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Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Technology in July,2008-robots, caterpillars and implants

In this edition:

  1. Sweeping Panoramas, Courtesy of a Robot
  2. Brain implant helps stroke victim speak again
  3. Spinal implant grows with the patient
  4. Cold war 'caterpillar drive' could harvest sea power
  5. Weight-sensitive aircraft seats

Sweeping Panoramas, Courtesy of a Robot

ROBOTS already cut the grass and vacuum rugs. Now they are helping with a more artistic job: creating vast photographic panoramas with ordinary cameras.

A new, inexpensive robotic device from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University attaches snugly to almost any standard digital camera, tilting and panning it to fashion highly detailed panoramic vistas — whether of the Grand Canyon, a rain forest or a backyard Easter egg hunt. The robot is called GigaPan, named “giga” for the billion or more pixels it can marshal for a typical panorama. It creates the huge, high-resolution vista by extending its robotic finger and repeatedly clicking the camera shutter, taking tens, hundreds or even thousands of overlapping images, each at a slightly different angle, that are then stitched together by software to create one gigapixel shot.

Viewers can explore a panorama in detail when it is displayed on a computer screen, clicking on any part of the image and then zooming in for crisp close-ups. You can move from an overall shot of the forest, for instance, to an image of one small moth resting on the side of a single tree trunk.

The roboticized camera mount and related software were devised by a team led by Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon West and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. The work was part of a project to introduce people to different countries and cultures through images.

The GigaPan provides a low-cost alternative to sophisticated motorized camera mounts on the market used to take panoramic photos, said Greg Downing, co-founder of the xRez Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., which specializes in gigapixel photography. The motorized mounts can cost thousands of dollars, he said, and typically require a high-end camera.

Dr. Nourbakhsh said the Carnegie Mellon robotic mount, to be released commercially later this year, would be priced “so that as many people as possible can afford to use it.”

“We hope it will cost in the low hundreds of dollars — well below $500,” he said. The GigaPan will attach to any ordinary point-and-shoot digital camera.

About 300 test models of the GigaPan robot and software have been tried worldwide during the past year by scientists, schoolchildren and photography fans, among others, Dr. Nourbakhsh said.

People can share their panoramas at a Web site provided by Carnegie Mellon (

One of Dr. Palmer’s panoramas — of Hanauma Bay on the coast of Oahu in Hawaii — has 1,750 total frames, 25 rows by 70 columns. ( The exposures and number of frames were calculated automatically by the computer inside the GigaPan.

It took about an hour and a half for the robot to shoot the scene in a fairly silent process, with only “a low hum, and the steady click of the camera,” he said.source

My comment: Here's something practical and if you click on any of the links, you'll see the pictures are awesome! I want one of those for sure.

Brain implant helps stroke victim speak again

Movie Camera
  • 18:00 09 July 2008
An implant and specialised software have been used to interpret a paralysed man's brain signals and produce recognisable sounds

Nine years ago, a brain-stem stroke left Erik Ramsey almost totally paralysed, but with his mental faculties otherwise intact. Today he is learning to talk again – although so far he can only manage basic vowel sounds.

In 2004, Ramsey had an electrode implanted in his speech-motor cortex by Philip Kennedy's team at Neural Signals, a company based in Duluth, Georgia, US, who hoped the signal from Ramsey's cortex could be used to restore his speech.

Interpreting these signals proved tricky, however. Fortunately, another team headed by Frank Guenther at Boston University, Massachusetts, US, has been working on the same problem from the opposite direction.

Guenther and his colleagues have used information from brain scans of healthy patients to monitor neural activity during speech. These studies show that the brain signals don't code for words, but instead control the position of the lips, tongue, jaw and larynx to produce basic sounds.

Guenther's research group then developed software that could recognise and translate the patterns of brain activity during speech.

When they teamed up with Kennedy, they could use their software to interpret the signals from Ramsey's implanted electrode and work out the shape of the vocal tract that Ramsey is attempting to form. This information can then be fed to a vocal synthesiser that produces the corresponding sound.

The software is now translating Ramsey's thoughts into sounds in real time, so Ramsey hears his "voice" as he makes a sound, effectively bypassing the damaged region of his brain stem.

This gives Ramsey immediate feedback on his pronunciation, which he can use to rapidly hone his speaking skills in the same way infants do when learning to talk. Initially, when prompted to produce a vowel sound such as "ee" or "oh", he hit the correct sound around 45% of the time. Over the course of a few weeks, Ramsey's accuracy has risen to 80%.

In the future, Guenther says that the goal is to give Ramsey the ability to speak complete words with fluency, but that will require software and hardware improvements.

"The synthesiser is good for vowels, but not for consonants," he says. "We're going to move to a synthesiser with better consonant capabilities, where the patient would have more control over jaw height, for instance."

But a more complicated system would be harder to control, says Guenther. "Right now, Erik is controlling two dimensions to create vowels," he says. "But for consonants he would need seven dimensions – three to control tongue movement, two for lip movement, and one each for jaw and larynx height."

Ramsey still retains control of one muscle in his eye, through which he can communicate. Although that communication route is very slow, Müller thinks it might produce more data given sufficient time.

He also thinks that Guenther and Kennedy's technique might not be suitable for fully "locked-in" patients, who can't control any muscles.

"If you have a completely locked-in patient then maybe the brain begins to degrade because they're not able to control anything," he says. "Those patients might be completely unable to communicate even using a brain-control interface."

Guenther presented his latest results at the Acoustics'08 Paris conference in France on 3 July. source

My comment: Good, huh? That's certainly a hope for many people after strokes.

Spinal implant grows with the patient

  • 14 July 2008

CHILDREN suffering from the spinal condition scoliosis face the prospect of major surgery with lifelong complications. To try to avoid this, a new corrective implant is under development that "grows" with the child, harvesting the energy it needs from its host's movements.

Scoliosis affects as many as 1 in 50 adult women and 1 in 200 men, causing their spines to curve from side to side into unnatural "C" or "S" shapes. In severe cases, it is treated by grafting sections of bone or metallic fixators onto the spine to help straighten it. But this "spinal fusion" surgery usually cannot be done until a child is almost fully grown, by which time the symptoms are already advanced.

The technique has other drawbacks, too: it restricts movement, and can cause surrounding muscles and ligaments to atrophy. "Vertebral fusion drastically [weakens] the strength of the skeleton," says Jose Alvarez Canal. spine over time.

The new implant, developed in collaboration with spine experts from Spain and France, uses
a hydraulic piston to apply a force between two points along the spine, gradually correcting its curvature.

The device can be fitted to relatively young children, but as they grow and the piston moves, the force it exerts inevitably reduces. To correctthis, doctors need to top up the pressure on the piston. The NADAR device is designed to allow some free movement of the spine, some of
which it harnesses to pump hydraulic fluid from a low-pressure reserve within the device into a high-pressure reservoir. When adjustment is needed, the doctors use wireless telemetry to open a valve that releases fluid from the reservoir into the piston. The device is removed completely once the spine is straight, reducing the risk of complications.
. source

My comment: Another cool application of simple physics and complicated engineering.

Cold war 'caterpillar drive' could harvest sea power

  • 02 July 2008
  • David McNeill Miguel A. Quintana
  • Magazine issue 2663

WHEN it was launched in June 1992, Yamato 1 seemed to herald the future of marine transport. With its sleek lines and glass-encased cockpit, this 166-tonne catamaran resembled a cross between a bullet train and Thunderbird 2, but its most advanced feature was hidden from view: a revolutionary electromagnetic engine that used superconducting magnets rather than propellers to drive it through the water. The same technology featured in Tom Clancy's novel The Hunt for Red October, published eight years earlier, as the "caterpillar drive" that powered the fictional Soviet stealth submarine. According to Yamato 1's Japanese builders, this vibration-free and virtually silent engine would make their vessel the forerunner of a new generation of high-speed cargo ships. And that would also bring stealthy subs like Red October a step closer.

Sadly, the tests that followed told a different story. The vessel's electromagnetic drive was extremely inefficient and needed huge amounts . source
My comment:

Weight-sensitive aircraft seats

A seat's suspension can cut the risk of injury when a plane or helicopter crashes. But the suspension systems currently in use rely on "dumb" springs or other mechanical dampeners to cushion a person from impact.

However, a team funded by the US Naval Air Warfare Centerin Maryland say that "smart" suspension that is able to take a person's weight into account and detect external jolts can be safer.

The team's active suspension can sense the forces on the seat and change its levels of cushioning, using a magnetorheological fluid damper. Put simply, a magnetic fluid inside the damper can be made more or less viscous using a magnetic field.

The system can also tap into an aircraft's flight-control system to predict whether a crash is imminent, and has its own power source so it can work even if the aircraft's main power fails.

The team says the seat could save lives, as well as making flying more comfortable for the occupants.

Read the full weight-sensitive seat suspension patent application. source

My comment: That is cool, though I'm not sure how good will they do in case of actual crash or explosion of the plane which is the most common source of grieve in air plane crashes.

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