Tech Universe: Thursday 03 October

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

HEAR THE PIN DROP: You may think it impossible to listen in from a distance on a private conversation on a busy street, but a new microphone from the Dutch company Microflown Technologies can pinpoint and record specific conversations from up to 20 metres away. Currently such covert eavesdropping requires a large parabolic microphone with a direct, unobstructed view of the subject. The acoustic vector sensor on the other hand is the size of a matchstick and measures the movement of air, disturbed by sound waves. Two parallel heated platinum strips allow air molecules to pass through the gap between them. Software then analyses the temperature change and counts the air molecules to gauge sound intensity and the location of the source. Signal-processing software filters out unwanted noise like wind or traffic commotion. Combine this acoustic sensor with cameras and drones for some very scary surveillance scenarios. You think your email's being read now? Before long all your spoken conversations could be open to scrutiny too.

BYO HALL: Do you need a concert hall where there isn't one? With the Ark Nova you can bring your own. The membrane structure is equipped with the necessary stage and sound equipment. Spend a couple of hours with an air compressor and you can inflate the hall to a width of 30 metres, length of 36 metres and maximum height of 18 metres. 500 seats fit inside. Seats and reflector boards are made from cedar trees felled after the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The New Ark is intended as a symbol of recovery in Japan, helping to rebuild culture and spirit after the disaster.

SHAKE YOUR PHONE: Your smart phone can probably flip the screen depending on which way you tilt the device. That's because it contains a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System accelerometer. Italian seismologists wondered if that accelerometer could be useful around earthquakes, and it seems it could. Testing suggests the accelerometers can detect earthquakes greater than magnitude 5 when located near the epicenter. That could make it possible to dramatically increase coverage when strong earthquakes occur. In fact, smartphones could help create an urban seismic network to send real-time ground motion data to a central location for assessment. Was that a big one? Yup, it seems it was.

IN THE RED: Who knew that you could even obtain infrared contact lenses? One casino cheat in France did. Accomplices marked cards with invisible ink. The cheat could see the markings thanks to the special contacts and bet accordingly. The authorities still caught him out though because some of his plays only made sense if he were cheating. If you're going to cheat, be sensible about it.

MINE, NO YOURS: As anyone who has studied a foreign language knows, translation is no simple matter. You can't usually just look up a single word or phrase and get an accurate translation. Instead context, tone of voice and other factors can all make a huge difference to what's being said. A new approach being developed by Google uses data mining techniques to model the structure of a single language and then compares this to the structure of another language to help generate conversion dictionaries and tables. This approach relies on the idea that every language must describe a similar set of ideas, so the words must also be similar. That makes the relationships between words crucial for translations, and turns the whole thing into a maths problem. The method has managed to be around 95% accurate in translating between English and Spanish. Now try applying that reasoning to folks who think quite differently. Technology Review.

Miraz Jordan,

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