Tech Universe: Wednesday 29 January

By Miraz Jordan

Could your toaster be sending you spam? Photo / Thinkstock
Could your toaster be sending you spam? Photo / Thinkstock

NOT THE EDIBLE KIND OF SPAM: You might not be too surprised if a friend's computer were compromised and used to send out spam, but what if you heard it was their smart TV or fridge that did it? Earlier this year a spam attack sent out around 750,000 messages, of which 25% didn't pass through laptops, desktops or smartphones. Instead, kitchen appliances, home media systems and web-connected TVs were infected by malware and used to send out spam. Many such devices have poor security, are poorly configured or use default passwords so can be compromised by smart spammers. Oh great: now we'll have to set up, remember and use passwords for all our appliances too?

HEAT TO LIGHT: Conventional photovoltaic cells collect energy directly from some wavelengths of sunshine. Researchers at MIT though believe photovoltaic cells could be much more efficient and are working on solar thermophotovoltaic cells.

An outer array of multiwalled carbon nanotubes very efficiently absorbs a broad spectrum of sunlight and turns it to heat. Bonded to that array is a layer of photonic crystal which collects the heat and glows with infrared light that can be collected by a conventional photovoltaic cell. That whole process allows the solar panel to collect energy from wavelengths of light that ordinarily go to waste, improving performance. Hey, if the sun's shining it's only fair to make the most of it.

WALK SOFTLY: Some people with neuromuscular disorders of the foot and ankle must wear a brace to help them walk, but over time their muscles can atrophy rather than being simply supported. A rigid exoskeleton may help but also restricts the motion of the foot. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are working on a soft orthotic device with artificial tendons and pneumatic artificial muscles. Because it's soft it's harder to control, so it uses a touch-sensitive artificial skin made of rubber sheets whose microchannels are filled with a liquid metal alloy. Stretching or pressing the sheet causes changes in the electrical resistance of the alloy. The device needs more development before it can be tested on patients though. For one thing its artificial muscles are very bulky.

AT A STRETCH: Sensors to measure strain, pressure, human touch and bioelectronic signals such as electrocardiograms are often somewhat fragile: try bending or stretching them and they'll break. That limits their usefulness. Scientists at North Carolina State University took an insulating material and screen printed silver nanowires on to it to create highly conductive and elastic sensors. The sensors respond in only 40 milliseconds so can be used to monitor strain, pressure and finger touch in real time. As the sensors can be stretched to 150% or more of their original length without losing functionality, they could be useful in controlling robotic or prosthetic devices. No word on how often the sensors can be stretched.

PARTIAL PRINTS: It can be annoying to print an entire page when all you want is an address or coupon. The tiny 220 gram Cocodori prints only what you've selected on screen onto 75mm wide roll paper. Two types of paper are available: a memo roll suitable for printing coupons and a Fusen type that is slightly sticky like a Post-it. But does it connect to a smartphone or tablet or only a PC?

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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