Tech Universe: Monday 22 July

By Miraz Jordan

Imagine silk spun from a bioengineered bacteria. Photo / Thinkstock
Imagine silk spun from a bioengineered bacteria. Photo / Thinkstock

A NEW SPIN: The silk that comes from Spiber in Japan hasn't been spun by silkworms. The material is tougher than kevlar, lighter than steel, and can be stretched 40% beyond its original length without breaking. The protein fibroin gives silk its resilience. Spiber use bioengineered bacteria to replicate artificial fibroin that can take the form of a film, gel, sponge, powder or nanofibres. The new material could be used in spacesuits, cars or perhaps for artificial blood vessels. Or how about shirts?

TIRED CAM: It's been a very long day and you're driving, feeling tired, but keen to get home. That's a recipe for a car accident, of course. One Swiss student has developed a video analysis algorithm that can tell by how much a driver's eyelids are drooping how tired they are. Now a prototype is being tested in real driving conditions.

A single infrared camera behind the wheel measures the percentage of time that the pupil is at least 80% covered by the eyelid during a predetermined timespan. The algorithm can distinguish an open eye from a closed one and deal with confusing effects of changing light and the variety of eye shapes. The biggest challenge is the frame rate, as unconscious blinks of the eye occur within 100 to 150 milliseconds. I guess 30 frames per second isn't much use in that case.

DON'T HIT THE WALL: Imagine touching an ordinary whiteboard but having it react as though it were touch-sensitive. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are working on vibration sensors that can be attached to any surface, such as wood, aluminium, steel, glass and plastic. A light touch on the surface causes vibrations to ripple out and hit the sensors. The system can pinpoint the spot that was touched by calculating the difference in time it takes the vibrations to reach the various sensors. That could mean that an image could be projected on a wall and viewers could interact with it by tapping on the wall. It could definitely make doorbells obsolete, and
more interesting.

KICKING ALONG: AlterG's 3.6 Kg Bionic Leg is intended for those who have injured their leg or knee, or perhaps suffered a stroke, and need some help with rehabilitation. An insole that contains 4 pressure sensors fits into an ordinary shoe. The pressure of your foot combined with the effort exerted by your knee provide crucial information about whether you're sitting, standing, climbing stairs and so on. The Bionic Leg provides motorised assistance with extension, flexion and swinging the leg forward between steps. The device can easily be set to provide full or limited assistance, while a battery pack keeps the leg working. It makes things easy that the insole fits in a normal
shoe.

SMOKE SIGNALS: Surgeons use electrosurgical knives to cut and cauterise blood vessels. Those knives create smoke whose lipid profiles reflect what kind of tissue is being cut. That means, for example, that smoke from a tumour can be differentiated from that from other tissue. The hitch is that it takes a mass spectrometer to tell the difference. A team from Imperial College London have created an intelligent surgical knife. It captures the smoke from the tissue it cuts and sends it through a mass spectrometer. Lights on a display indicate within 3 seconds what kind of tissue it is. Ultimately the aim is for surgeons to be easily able to cut out all of a tumour while leaving behind healthy tissue. Meanwhile patients may need less time under anesthesia. More confidence, lower costs. sounds like a win all round.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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