When firefighters search a building for people who need rescue the smoke and flames make it very hard to see. Although they use infrared cameras, the lenses can be blinded by intense fire. Italian researchers have created a system that uses an

to penetrate areas of thick smoke and flames. The laser beam reflects off any objects or people within the area. Then an imager decodes the data to create a 3D image of everything inside the room, even people who may be moving. This holographic image effectively allows firefighters to see through the smoke and flames that previously blinded them. The next challenge is to make the system portable. Yes, portable would be a real advantage.

LIVELY FINGERS: In the TV shows the bad guys cheerfully cut off a person's finger to use it on the fingerprint scanner to open the safe. In future though they may need the whole, live person. A test device in Rapid City in the US checks haemoglobin in the finger to make sure the owner is still alive. The machine not only identifies a fingerprint but also checks that blood is pulsing beneath it. Take that, TV villains: in future you'll have to kill the guard after the fingerprint scan instead of before.


THE WIRELESS BRAIN: There have been some useful developments in hooking people up to computers with an interface wired into their brain. It usually involves a large chunk of the device sticking out of the top of their head and connected to wires though. Now neuroengineers at Brown University have created a wireless, broadband neural sensing device that can relay signals from up to 100 neurons in someone who's freely moving around. The low power devices have been working in animals for a year already. One tiny part of the device is implanted on the cortex. From there it sends signals through a wire to a larger can that does all the work. The device transmits data at 24 Mbps via 3.2 and 3.8 Ghz microwave frequencies to an external receiver. Induction charging makes 6 hours of operation possible. The device still needs a lot of work before it can be tested in humans. So long as the control goes only one way: the wearer of the device controls external objects and can't be controlled themself.

PLASTIC TREES: Petroleum-based plastics are a menace in the environment, but what say they could be broken down by microbes at the end of their useful life? Researchers at the University of South Carolina believe they can make plastic from the sap of evergreen trees. The rosin and turpentine derived from trees is rich in hydrocarbons similar to those in petroleum. Now they're working on developing polymers from trees to create useful products. Aha, another reason to chop down trees.

SEEING DOUBLE: We all know you need two lenses to capture a 3D image, but it seems no-one told Panasonic. Their new 2.1-Mpixel CMOS image sensor combines a lenticular lens and mirror elements separate out light into two streams. A processor then combines them again into a 3D image. It can apply this 3D imaging technique to images within around 1 metre of the lens. That could redefine a one-eyed view.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz