah Nastasi
Pennsylvania State University associate professor Heng Xu and her research team are collecting and analyzing a broad spectrum of data to gain insight into the needs, motivations, and behavior of the fashion industry with the goal of making fashion trends easily comprehensible to the average person. Xu has a background in fashion, having worked as a part-time fashion model during her undergraduate information systems (IS) studies and attending fashion school before earning her doctorate in IS from the National University of Singapore. Xu and her team are collecting and analyzing 15 years of data from websites such as Style.com, high-end fashion magazines, runway reviews, and the industry networking accounts of major fashion designers. A significant component of the work is monitoring social media, in particular Twitter, to see if the researchers can spot trends as they emerge. Xu says the goal of the research is to create a website that would enable users to easily search for and understand what is in style. She notes she has received pushback from the fashion industry, which worries about analytics demystifying the creative process. "To some people, 'fashion' only belongs on the runway," Xu says. "To me, fashion should be wearable and affordable for everyone."
Turning Your Smartphone Into a Ruler
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (03/30/15) Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have developed a method to use a smartphone's sensors to create accurate three-dimensional (3D) models of objects. The researchers say their method can accurately scale models by leveraging the inertial measurement units (IMUs) used to implement the smartphone's auto-rotate function. Although the IMUs are not extremely accurate, they are precise enough that when users wave the camera around, they can calibrate 3D models as they are created and enable the device to get accurate measurements from the models. "With a face-tracker program, we are able to measure the distance between a person's pupils within half a millimeter," says CMU professor Simon Lucey. He notes as computer vision technology advances, the technique could be used for modeling rooms. The technology also could be used by robots and self-driving cars to help navigate the world around them. "The amazing thing is that we can turn any smartphone into a ruler--no special hardware, no depth sensors, just your regular smart device," Lucey says. He notes as smartphones incorporate high-frame-rate video cameras, the accuracy of the technique will get even better.
18F Wants to Make More Dot-Govs Accessible to People With Disabilities
NextGov.com (03/31/15) Mohana Ravindranath
The U.S. government's digital services agency, 18F, wants federal websites to be more accessible to people with hearing and sight impairments. On March 31, the agency hosted its first Accessibility Hackathon to encourage volunteers and 18F staff to develop technologies that improve the Internet experience for disabled communities. The event was held in conjunction with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and D.C. Legal Hackers. Volunteers spent three hours on development work and presented their concepts and prototypes, such as a webcam-based alternative to CAPTCHA that asks users to perform a specific motion in front of the camera rather than type in letters. 18F's objective was to share ideas, and in some cases open source code, to be integrated into future government projects, according to 18F's Ori Hoffer. Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make their sites accessible to people with disabilities. In February, independent federal agency U.S. Access Board proposed updating Section 508 to be less product-specific, outlining requirements for two-way communication rather than for telephones to accommodate smartphone, tablets, and other multifunctional devices.
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