tech planet

Monday, 20 August 2012

What, Exactly, Is an Ultrabook?

We'll be swimming in sleeker, lighter, faster PC notebooks in 2012, thanks to Intel's brand new guts and a major marketing push. Here's how to cut through the hype
Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook Acer
"Ultrabook" is a word you've probably already heard used to describe a thin, powerful laptop. You've probably also seen a MacBook Air—the genre's archetype. But if you haven't heard the term this year, get ready for some major exposure: ultrabooks are the way PC laptops will be marketed to us in 2012. But are they something new? Or simply a laptop, refined?
Intel will tell you the former—that Ultrabooks represent a revolutionary "new era" in computing. Intel's role is to provide the ultra-thin guts to PC manufacturers like Toshiba, Acer and Asus, who bundle the hardware into their own unique takes on the ultrabook form.
At their CES press conference this morning, Intel outlined all the new features these guts will have in 2012. And they're impressive, inside and out.
On the outside, Intel's pared-down logic boards will ensure that 2012's PC ultrabooks can all be under 18mm thin. And with more powerful batteries on board, these new laptops will be able to power larger screens, addressing a frequent complaint: ultrabooks' smaller screens. Intel says half of the ultrabooks in the 2012 pipeline will have screens 14" or larger.
Good things continue on the inside. Intel's Sandy Bridge integrated graphics (which will be replaced by the next-generation Ivy Bridge later this year) can power DirextX 11 graphics without breaking too much of a sweat (and, hopefully, without killing your battery). Built-in near-field communication brings the possibility of instantaneous info transfers from NFC-equipped objects for quickly entering credit card info, sharing links and photos, and more. When paired with Intel's hardware-based identity protection system, which verifies your info is coming fromyour computer, it's a convenient and secure package. Intel's also partnering with the voice-recognition company Nuance to provide the computing muscle necessary for advanced Siri-like speech controls, but without having to connect with the cloud.
Intel's also interested in playing with user interfaces. Personally I'm skeptical of their claim this morning that touching our laptops' screens will ever be a viable method of interacting with them (and according to Twitter, many of you agree with me). Right now, I can only see this being usable on hybrid tablet-laptop devices like Asus's Transformer Prime, especially when paired (one day) with Windows 8's touch-focused interface elements.
How the manufactures implent these features is up to them, but they'll being doing it with a huge Intel marketing push at their back. It's no wonder they allotted half of their CES press conference this morning to their senior VP of marketing. He showed us a commercial that likens the ultrabook to man's ancient discovery of agricultural tools and the Gutenberg printing press—no joke. This is some serious marketing about to be unleashed.
The elephant in the room for Intel and the PC makers, of course, is that the MacBook Air has been on sale since January 2008. The current generation, the first to fully and with no compromises in power replace a larger laptop for everyday use, has been on the market since late 2010. There's a lot of catching up to do, hence the major marketing. In the end, we'll be dealing with tons more sleeker, lighter and faster Windows laptops on the market. A good thing? Definitely. Akin to man's discovery of the iron plow? Probably not.

FOLLOW MY TWEETS-@parth008 and @linkwheelpro

A Computer Constructed From a Consortium of Live Crabs

Soldier Crabs on the March Peter Ellis via Wikimedia
If biomimicry is the instance of technology emulating nature, then this must be something like the opposite: researchers at Kobe University have built a computer out of crabs. Placed within a geometrically constrained environment, swarms of soldier crabs can be effectively used to emulate logic gates. In other words, researchers have replicated the fundamental workings of a computer--with crabs.
The crabs in question, soldier crabs, live in large groups in lagoon environments (not to be confused with Shanghai hairy crabs, which live in a vending machine). When they move they swarm, with no real discernible leader. Crabs near the edges of the group exhibit serious leadership qualities, keeping the group together and moving in a direction as a cohesive body. Crabs in the interior of the group go with the flow, following their neighbors who are following their neighbors who are following the leaders at the edges.
But, interestingly, the soldier crabs also rotate regularly. Leader crabs at the edges cycle back into the interior, and interior crabs rotate to the outside, into leadership roles. All this happens without discussion of course. The direction and speed the crabs travel is often dictated by outside stimuli, such as the shadow of a crab-eating bird being cast on the group. But they more or less move as a unit, regardless of which crabs are in charge at any particular time.
When two swarms of crabs meet in motion, they tend to compromise by merging and continuing on in a direction that is the sum of the two swarms’ velocities, and this is where the computing comes in. The researchers built a system of channels in an environment that funnel the crabs along, like electrons flowing through a computer (they are prodded along by a fake bird shadow that is cast from overhead). Using a group of 40 real soldier crabs, the researchers tried to cajole the group into acting like a logic gate.
They found they could build a very reliable OR logic gate--where one or two swarms are merged into a single path. Creating the AND gate--one that requires the crabs to all swarm down one of three paths--was more difficult, but the researchers think they can improve its rate of success by altering the environment to be more friendly to the crabs.
All that means that, technically, you could build a classical computer using the presence or absence of a swarm of crabs to represent 1s and 0s. Which doesn’t impact you at all, since it would be kind of silly to actually build a working computer that works in such a way. But isn’t it cool that you could?
Creating Logic Gates from Soldier Crabs:  Kobe University/University of the West of England)

Microsoft's Newest Gestural Interface Captures Hand Motions By Listening to Them

Using Sound to Capture Motion Microsoft Research
WIth the Kinect, Microsoft opened up the world of gestural controls to the masses, allowing users to manipulate video games and otherwise control their devices with simple motion controls. Now Microsoft Research is doing it again, this time using inaudible sound waves to create the same kind of gestural interface, no cameras necessary.
Aptly named SoundWave, the technology allows users to control their computers via gestures that are evaluated based on sound. It requires a microphone and speaker to work, as the SoundWave system emits a constant inaudible tone that is altered by hand movements in front of the computer. The microphone picks up changes in frequency caused by said gestures, and the software quickly infers what gesture was made.
CoundWave is still in the incubator at Microsoft Research, so it’s not available for PCs just yet. And it kind of begs the question: why? Kinect is good and getting better, and cameras only grow more ubiquitous on our gadgets. If visual gesture recognition is such a robust technology--and Microsoft itself has gone a long way toward proving that it’s here to stay--then SoundWave seems somewhat redundant.
But we’re also all about the idea of research for the sake of research, and in a videoposted to the research group’s site the technology does appear to work, albeit with a slight delay and with a much shorter range than Kinect-like, vision-based systems. See it in action here.

Stock Trading Robot Makes Decisions Based on Superstitious Algorithms

Tokyo Stock Exchange Flickr/Stéfan
When we feel there's a situation out of our control, we often fall back on superstition to account for it. ("Nothing else is working, why not blame it on that black cat?") But when enough of us rely on superstition, it's not just an individual comfort; it starts to have real repercussions. Now a designer has created an algorithm trades stock superstitiously, and it's going to see if gambling based on full moons and thirteens can pay off.
Sid the Superstitious Robot (for which you can see the open-sourced code if you're so inclined) is governed by a set of rules programmed by 25-year-old Shing Tat Chung. Among them are a phobia of the number thirteen that prevents it from trading stocks on the thirteenth day of the month. On the other side of the scale, it has an affinity for new moons, but will sell during a full moon. It's a rewiring of other trading systems that make decisions based on more rational changes, such as costs of certain goods or other expected outcomes.
But those beliefs aren't concretely set; Sid incorporates new ones based on feedback from his performance. That doesn't equate to rationality: a certain pattern can be observed but also be imaginary, and the algorithm will incorporate it based on a superstitious "feeling" that it evokes.
We've seen some amazing-sounding algorithms even recently, but so far this one's just doing OK. It's at -5 percent of its original amount of cash, compared to a relative rise of about 4 percent on the market. But it does seem like the stock market is the place to try this; superstitions probably affect it at least somewhat, and an algorithm trading based on that could give us a glimpse into the rules of risk we subconsciously follow. The experiment will continue using real people's money, and at the end of the year we'll get to see what betting on full moons can buy.

Video: The World's Thinnest Transparent Display is a Soap Bubble

Colloid Display A sonically controlled soap bubble could be the world's thinnest transparent display. viaYoichi Ochiai
The world’s thinnest transparent screen isn’t really a screen at all, but something more like a soap bubble. An international team of researchers claims its display--which uses ultrasonic sound waves to change the properties of a soap-like film to display both flat and 3-D images--is the world’s thinnest transparent screen, and that using several of them together can even produce a holographic projection.
The bubble itself is made of a mixture that’s more difficult to burst than your average dish soap bubble, though soap is a key ingredient. Augmented with colloids, objects can even pierce or pass through the bubble without destroying it. This membrane-like bubble display can be controlled using ultrasonic vibrations that vary its opacity and reflectance, altering the light projected onto the screen.
More than one of these membrane displays used in tandem can produce even more nuanced imagery, including 3-D effects and holographic projections. All this is explained in far more visual detail in the video below.

Supermarkets Use Retina Trackers To Monitor Your Shopping Choices

Heat Mapping the Bath Products Aisle Unilever via Wall Street Journal
Consumer-products makers spend countless dollars every year on market research that doesn’t work. Focus groups generally to try to please their testers, research has found, and consumer surveys also tend to overestimate their interest in products. So several companies are cutting what consumers say out of the equation and instead going straight after what they are thinking, the Wall Street Journal reports.
New 3-D computer simulations of shopping experiences augmented with eye-tracking technology and brain-wave monitoring are taking the place of conventional market research. Using these simulated shopping environments, companies like Kimberly-Clark, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever are extracting far more meaningful data from the human shopping experience. Sophisticated simulations of packaging design and store-aisle displays allow the market testers to have more control over their experiments. And using eye-tracking technology or EEG bands, they can make heat maps of where consumers eyes tend to go on a label or a store shelf, or even see what experiences cause the pleasure centers of consumers’ brains to light up.
Doing so allows market researchers into consumers’ heads in a way they never could before, dispensing with the unconscious tendency on the behalf of the consumer to say what the testers want to hear. And its creating a wealth of data that is turning some conventional wisdom in the world of packaging design and shelf display on its ear. More over at WSJ.

Turn Animated Characters From Games Into Movable 3-D Printed Beasts

3-D Printed Spore Creatures The new software optimizes the virtual model (top) and creates strong, articulated joints for 3D printing (bottom). The creature emerges fully assembled. Moritz Bächer
Imaginary creatures rule the universes of various video games, maybe none more notably than the fantastical beasts you can create all by yourself in “Spore.” Ever wonder if your two-headed, seven-eyed four-legged dinosaur-thing would be able to stand up? New software developed at Harvard will make it real for you, making a new computer model and constructing a physical animal-thing with a 3-D printer.
In a new research project, computer scientists funded partially by animation studio Pixar can turn animations into physical objects. The software solves any lingering physical-impossibility problems that can stem from the unrestricted imagination, and prints out a movable object. Lead author Moritz Bächer, a graduate student in computer science, tells Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences news site that his program can print anatomically unbalanced creatures, articulated joints and all.
It works by examining an animated character’s virtual behavior, and figuring out ideal locations for their actual joints. Then it builds a 3-D computer model of the joints’ best locations and physical attributes, which you can see at top right in the image above. The software even builds in some friction into the joints — which can be ball-and-socket joints or hinges — so they’ll hold a pose just right. The resulting model can be sintered together on any 3-D printer.
Right now, the figurines are limited to one material, so they can’t be squished or stretched beyond their moving joints, according to a Harvard news release. But the techniques for 3-D printed elastic objects exist, so it’s feasible that someday soft-bodied action figures could pop out of a 3-D printer.
Harvard filed a patent application for this technology and hopes to license it or spin off a small company, which could conceivably make action figures on demand. The team will present their work at SIGGRAPH next month.

Seeing Through Walls With a Wireless Router

In the 1930s, U.S. Navy researchers stumbled upon the concept of radar when they noticed that a plane flying past a radio tower reflected radio waves. Scientists have now applied that same principle to make the first device that tracks existing Wi-Fi signals to spy on people through walls.
Wi-Fi radio signals are found in 61 percent of homes in the U.S. and 25 percent worldwide, so Karl Woodbridge and Kevin Chetty, researchers at University College London, designed their detector to use these ubiquitous signals. When a radio wave reflects off a moving object, its frequency changes—a phenomenon called the Doppler effect. Their radar prototype identifies frequency changes to detect moving objects. It’s about the size of a suitcase and contains a radio receiver composed of two antennas ­and a signal-processing unit. In tests, they have used it to determine a person’s location, speed and direction—even through a one-foot-thick brick wall. Because the device itself doesn’t emit any radio waves, it can’t be detected.
Wi-Fi radar could have domestic applications ranging from spotting intruders to unobtrusively monitoring children or the elderly. It could also have military uses: The U.K. Ministry of Defence has funded a study to determine whether it could be used to scan buildings during urban warfare. With improvements, Woodbridge says, the device could become sensitive enough to pick up on subtle motions the ribcage makes during breathing, which would allow the radar to detect people who are standing or sitting still.
See image above for how it'll work.
When Wi-Fi radio waves bounce off a moving object, their frequency changes. If, for example, a person is moving toward the Wi-Fi source, the reflected waves’ frequency increases. If a person is moving away from the source, the frequency decreases.
A Wi-Fi Internet router already in the room fills the area with radio waves of a specific frequency, usually 2.4 or 5 gigahertz.
One antenna of the radar system tracks the baseline radio signal in the room.
A second antenna detects radio waves that have reflected off of moving objects, which changes their frequency.
By comparing the two antennas’ signals, the computer calculates the object’s location to within a few feet as well as its speed and direction.


Breathe Easy:
It’s possible to detect a person’s breathing rate by surrounding him with radio waves. Neal Patwari’s wireless engineering group at the University of Utah designed a network of 20 inexpensive radio transmitters that are placed around a patient’s bed. Then they created an algorithm that detects a stationary person’s breaths better than current detectors do. Patwari plans to upgrade the algorithm by the end of the year to filter out body movements too. The system could someday be used in hospitals in place of tubes and masks.

The First Shirt That Lowers Your Body Temperature

Ice Tee Courtesy Columbia Sportswear
The human body already has a highly efficient cooling system: As perspiration evaporates, it draws heat away from the body. Wicking fabrics facilitate this process by distributing sweat evenly over the fabric, so that it dries more quickly. Despite devising cheats, such as menthol-like chemical coatings added to fabrics, companies have never actually improved upon the body’s natural cooling process. Designers at Columbia Sportswear have now made a fabric that does.
The wicking polyester base of the Omni-Freeze ZERO T-shirt is embedded with thousands of 0.15-inch hydrophilic polymer rings (a men’s medium has more than 41,000 of them). As the base spreads sweat, the rings absorb moisture and expand into three-dimensional doughnuts. In order to swell, the rings require energy, which they gather as body heat. In tests, the shirt was up to 10 degrees cooler against the wearer’s skin than shirts made from any other material.

Columbia Sportswear Omni-Freeze Zero Freeze Degree T-shirt

Weight: 4.8 ounces
Material: stretch polyester
Sun Protection Factor: 50
Price: $60

In Related News: The Safest Way to Jog at Dusk

Nightlife Jacket III:  Courtesy Brooks
Designers at Brooks worked with a team at the Loughborough University Sports Technology Institute in the U.K. to ensure runners wearing the Nightlife Jacket III remain visible to drivers in any light. The darker the surroundings, the more heavily eyes rely on contrast to pick out objects, so the team added black stripes to the arms and shoulders to offset the fluorescent base and better outline runners. Brooks NightLife Jacket III $115

The Fully Electronic, Futuristic Starting Gun That Eliminates Advantages in Races

And that can be carried on a plane without the hassle, too

The Omega E-Gun Starting Pistol Omega
It's easy to take for granted just how insanely close some Olympic races are, and how much the minutiae of it all can matter. The perfect example is the traditional starting gun. Seems easy. You pull a trigger and the race starts. Boom. What people don't consider: When a conventional gun goes off, the sound travels to the ears of the closest runner a fraction of a second sooner than the others. That's just enough to matter, and why the latest starting pistol has traded in the mechanical boom for orchestrated, electronic noise. 
Omega has been the watch company tasked as the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games since 1932. At the 2010 Vancouver games, they debuted their new starting gun, which is a far cry from the iconic revolvers associated with early games--it's clearly electronic, but still more than a button that's pressed to get the show rolling. About as far away as you can get, probably, while still clearly being a starting gun. Pull the trigger once, and off the Olympians go. If it's pressed twice consecutively, it signals a false start.
Working through a speaker system is what eliminates any kind of advantage for athletes. It's not a big advantage being close to a gun, but the sound of the bullet traveling one meter every three milliseconds could contribute to a win. Powder pistols have been connected to a speaker system before, but even then, runners could react to the sound of the real pistol firing, rather than wait for the speaker sounds to reach them. This year's setup will have speakers placed equidistant from runners, forcing the sound to reach each competitor at exactly the same time. "It wouldn’t be an enormous difference," Omega Timing board member Peter Hürzeler said in an email, "but when you think about reaction times being measured in tiny fractions of a second, placing a speaker behind each lane has eliminated any sort of advantage for any athlete. They all hear the start commands and signal at exactly the same moment."
There's also an ulterior reason for its look. In a post-September 11th world, a gun on its way to a major event is going to raise more than a few TSA eyebrows, even if it's a realistic-looking fake. Rather than deal with that, the e-gun can be transported while still maintaining the general look of a starting gun.
But there's still nothing like hearing a starting gun go off at the start of a race--more than signaling the runners, there's probably some Pavlovian response after more than a century of Olympic games that make people want to hear the real thing, not a whiny electronic noise. Everyone in the stands at home, thankfully, will still be getting that. "The sound is programmable and can be synthesized to sound like almost anything," Hürzeler says, "but we program it to sound like a pistol--it’s a way to use the best possible starting technology but to keep a rich tradition alive."