Tech universe: Best of 2011

By Miraz Jordan

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

To your good health

SKIN SHOOT: It usually takes weeks to grow skin for burn victims. A new technology takes stem cells from their own healthy skin, and in the space of an hour or two is able to spray the treated cells on the burned areas, using a 'skin gun'. New skin grows in just a few days. That's one of the better reasons to be 'shot'. Gizmodo> has details, and there's video here.

PURE WATER: The Purist sports bottle incorporates a 20 nanometre silicon dioxide layer inside the polymer. This glass-like layer protects the inside of the bottle from odours, staining, and mould build-up. The bottle's still flexible though, just like a plastic one. And none of that horrible plastic taste. More here.

DOCTOR TALK: The Phrazer is a novel handheld device that allows medical practitioners to deliver care even to patients who don't speak their language.

Vital signs are monitored through the handgrips, while interactive on-screen videos help patients enter information about their medical problems. After the 'consultation' the device produces a standard medical record. The battery powered Phrazer weighs only 680 grams, has wifi, Bluetooth, 3G and other connection possibilities and can hold more than 100 languages. Medical tricorder v0.1a? Details here and video here.

DRAW THE LINE ON DISEASE: Many children and pregnant women in developing countries die from fairly easily diagnosed conditions such as preeclampsia. One problem is that the standard tests, although relatively inexpensive are still too costly in such places. Student at Johns Hopkins University in the USA have created a 'pen' that reduces the cost of testing from 50 cents to one third of a cent per time. Draw a line on paper with the pen then add a drop of urine. If a particular condition exists the urine reacts with chemicals in the ink and the line changes colour. Saving lives can sometimes be really simple. Popular Science has more.

HEALTH NET: In Liberia only 181 doctors care for 4 million people.
Switchboard is a non-profit group that connects medical staff in Liberia and Ghana through free phonecalls. Soon they hope to expand to Tanzania. The closed network, MDNet, makes it possible for doctors to consult with one another through texts and calls. They've already connected more than 3 million free calls. That's almost 1 call per head of population. Details at Gizmodo.

KEEP THE DOCTOR AWAY: There aren't many doctors in in the Punjab region of northern India. But that doesn't stop locals from getting appointments with physicians. Healthpoint is a for-profit service that beams doctors in via broadband and a large screen TV. A consultation costs less than $1, and diagnostic tests cost very little too. Local health workers run routine tests and send the results to a doctor for analysis. Low cost broadband and reliable wireless communication are increasing in the area, making this kind of medicine more practicable. Hmm, lessons here for us too? More info at Technology Review.

EYE BEAM: Engineers from the University of Michigan are developing a tiny solar powered sensor to be implanted inside the eye. It will monitor pressure to warn of glaucoma and wirelessly send data once a day to an external receiver. Before long the glint in an eye may be a health monitor. Not so romantic, after all. More details Auburn University and video here.

Do you see what I see?

SILVER GLASSES: Professor Joshua Silver in the UK has created glasses that the wearer can easily adjust to their own prescription. He aims to supply 200 million pairs to kids in Africa and Asia. The spectacles have "adaptive lenses" - two thin membranes separated by silicone gel. The wearer looks at an eye chart and pumps in more or less fluid until they can see the letters on the chart clearly. The fluid changes the curvature of the lens, changing the prescription. Currently at £15 a pair, Silver hopes to get the costs down to £1 a pair. A clear vision for the future. The Guardian has details.

OUT OF THE FOG: If you wear glasses you'll know the fogging problem as you come inside on a cold day. Researchers from Quebec City's Université Laval reckon they have a solution: the world's first permanent anti-fog coating. It's a polyvinyl alcohol, a hydrophilic compound that disperses individual droplets of condensation. The coating's applied on top of a base of four layers of silicon molecules that bond to one another and the alcohol and keep it permanently in place. Ah, fog-free forever; pass the alcohol.
Gizmag has more.

SKY GIANT: The 2.6 metre VLT survey telescope sits in Chile's Atacama Desert where the skies are really clear. It's the largest telescope in the world designed to survey the sky in visible light. Using a 268 megapixel camera the new telescope has already taken some images, and expects to produce around 30 terabytes of data per year. Two images that have just been released are a 660 MB picture of the Swan Nebula and a detailed shot of Omega Centauri. Take a look: they're gorgeous. More at Wired, and video here.

FIELDS OF LIGHT: With current cameras you must choose where to focus before you press the shutter. If you're not careful you may end up with a photo where the wrong part is blurry. Light field cameras though use a light field sensor to capture the colour, intensity and vector direction of all the rays of light in a scene. Then powerful software allows the viewer to focus the image on any point they like. The Lytro light field pocket-sized camera is expected to be available later this year. Better hope this is small enough to fit in a cellphone. AllThingsD has more and there's video here.

FLAT LIGHT: Columbia University designers developed the inflatable LuminAID solar light. Essentially it's a sealed plastic bag with a solar panel and a light. Turn it on, then blow into the valve to inflate the bag and disperse the light. The thin film solar panel fuels 2 coin cell rechargeable batteries. The LuminAID can charge fully in 6 hours to provide 5 hours of light. It packs flat so large quantities of the lights could be easily and cheaply shipped to disaster areas. A brilliant simple design. LuminAID has more, and there's video here.

LITRES OF LIGHT: Many people around the world have neither indoor lighting nor electricity. But maybe all it takes to add light is a soft drink bottle filled with water and a bit of bleach. The bottle is put through a small hole in the roof, leaving the top part exposed to the sun. Light refracts through the water in the bottle and spreads around 60 watts of light inside. The bleach helps prevent algae build-up, keeping the water clear for several years. MacGyver would be proud. Reuters video shows how it's working in Indonesia.

Under the tree

SNAPPY SNAPPING: Any photographer knows that using filters on the lens of your DSLR is a handy thing, even if just to protect the glass. But filters are hard to attach and remove, with fiddly screw threads. Xume Quick-Release Adapters fix the problem by using adapters that attach with powerful NdFeB rare earth magnets instead. The system puts an adapter on each lens and on each filter or lens cap. After that a filter or lens cap just snaps on or off in a moment. Xume promise the magnets won't harm any of the electronics or other parts of your camera or accessories. Even keeping the lens cap on in a bag would save me some anguish. More at Xume, and there's video here.

FRONT WHEEL MISSING: Take a look at the Ryno electric motorcycle and you may think someone's stolen the front wheel. They haven't though - it's designed to have only one wheel. The unicycle has a range of 48 km, and can run at up to 32 km/h. The LiFePo4 battery that powers it can recharge in 1.5 hours. The turning radius can be as little as on-the-spot, but it may need up to a metre. The bike's on-board Auto Balance Systems continuously monitor for balance and take control if necessary to keep the bike upright. Finding parking would be simple too, I imagine.Ryno has the details, and there's video here.

175 DEGREES OF SEPARATION: Some surfaces are coated with substances like Teflon or wax to make them resist water or oil - hydrophobic or oleophobic. A new coating, NeverWet, claims to be superhydrophobic. It doesn't just resist liquids - they simply roll right off. Teflon, for example, has a contact angle of 110 degrees. A perfect sphere would have an angle of 180 degrees. NeverWet claims to create droplets with an angle of between 160 and 175 degrees. The videos are certainly convincing - see more at Neverwet and YouTube.

IN THE WARMTH OF THE OAK TREE: To save power plant a tree - a Solar Botanic artificial tree, with green leaves, and designed to resemble real trees. The artificial trees harvest wind, sunlight and heat using Nanoleaves. The leaves each generate only a tiny amount of electricity when they move in wind or in rain. With plenty of leaves, though, that energy mounts up. A tree resembling an oak could generate 7000kWh per year. The energy is stored in the tree trunk until needed by the nearby house. A fake oak tree in the garden sounds like a better deal than solar panels or a wind turbine. I want mine to be a Puka tree though. More at Discovery.

Let's make it into the New Year

BRAKES NOT KIDS: Aucklander Matagi Iasoni Taufa'u has invented a device to stop cars from running over kids in driveways. The April Stop puts a trip-switch on a car's mudflap. If it's triggered it sets off a device under the bonnet that instantly engages the brakes without any driver input. The April Stop has had a public trial, but now needs backing for production. Let's keep the kids safe. More here.

FIRE BOXING: Boeing's Precision Container Aerial Delivery System may offer a new way to fight huge forest fires. The system lets cargo planes drop more water more quickly and more precisely. Each container is essentially a reinforced cardboard box holding a water ballon with 950 litres of water or fire retardant. The boxes are easily loaded onto a cargo plane. Containers are dropped from a height that allows the plane to avoid dangerous flames and smoke, but a delayed opening mechanism makes the drops more accurate and effective. Great in-the-box thinking. Details at Boeing.

LIGHT BIKE: It's hard for drivers to see cyclists, especially at night, and for cyclists it's hard to see the road in the dark. Revolights takes care of both problems brilliantly. The lights - white for front and red for rear - are actually incorporated into the wheel with easy to use clips. The lights flash around the wheel while the bike's stopped but shine solid to front or rear when the bike's moving. They light up the road and make the bike itself impossible to not notice. Absolutely ingenious, these lights are sure to save lives. More on

USE LESS MESSAGE: Scientists at the University of Cambridge did a few sums. They calculated that 73% of global energy use could be saved by changes in how we insulate buildings, reducing water temperatures for things like washing machines, and other efficiency measures. It's simple economics: make the most of what you've got.
New Scientist has more.
Published on: 03 February 2011.

- Miraz Jordan

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