Tech Universe: Thursday 3 July

By Miraz Jordan

The Matador pocket blanket. Photo / Matadorup.com
The Matador pocket blanket. Photo / Matadorup.com

PACK IT IN: Want to sit for a minute and enjoy the sunset or watch a street performer or even just wait for a ride? If the ground or wall or bench is damp or dirty you may end up standing. The Matador pocket blanket folds up so small into its pouch that you could actually keep it in your pocket for such occasions. The water repellant and puncture resistant material is made from high-tech HyprLyte Nylon that is less than 90 microns thick, yet very durable. The blanket comes with an attached pouch and has fold lines sewn in so you have no problem packing it up again after use. I can think of a time or two that would have been very handy.

BENCHED: Take a seat in a Boston park and you may be able to charge your smartphone. The city is installing several Soofas — solar-powered benches — that offer phone charging and also connect wirelessly to the Internet to upload location-based environmental information, such as air quality and noise-level data.

This is the kind of thing every city could do with.

WHAT A DRAG: The dimples on a golf ball reduce the drag caused by air resistance, but they're fixed and don't adapt to conditions. Researchers at MIT have created a material called Smorph that can change its surface in real time. So far they've made a sphere but hope to eventually be able to create any shape that's desired, such as an aircraft wing or car body. The team made a ball of soft rubberlike material with a stiff skin. When they extracted air from the hollow interior the ball shrank and its surface wrinkled. At a certain degree of shrinkage, the smart morphable surface can produce a dimpled pattern that's very similar to that of a golf ball. By controlling the interior pressure the team can control the amount of dimpling and therefore the drag. They might need to warn passengers on any planes that make use of smorphing: it could be alarming to look out the window and see the wing crumpling mid-flight.

THE SALES TRACK: When you visit an online store the website owner probably tracks exactly which pages you visit, in which order, how long you spend on each page, as well as what you buy and how long it is before you return. Real world stores just can't gather such detailed tracking information. One Spanish company aims to change that. Their approach starts with low-power sensors on the ceiling and shelves, linked by Bluetooth, that detect any movement up to 50 metres away. Meanwhile the smartphones many shoppers carry are constantly searching for Wi-Fi. By tracking those pings and correlating them with data from the movement sensors the company say they can tell where each customer is to within 1.5 metres at any given moment. Add in purchase records, and a store can work out which products are being ignored, which ones customers look at but don't buy and how customers move around the store. Maybe data like that would help them to organise their stores to better suit the customers too.

POCKET PROTECTOR: Those wanting to detect explosives have to use bulky equipment and rely on tedious sample preparation by a trained operator. A nanodevice developed in Israel though can identify several different types of explosives in real time, even at a distance of several metres from the source. The prototype is portable yet powerful, using highly sensitive but tiny transistors able to detect numerous chemical threats simultaneously through changes in their electrical conductance. Even in highly contaminated conditions the device was able to detect some explosive particles as much as 5 metres from the source. The next problem must be how to zero in on the explosive item.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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