Welcome to the June 3, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
EmTech Digital: Project Loon Head Details How the Balloons Interact
Technology Review (06/01/15) Rachel Metz
Google's Project Loon intends to use interconnected balloons to bring Internet service to parts of the world that remain largely disconnected. However, researchers have struggled to find a way for the balloons to communicate with each other. Loon project lead Mike Cassidy describes how the balloons use high-frequency radio waves to communicate. The balloons are equipped with gimbals that must be pointed at each other to within a tenth of a degree to enable one balloon to send data to another that is 80 kilometers away. Project Loon works by having ground stations transmit an LTE wireless signal to a nearby balloon, which then passes it on to the other balloons. The balloons must be able to communicate with each other so that they can spread out to cover a larger area with Internet access. The project is planning to conduct tests in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres later this year. Africa, where only about 10 percent of the continent has access to the Internet, could be a big potential market for Project Loon, according to Cassidy.
Gadgets Powered Wirelessly at Home With a Simple Wi-Fi Router
New Scientist (06/01/15) Chris Baraniuk
A multi-university team of researchers has developed a system that can power electrical devices with just a wireless router's signal, even while it provides wireless Internet access to an area. Using a traditional Wi-Fi signal, devices can be powered when the Internet is being used; however, when not browsing, the signal goes quiet. The new software broadcasts meaningless data across several Wi-Fi channels when the Internet is not being used, and small devices could use this signal as part of an Internet of Things, according to University of Reading researcher Ben Potter. The researchers tested the system in six households in which modified electrical devices were put in the homes along with a Wi-Fi router. Over 24 hours, the devices were powered only by the router's signal converted to electricity via a rectifier, while also continuing to provide wireless Internet to the home. There could be high demand for this type of technology for the many sensors that will fill the smart homes and cities of the future. For example, sensors powered by Wi-Fi could be used to monitor air quality or the status of systems across a city.
A New Tool Measures the Distance Between Phonon Collisions
MIT News (06/01/15) Jennifer Chu
The classical diffusion theory underestimates the temperature rise of nanoscale heat sources, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers. A miscalculation could affect the reliability and performance of chips and other microelectronic devices. Manufacturers commonly use the theory to gauge the temperature rise of a transistor in a computer chip. MIT professor Gang Chen, head of the department of Mechanical Engineering, and colleagues came to this conclusion after conducting an experiment to measure heat carriers' mean free path distribution in a material. They sought to establish a framework and tool to measure the mean free path distribution in a number of technologically interesting materials. The team observed by varying the size of heat sources, the researchers could map out how far phonons, wavelike particles that carry heat through a material, travel before colliding with other particles, and how they contribute to heat conduction. "The important thing is, we have a spectroscopy tool to measure the mean free path distribution, and that distribution is important for many technological applications," says graduate student Lingping Zeng.
Tech-Savvy Research Team Aims to Help Kids With Autism Disorders
University of Denver Magazine (06/02/15) Tamara Chapman
University of Denver researchers are conducting a pilot study exploring whether humanoid robots can improve social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Robots are more accessible for kids with ASD because "a lot of kids on the spectrum like mechanical things," according to University of Denver researcher Sophia Silver. In addition, robot interactions can be conducted precisely the same way again and again, which is a major advantage for scientific research. The researchers are using a 23-inch-tall robot called NAO that can direct autistic children in a range of activities designed to improve their recognition of facial expressions and to help them cast a socially appropriate gaze. NAO records essential data about each study participant, including the duration and frequency of their direct gazes and the range of their facial expressions. The NAO project aims to build on studies examining the therapeutic potential of robots for the ASD population. The study involves 24 participants, ages 7 to 17, who have 30-minute sessions with the robot every two weeks over a six-month period. The initial results suggest NAO is helping some of the children maintain a direct gaze for longer periods.
Improving the Experience of the Audience With Digital Instruments
University of Bristol News (06/01/15)
A new augmented reality display could give music fans a better appreciation of what musicians are doing with digital instruments. The new music instruments enable musicians to play almost any sound, as well as control them in complex ways by gestures. As part of the IXMI project, a team from the University of Bristol has developed mixed-reality display technologies that adapt to musical performances. Called Reflets, the mixed-reality environment enables three-dimensional virtual content to be displayed anywhere on stage, and even overlaps the instruments or performers. The audience does not need to wear glasses or use their smartphones to see the augmentations. The technology uses reflective transparent surfaces to combine the audience and stage spaces and has the audience and performers reveal the virtual content by intersecting it with their bodies or physical props. The team also is investigating visual augmentations to improve the perception of musical gestures.
Fly-Catching Robot Developed by Stanford Scientists Speeds Biomedical Research
Stanford News (05/25/15) Amy Adams
Researchers at Stanford University have developed a robotic system that can automatically inspect fruit flies and carry out previously impossible behavioral experiments. The study of fruit flies is one of the corner-stones of biomedical research, but the process is often incredibly tedious and time consuming for researchers. The new Stanford robot consists of a very small apparatus suspended over a dish of flies. The robot uses flashes of infrared light to identify each individual fly by its reflection pattern. The robot can then "grab" individual flies by lowering a tiny suction tube that attaches to the fly's thorax, allowing it to be lifted and moved around. Once it has "grabbed" a fly, the robot can carry out a number of different operations, including using machine vision to analyze its physical attributes, sorting flies by sex, and even carrying out microdissections to view a fly's brain. The robot is so good at recognizing the differences between flies that in one test it was able to differentiate between two strains of flies that are so similar that human researchers cannot tell them apart. Its ability to distinguish one fly from another will also allow the robot to conduct behavioral experiments on the flies that human researchers simply would not be able to do.
Communication Made Easier for Children With Cerebral Palsy
Science Daily (05/26/2015)
The Biomechanics Institute of Valencia (IBV) has led a European initiative called the ABC project (Augmented BNCI Communication), which is aimed at developing a new brain-computer interface system that could enhance the communication skills of people who have had cerebral palsy since childhood. Cerebral palsy compromises the motor control of sufferers, in many cases limiting their ability to communicate. This is especially true of those with Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy (DCP), in which people who retain their intelligence have so little motor control they cannot speak or express themselves, which significantly hampers the cognitive and emotional development of children with the disorder. IBV has developed a functional prototype of the ABC system, which would allow DCP sufferers to communicate. The system is composed of 4 independent modules based on the latest breakthroughs in neural signal processing, computer-assisted alternative communication, and biosignal monitoring. The ABC communicator can be used on a tablet and offers three separate interface systems that use either the tablet's inertial sensors, electromyography systems (which detect voluntary muscle contractions), and brain interfaces. The system also includes a skin sensor that can detect a user's emotional state. IBV researcher Juanma Belda says children with DCP can be trained to use the system to communicate their needs relatively quickly.
EGI-INSPIRE: Building the Digital European Research Area From the Ground Up
CORDIS News (05/22/15)
The European Grid Infrastructure (EGI) has become the largest distributed computing infrastructure in the world as a result of the EGI-INSPIRE project. The aim of the project was to establish a sustainable EGI by bringing together National Grid Initiatives and other organizations across the European Union. The model for accessing distributed computing infrastructures across borders was used by big data users at CERN and was replicated to serve pan-European researchers facing the problem of scalable access to large datasets. Users gain high throughput distributed data analysis by federating the computing, storage, and data management capacity of 350 affiliated data centers and 21 cloud service providers worldwide. Federation was the key to this success. EGI-INSPIRE ran from May 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2014, but its work will be continued and further developed under the EGI-ENGAGE project. European researchers are now accessing nearly 25 percent of computational capacity from outside their own country, says EGI.eu technical director Tiziana Ferrari.
Medical Millirobots Offer Hope for Less-Invasive Surgeries
University of Houston News (05/27/15) Jeannie Kever
University of Houston researchers have proposed using tiny robots driven by magnetic potential energy from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to advance minimally invasive medical treatments. The new approach is based on sending tiny maneuverable robotic components to a desired location and triggering the conversion of magnetic potential energy into a suitable amount of kinetic energy to penetrate tissue. "Our noninvasive approach would eventually require simply a hypodermic needle or lumbar puncture to introduce the components into the spinal canal, and the components could be steered out of the body afterwards," says University of Houston professor Aaron T. Becker. The researchers hacked the MRI scanner to harness the machine's own magnetic fields to push the small robots along a pre-mapped route. "The approach proposed here involves navigating individual millirobots to a target location and allowing them to self-assemble in a manner that focuses the stored magnetic potential energy as kinetic energy for tissue penetration," the researchers say. To increase the amount of force exerted on the robots, the system is self-assembled from smaller components, each of which is three-dimensionally-printed from high-impact plastic, which can navigate easily through the body. The approach means magnets are not required because the components are magnetized by the MRI scanner.
Staring Pain in the Face--Software 'Reads' Kids' Expressions to Measure Pain Levels
UC San Diego Health System (05/31/2015) Bonnie Ward
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have developed a new method of measuring the pain experienced by pediatric patients using facial pattern recognition software. Pain is traditionally gauged via self-reporting, with patients rating their pain on a scale of 1 to 10; however, it can be difficult for medical professionals to accurately gauge the pain that pediatric patients are experiencing because children, especially young ones, are often unable to accurately gauge their own pain. The method described by the UCSD researchers is based on the Facial Action Coding System, which measures facial expressions using 46 anatomically-based component movements and which has proven to be useful in identifying pain-related facial movements. The researchers used the software to analyze video of 50 youths who had undergone laparoscopic appendectomies. They then compared the pain ratings generated by the software with the patient's self-reported pain levels and those provided by parents and nurses. "The software demonstrated good-to-excellent accuracy in assessing pain conditions," says UCSD School of Medicine professor Jeannie Huang, generating ratings comparable to the self-reported ratings and those of parents and nurses.
COCORO: Robot Swarms Use Collective Cognition to Perform Tasks
CORDIS News (05/28/15)
European researchers are working on the COCORO project to develop collective cognition in autonomous robots that interact with each other and exchange information, resulting in an environment-aware cognitive system. The project includes a set of 10 experimental demonstrations. In one experiment, 20 Jeff robots floated in a tank of water, and as they came into contact with each other, the swarm used light-emitting diodes to relay status information and gradually became aware of its size. In another experiment, the robots were sent on a mission to find debris originating from a sunken airplane. Lily robots searched just below the surface of a pool while Jeff robots searched at the bottom, using their built-in compasses to identify electromagnetic signals and find the target. During field testing, the robots were exposed to waves, currents, and corrosive salt water, yet were still able to remain clustered around their base station as well as going on patrols and successfully returning to the base. The researchers developed the BEECLUST algorithm, which was based on observing how honeybees cluster, to aggregate robots at a specific locations. "The way in which some swarm members influence others is very similar to how trends are set by opinion leaders in our society," says COCORO project coordinator and University of Graz professor Thomas Schmickl.
Research Road Map for Brain-Computer Interfaces
European researchers have developed a research road map for brain-computer interfaces (BCI) in the coming 10 years for Horizon 2020, a funding program of the European Union. The road map is designed to serve as an orientation guide for research funding authorities. Moreover, the road map addresses the state of affairs of BCI and trends, according to Graz University of Technology's Gernot Muller-Putz. "We have identified some 150 companies worldwide concerned with BCI, from technology firms and the marketing sector to the aviation industry," he notes. Commercial applications in the entertainment industry are moving increasingly into the spotlight. Without them, BCIs would become unaffordable in the foreseeable future. In the future, BCIs will replace, restore, improve, and extend bodily functions. "This begins with the ability to communicate, takes place by means of the stimulation of muscles and nerves and extends to enhanced attention capacity," says Muller-Putz. By 2025, brain-controlled applications will be standard in medical treatment, therapy, and in monitoring personal health, says the road map. Bio-signals such as heartbeat and the electrical conductivity of the skin also will be used to seamlessly and intuitively connect man and machine.
Stanford Breakthrough Heralds Super-Efficient Light-Based Computers
Stanford University (05/28/15) Tom Abate
Stanford University researchers have developed a process that could revolutionize computing by making it practical to use light instead of electricity to carry data inside computers. In essence, the new method involves miniaturizing the proven technology of the Internet, which moves data by sending photons of light through fiber-optic threads. This is possible because silicon is transparent to infrared light, which means wires in computers could be replaced by silicon structures designed to carry infrared light. However, since thousands of these optical interconnects are needed for each electronic system, optical data transport has been impractical for conventional computers. The Stanford researchers believe they have broken this bottleneck by inventing an inverse design algorithm, via which engineers specify what they want the optical circuit to accomplish. The software then provides the details of how to fabricate a silicon structure to perform the task. "We used the algorithm to design a working optical circuit and made several copies in our lab," says Stanford researcher Jelena Vuckovic. The new algorithm produces silicon structures so narrow that more than 20 of them could sit side-by-side within the diameter of a human hair.
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