Tech Universe: Thursday 12 June

By Miraz Jordan

A person whose identity has been kept secret will leave behind his or her wheelchair to stand, walk and kick the tournament's ball. Photo / Walk Again Project, Duke University
A person whose identity has been kept secret will leave behind his or her wheelchair to stand, walk and kick the tournament's ball. Photo / Walk Again Project, Duke University

KICK DIFFERENT: The World Cup takes place in Brazil this year, and one lucky punter will deliver a very unusual kick before the first match. A research team has developed an exoskeleton called the BRA-Santos Dumont that will be used to help its paraplegic wearer stand and kick the ball. The robotic bodysuit is controlled by signals from the brain. Kicking a ball without being able to feel the contact wouldn't be very rewarding, so the suit has special electronic circuits in its feet. Those circuits will send a return signal to artificial skin on the wearer's arm, giving a sensation of movement and contact. The suit is the culmination of 30 years work for its developer who was asked in 2009 for ideas to help the world see Brazil in a different way. That request led to the idea of kicking off the football tournament a bit differently. So is wheelchair football part of the Cup too?

WATCH OUT: Many smart TVs in Europe use the Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV standard which was designed to allow broadcasters to add extra information to programmes or so advertisers can better target viewers, thanks to the Internet connection. That sounds very useful. The problem is that with a cheap antenna smart TVs could be hijacked by attackers. The attackers could perhaps misuse a Facebook account the smart TV owner had logged into or display a notice on screen asking for credit card or other sensitive information. What's more, once the attackers have gathered the data they're after they just take down the antenna and there's no trace of them or their activity. It could make one long for the good old days when a TV was just a TV.

GECKOS AND LADDERS: Geckos can famously run up and down walls and across ceilings. The trick is courtesy of tiny hairs on their toes. A gecko toe consists of a hierarchical structure of stalk-like setae 100 microns long and 2 microns in radius from which a bundle of hundreds of terminal tips called spatulae up to 200 nanometers in diameter branch out and contact the climbing surface. The spatulae then stick to the surface because of van der Waals intermolecular forces that also make it easy to move the toe. The US military have now taken all this information and created a device that let a climber ascend and descend some 8 metres of glass using a pair of hand-held paddles. The device could allow soldiers in full gear to be more effective in urban settings, climbing walls without ropes or ladders. Burglars may find it handy too.

SMASHING: Polymer scientists in the US can potentially make displays on smartphones shatterproof. They created a material that puts a transparent layer of electrodes on a polymer surface. It is as transparent as the currently used indium tin oxide but more conductive. After tests which bent the material 1,000 times, it remained flexible and maintained its shape and functionality. It sounds as though it can also be bent, perhaps allowing for folding or rolled displays.

LOW BEAM: Lasers have become universally useful in the 60 or so years they've been around. It takes quite a bit of power though to excite electrons in a medium to high energy and then knock light particles out as the electrons calm down again. Now researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new kind of polariton laser that requires much less energy and that works at room temperature. The new prototype requires 250 times less electricity to operate than its conventional counterpart made of the same material. Electricity goes in and is bounced around with electrodes and mirrors in just the right way to create a coherent pool of low energy polaritons which are part light and part matter. As the polaritons decay they release a beam of single-coloured light. With more development this technique could allow lasers to be used in computer circuits or perhaps in medical devices and treatments. Activate the polariton beam emitter.

Miraz Jordan,

- NZ Herald

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