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Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Sensual joysticks, cyborgs and frozen earthquakes

Just check out these news! They are all so exiting! Two of them have even videos.
The first is about a joystick that can recreate the feeling of texture and surface. Check the video, you'll notice that manipulating the ball in the box, you can actually feel the edges of the box.
The second article is even better-scientists have learned how to put electronics into the muscles of insects, birds and animals, so that they can control that movement. So far so good. But what they did more is that they for example trained a rat to recognize certain smell. They actually created a cyborg- a living thing that is controlled by electronics! Check the article, it's awesome!

Levitating joystick improves computer feedback

A computer controller levitated by magnets provides a new way to physically experience virtual objects.

The "maglev" system has benefits over more mechanical haptic controllers – computer interfaces that stimulate the user's sense of touch – and its inventors are now working to commercialising the technology.

Haptic technology has uses ranging from remote medical breast checks and exploring distant lands, to recreating the feel of fabrics.

But most haptic interfaces to date rely upon gloves or robotic arms to provide feedback to a user. The complex mechanics involved increases weight and friction that can make it difficult to provide a natural feel.

To solve that, Ralph Hollis and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US, developed a haptic device with just one moving part (see video).

A bowl with electromagnets concealed below its base contains a levitating bar that is grasped by a user and can be moved in any direction. The magnets exert forces on the bar to simulate the resistance of a weight, or a surface's resistance or friction. LEDs on the bar's underside feed back its position to light sensors in the bowl.

This approach has "huge potential", says Anthony Steed, a haptics researcher at University College London, UK. "This system gets rid of the mechanical linkages that are a major constraint on most haptic devices."

The maglev interface can exert enough force to make objects feel reassuringly solid, says Hollis, resisting as much as 40 newtons of force before it shifts even a millimetre.

That's enough to feel the same as a hard surface and better than most existing interfaces, he says. "Current devices feel very mushy, so it's hard to simulate a hard surface.”

The device can track movements of the bar as small as two microns, a fiftieth the width of a human hair. “That's important for feeling very subtle effects of friction and texture," says Hollis.

And it can exert and respond to all six degrees of freedom of movement – moving along or rotating about each of the three dimensions of space (forward/backwards, left/right, up/down).

Stephen Brewster, of the Interactive Systems Group at the University of Glasgow, says the maglev approach is totally different from existing systems.

"It offers things that other devices just can't do – the high forces, low friction, low inertia, and six degrees of freedom."

After working on a series of prototypes since 1997, Hollis has started a company called Butterfly Haptics to market the technology. The first six second-generation versions of the device will soon be shipped for testing to a consortium of several US and Canadian universities.

My comment: Can you imagine what possibilities that tool presents? Just think about it. If this get to commercial use, there would have to be programs that will incorporate it. Like design software, games...Probably even the internet itself will change to accommodate the new device-like the possibility of using depth! Because now, we have not a 2-D device, but a 3-D!!!

The cyborg animal spies hatching in the lab

THE next time a moth alights on your window sill, watch what you say. Sure, it may look like an innocent visitor, irresistibly drawn to the light in your room, but it could actually be a spy - one of a new generation of cyborg insects with implants wired into their nerves to allow remote control of their movement. Be warned, flesh-and-blood bugs may soon live up to their name.

It's not just insects that could be used as snoops. Researchers have already developed remote control systems for rats, pigeons and even sharks. The motivation is simple: why labour for years to build robots that imitate the ways animals move when you can just plug into living creatures and hijack systems already optimised by millions of years of evolution? Animals' sensory abilities far outstrip the vast majority of artificial sensors. Sharks, moths and rats, for example, have amazing olfactory systems that allow them to detect the faintest traces of chemicals. And if you can hide your control system within your cyborg's body, it would be virtually indistinguishable from its unadulterated kin - the perfect spy.

José Delgado at Yale University created the first cyborg animal in the 1950s. Delgado discovered where to insert electrodes in the brains of several species, including bulls, to acquire crude control of their movement. In one dramatic demonstration in 1963, he stood in a bullring in Córdoba, Spain, as one of his cyborg bulls charged at him. With just seconds between him and a good goring, Delgado flicked a switch and the bull skidded to a halt.

A team led by John Chapin at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn, implanted electrodes in the rat's brain which apparently mimicked the sensation that its left or right whiskers had been brushed. They then trained the rat to respond to the electrical stimuli. For example, if the rat turned right when the brain region associated with its right whiskers was pulsed, then reward centres in its brain were electrically stimulated.

Linda Hermer-Vasquez at the University of Florida in Gainesville later joined the project to train the cyborg rat to identify specific scents, such as humans or explosives, to demonstrate that it could be used in search-and-rescue missions to find people trapped under rubble, for example, or to sniff out bombs.

To give the animal's operator a rat's-eye view, the most advanced generation of cyborg rats were kitted out with video-camera backpacks. These souped-up rats were trained to board a rolling carrier so that they could be easily transported to the site of their mission.

To test the system, the team allowed a rat to descend from the carrier and remotely steered it to the area they wanted searched for traces of an explosive. Once in the correct area, they switched off their remote control. "When the rat realised that it was no longer being controlled, it went into odour-sniffing mode," says Hermer-Vasquez. Within a few minutes, the rat had successfully identified the source of the scent. They repeated the test several times, with the same result.

It is easy to see if a rat in the lab has found the source of a target scent, but in the field the team would need a way of getting remote confirmation that their cyborg rat had accomplished its mission and found a target. To achieve this, they first identified the neural signals that rats generate when they come across a scent they are trained to find. The researchers began to develop another brain implant to pick up these neural signals and a transmitter attached to the backpack to relay them to "mission control" (New Scientist, 25 September 2004, p 21).

Unfortunately, progress slowed in 2005 when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) stopped funding the research. However, Hermer-Vasquez says the Israeli government has since asked the team to apply for a patent in Israel so the government can license the technology to use cyborg rats in search-and-rescue missions. The patent is pending.

Chapin's team now plans to transfer its technology to birds, where it could be useful for surveillance. They won't be the first, though. Last year, a team led by Su Xuecheng at the Shandong University of Science and Technology in Qingdao, reported implanting electrodes in the brains of pigeons which allowed them to direct the birds up, down, left or right via wireless signals from a laptop. In another, now-defunct DARPA project, Jelle Atema of Boston University, Massachusetts, showed he could control the direction of a small shark - called a spiny dogfish - using a brain implant to stimulate either its left or right olfactory centre. The shark turned to follow the phantom odour (New Scientist, 1 March 2006, p 30).

One benefit of working with animals like rats, pigeons and sharks is that they are big enough to carry off-the-shelf miniature video cameras and computers - and the batteries to power them. But these animals are are too large to blend into the background, which is one reason why DARPA's latest project focuses on insects. Insects' agility in flight is unmatched. The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project (HI-MEMS) aims to miniaturise all the technology necessary so that it fits within the body of a flying insect.

During their development from larvae to adults, most winged insects, including moths and beetles, undergo metamorphosis in a pupa stage, during which enzymes dissolve much of the larval tissue and the insect is rebuilt. The HI-MEMS project aims to merge artificial control systems with those of the insect by inserting the devices during the pupa stage. The idea is that as new organs and tissue develop, they will create strong, stable connections between the devices and the insects' neural or muscular tissues. The control devices become part of the adult insect's body.

This is no mean feat. The implants must be small and light enough not to interfere with the adult insect, and must reliably contact the neurons that control flight. HI-MEMS researchers have fabricated ultra-thin neural probes - a few hundred of micrometres across - out of flexible plastic, with traces of metal completing the electrical connections.

Details are hard to come by as the DARPA-funded research teams have been prohibited from speaking about their work. However, two of the groups gave tantalising glimpses of their progress when they presented some results at the IEEE MEMS 2008 conference in Tucson, Arizona, in January.

In a series of video clips shown at the conference and posted online, a tobacco hawkmoth with wires connected to its back lifts and lowers one wing, then the other, then both, in response to signals delivered to its flight muscles. As the researchers ramp up the frequency of the muscle stimulation, the moth's wings beat faster, approaching take-off speed. In another clip, the moth is flying, tethered from above, when electrical impulses applied to muscles on one side or the other cause the moth to yaw left or right.

The clips were filmed at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, where a team led by David Stern implanted the flexible plastic probes into tobacco hawkmoth pupae seven days before the moths emerged. They found that inserting them any earlier meant the tissue was too fluid to seal around the probe, but any later and development was too advanced and the probes damaged the moths' muscles. A probe is embedded in each set of flight muscles on either side of the moth and a connection protrudes from the moth's back. This can be hooked up to the tether wires which also deliver control signals and power. According to their paper, the team has also designed and built a battery-powered onboard control system, though there was no mention of whether they had made moths fly using this untethered arrangement.

Meanwhile another DARPA-funded group, led by Michel Maharbiz at the University of California, Berkeley, implanted electrodes into the brains of adult green June beetles, near neurons that control flight (see Illustration). When the team delivered pulses of negative voltage to the brain, the beetles' wing muscles began beating and the bugs took off. A pulse of positive voltage shut the wings down, stopping flight short, and by rapidly switching between these signals, they controlled the insects' thrust and lift. Maharbiz's team found two ways to make tethered beetles turn. In one, they mounted an LED display in front of a beetle's eyes. Lighting up the left or right portion turned the beetle in the opposite direction. In a second, more successful, approach they directly stimulated the flight muscles on one side, causing the insect to turn to the other.

Intriguing as these first steps are, these programmes are a long way from providing the ultimate in stealthy spies. Maharbiz's system uses a battery glued to the outside of the beetle for power, while Stern's moth-control system relies on power provided through wires plugged into the implant. Both would stick out like sore thumbs, and that's before adding the microphones, environmental sensors and transmitters that they would need to be of any use as spies. The challenge now is to shrink the components to hide as many of them as possible inside the insect. They are also looking to harness power from the insects themselves.

DARPA's goal is to create cyborg insects that can fly at least 100 metres from their controller and land within 5 metres of a target, then stay put until commanded to buzz off again. How the insects will be guided to a target is yet another unresolved problem.

Maharbiz's flight controller works storing sequences of flight commands which would direct the insect through a preset series of moves. "What you want to avoid is some way of detecting that it's not a plain old insect, or some situation where its signals could be jammed," Higgins notes. The pre-programmed method has its shortcomings, though: a strong wind could easily blow the bug off course.

Another variable is deciding at what level to engage the spy-in-the-sky's nervous system. Stern's probes stimulate the moth's flight muscles directly, while Maharbiz targets the neurons associated with flight in the beetle brain as well as its muscles. A major advantage of using an insect is the ability to tap into its own control system - its ability to steer a straight course, or level itself, for instance - so stimulating each wingbeat manually would defeat the object.

While other teams are trying to stuff insects full of technology, Higgins has gone in the opposite direction by trying to stuff technology full of insects: he wants to recruit insects as high-level sensory controllers for robots. Plugging robots into live insects seemed like a no-brainer once the idea struck him.

Artificial vision can't beat living systems, which are honed to recognise objects or detect motion, Higgins says. So far, he has begun experimenting with insects as living sensory-systems within a three-wheeled table-top robot (see "Meet the robo-bug").

Research into cyborg animals has delivered results that have intrigued researchers in other fields. The fact that Maharbiz's group can turn insect flight on and off by stimulating the brain with voltage pulses of opposite polarity is surprising, says Michael Dickinson at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "I have no sensible neurobiological explanation for why that's the case," he says.

If the groups keep making strides, the proverbial fly on the wall may literally become a spy. So, the paranoid out there, beware. It may be time to arm yourselves with a can of bug spray and a good old-fashioned swatter - just to be on the safe side. source

My comment: Rather long, but very interesting. I wouldn't call it disgusting, though I think it's somewhat cruel to put electrodes in the brain of the poor creature and to limit its options. To control it like it's just a puppet. But from the scientific point of view, I find it rather cool. To be able to manipulate flesh so well. Spying is scary indeed. But think what will happen when that technique evolves to human brain! Because it can work in both direction-electrodes stimulate brain to create a sensation or stimulus, or brain interact with electrodes to export its sensations!

Earthquake activity is frozen by ice sheets

Can you put a freeze on earthquakes? It seems so, according to a computer model showing that earthquakes happen less often in areas covered by ice caps. Trouble is, quakes come back with a vengeance when the ice melts.

Andrea Hampel at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and colleagues wondered why Scandinavia experienced a surge in tectonic activity around 9000 years ago, whereas few earthquakes occur there today. They realised that the earthquake flurry coincided with the melting of the Fennoscandian ice sheet, which blanketed the area in the last ice age.

To discover why, they devised a model to test how geological faults respond when buried beneath several hundred metres of ice. They found that the vertical stress placed on the Earth's crust by a heavy ice sheet can suppress many types of fault from slipping and causing a quake.

Though the faults are pinned down for a time, stresses in the crust continue to build, so when the ice melts, earthquakes occur more strongly and more frequently (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2008.02.017). This has already been been observed in Alaska, says Hampel. She warns that Greenland and Antarctica could experience more earthquakes as their ice sheets disappear. source

My comment: Ok, I'm not much of an expert here, but that sound interesting to me. What it implies is that if the ice on poles melts, we can expect a wave of earthquakes. The bad part is that if they are underwater and powerful, they can and probably will produce tsunamis.


Anonymous said...

Merci d'avoir un blog interessant

Anonymous said...

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