Category Archives: Electronics

Futuristic transparent smartphone.

Are transparent phones close to becoming a thing?

We’ve seen smartphones change drastically over the years, is going transparent the next stage of their evolution? We’re not sure yet, but companies seem to be taking it seriously.

Futuristic transparent smartphone.
Image credits: Daniel Frank/Unsplash.

A few tech giants have already received patents for their respective transparent phone designs, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re already working on transparent smartphones. The problem is that this type of design not only requires changes in the design or one particular part of the device but it asks for a complete makeover. 

From the display to cameras, sensors, and circuitry, phone engineers might have to make each and every component transparent if they wish to develop a true lucid smartphone — or assemble them in such a way that those components don’t overlap with the transparent screen. This is definitely not going to be easy, but if they somehow achieve this difficult feat, this might revolutionize other gadgets around us as well.

Furthermore, the advent of transparent smartphones may lead us towards the creation of transparent televisions, laptop screens, cameras, and a whole new generation of transparent gadgets. No surprise, such cool gadgets would make the current devices look like ancient artifacts (at least, in terms of appearance).

Are there any real-life transparent smartphones yet?

Well, not quite.

Although they’re not exactly like the ones you may have seen in The Expanse, Real Steel, or Minority Report, some companies have tried to develop transparent phones — not smartphones — or at least make them partially transparent. Although they were ahead of their time, some designs were actually pretty impressive.

In 2009, LG introduced the GD900, a stylish slider phone that was equipped with a see-through keyboard, it is considered the world’s first transparent phone. The same year, Sony Ericsson launched Xperia Pureness, the world’s first keypad phone with a transparent display. 

A look at LG GD900, world's first transparent phone.
LG GD-900, the first phone with a transparent design. Image credits: LG전자/flickr

Despite its unique design, the Xperia phone received poor ratings from both critics and users due to its poor display visibility and it didn’t turn out to be a very successful product. A couple of years later, Japanese tech company TDK developed transparent bendable displays using OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes). 

In 2012, two other companies in Japan (NTT Docomo and Fujitsu) joined hands to develop a see-through touch screen phone, and they did come up with a prototype that also had a transparent OLED touchscreen. The following year, Polytron Technologies from Taiwan, released some information about a transparent smartphone prototype they developed. Though the camera, memory card, and some motherboard components in this Polytron device were clearly visible, the phone almost looked like a piece of transparent glass. 

The see-through display technologies demonstrated by TDK, Docomo, and Polytron were impressive but for reasons that are not entirely clear, they never became a part of the mainstream touch phones.

Concept image of Samsung galaxy transparent smartphone.
A concept image of Samsung’s transparent smartphone. Image credits: Stuffbox/Youtube

However, the most exciting developments concerning transparent smartphones have happened much more recently.  In November 2018, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) published Sony’s patent for a dual-sided smartphone transparent display, reports reveal that Sony is soon going to use this see-through display design in its upcoming premium range smartphones. The next year, LG received a smartphone design patent from USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office) that shined a light on the company’s plans for a foldable transparent smartphone. However, LG has also said they will stop making phones because the market is too saturated — so it’s unclear whether something will actually come of this design.

Leading tech manufacturer Samsung is also said to be in the process of developing a see-through smartphone. According to a report from Let’s Go Digital, The company had a patent (concerning a transparent device) published on the WIPO website in August 2020. The same report also reveals that in the coming years, Samsung aims to launch smartphones and other gadgets in the market (under its popular Galaxy series) that would come equipped with a transparent luminous display panel.

Are transparent smartphones even practical?

Just because big brands like Sony, LG, and Samsung are working on different projects related to transparent smartphone technology, it doesn’t mean we’re close to seeing actual see-through phones very soon. Many tech experts believe that while transparent smartphones may sound like a futuristic idea, they may not be feasible, for several reasons.

Surprisingly, one of the main challenges with transparent smartphones is the camera. You can definitely make transparent displays using OLEDs, but what about the rear and front-side cameras? There is no known way by which a phone engineer can make camera sensors go transparent. The same goes with other parts like SIM cards, memory chips, and speakers, if these components are still visible in a see-through phone then it is no better than the Polytron prototype of 2013. So while there’s a realistic chance of transparent-screen phones becoming a reality, how exactly a fully transparent phone would be built is not at all clear.

Another issue that users might face with transparent smartphones is poor display visibility. The screens used in current smartphones may not be transparent but they offer clear and sharp picture quality, whether you use them under bright daylight or in the dark. Transparent displays might not be able to deliver such a flawless visual experience, and users may even struggle to see the text or images clearly on a see-through screen in daylight conditions.

Until and unless these major issues are resolved, we probably won’t be able to see transparent smartphones in the market. But why would we even want one? Well, there are some merits to transparent smartphones. For instance, the notification and alerts could look more clear and more distinct on a transparent screen, and such a display might be conveniently used in a divided manner to use different applications at the same time. 

Moreover, you could use both sides of a see-through display; this would facilitate multitasking and save a lot of time. For example, you are watching an educational video or recipe on YouTube and you are noting down points from the same in a different tab. With a double-sided transparent screen, you don’t need to close your video tab every time you need to switch to another tab, you can just flip your phone to jump to the tab you want to use.

Transparent smartphones might also bring a drastic improvement in the way you experience augmented reality. The screen which serves as a barrier between your real and virtual worlds if becomes transparent, then you may not need an AR app to see virtual elements in the real world. The transparent screen itself may act as an AR simulator but then again such a screen may not be able to give you as good virtual imagery as you experience on a normal display.

Let’s face it: transparent phones would be very cool, but we’re not quite there yet. We can geek out about them as much as we want, but a transparent smartphone still requires a healthy amount of innovation that might take some time to evolve. With how quickly technologies are progressing, though, we may see them in the not too distant future.

What is a Faraday cage and how does it work?

There’s a good chance the plane you boarded during a flight got hit by lightning. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a plane is struck by lightning every 1,000 flight hours or so. There are around 10,000 planes in the air at any given moment, so the odds of one of them being hit by lightning are pretty high. But somehow there has not been one single accident or fatality owed to lightning in aviation history — and we have physics to thank.

A plane’s body is designed to be completely encapsulated with aluminum, which allows the electrical current to flow solely through the outside or outer shell of the planet and out through the tail, keeping the inside of the plane free of electrical charge. Essentially, an airplane is a giant Faraday cage.

What’s a Faraday cage?

A Faraday cage, also known as a Faraday shield, is a conducting enclosure that shields anything inside from electromagnetic fields by redistributing the electric charges at the surface of the conductor, which in turn cancels the field’s effect in the interior of the cage. The concept and underlying physical phenomenon were first demonstrated by English scientist Michael Faraday in 1836.

Faraday performed many experiments in the early 19th century that greatly contributed to our understanding of electromagnetism. The English physicist and chemist was the first to show that a magnetic field produces an electric current, discovered the effect of magnetism on light, and invented the first electric motor and dynamo.

During one of these experiments, Faraday noticed that an electrical conductor only carries an electrical charge on its surface, while the interior of the conductor is not affected at all.

Michael Faraday. Credit: Public Domain.

Faraday set out to investigate this phenomenon at a large scale. To this aim, he lined all the walls of a room with metal foil, then fired a high-voltage current from an electrostatic generator through the outside of the room. Using an electroscope, a device that detects electrical charge, Faraday showed that only the walls carried electrical charge while the interior of the room was completely devoid of charge.

Earlier, Benjamin Franklin, a major figure in his own right for the American Enlightenment and the history of physics, electrified a silver pint (tankard) and lowered an uncharged cork ball attached to a silk thread. Although the ball was lowered until it touched the bottom of the metal enclosure, the ball wasn’t attracted to the charged interior sides of the pint. But when Franklin withdrew the cork and pointed it near the pint’s exterior, the ball was immediately drawn to its surface.

Decades later, Faraday replicated Franklin’s research with a twist in his now-famous ice pail experiment, during which he lowered a charged brass sphere into a metal cup. As expected, his results agreed with Franklin’s original work.

These experiments validated a fundamental tenet of electromagnetism: an electrical current flowing through a conductor only resides on the outer surface and the inside of the conductor is not affected by the external charge. Later developments in field theory refined the physics of these observations, showing that the charge flowing through a conductor is actually redistributed resulting in a net electrostatic field within the conductor of zero.

How a Faraday cage works

Your car is an example of a Faraday cage, which will protect you from getting killed by a lightning strike. Credit: Britannica.

This leads us to the Faraday cage, which can be viewed as a hollow conductor that shields anything inside from external electrical charge or radiation. Because the Faraday cage distributes the charge around the exterior of the shield, charges within the interior are canceled out. The shield also works against radio waves and microwaves.

A Faraday cage can be a continuous shell-like material like the hull of an airplane or a mesh. The size of the gaps in the screen or mesh alters the cage’s properties, which can be adjusted to exclude only certain frequencies and wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.

The typical Faraday cage is made of grounded wire mesh or parallel wires. The wires have to be made of conductive materials, such as aluminum or copper, and the coating has to be perfectly closed from one to another.

However, not all electromagnetic radiation and fields are blocked by a Faraday cage. Stable or slowly varying magnetic fields like Earth’s magnetic field can penetrate a Faraday cage, which explains why a compass will still work inside one. Near-field high-powered frequencies like HF RFID, which are used in contactless payments, can also penetrate the shield.

The applications for Faraday cages are manyfold. In fact, a lot of our modern electronic hardware wouldn’t be able to function properly or at all were it not for incorporating Faraday shielding in their design.

Besides protection against external electromagnetic radiation and electrical discharge, Faraday cages also block electromagnetic noise that can hamper the performance of electronic devices. And since a cage keeps things out but also inside, a Faraday cage can also be useful when you want to prevent electromagnetic energy radiated from internal components from escaping the enclosure.

For instance, the best example of a Faraday cage is right inside your kitchen. Microwave ovens have a metal shell that prevents the microwaves inside the oven from leaking into the environment. Inside hospitals, Faraday cages help MRI machines to scan tissues inside the human body. An MRI room has to be shielded otherwise external electromagnetic fields could ruin the diagnostic images. The military also routinely incorporates Faraday cages into vehicles and bunkers to protect its assets from electromagnetic pulses. In science, this shielding reduces the noise in analytical chemistry tests for sensitive measurements. 

What are sensors, how they work, and why they’re everywhere

A sensor is any device that measures an event or change in an environment and transforms it into an electronic signal that can be read and computed.

For instance, a sensor can take in physical parameters such as humidity, speed, or temperature (to name just a few), and make that data readable by a computer or other device. It takes an “input”, which can be almost anything, and converts it into an “output” that our electronics can understand. Or to put it in a different way, a sensor can detect an aspect of the physical environment and turn it into useful information.

Image credits: Jorge Ramirez.

Sensors, sensors everywhere — now also in XS size

We live in a world of sensors. From the tactile elevator buttons to the thermometers in our homes, they’re everywhere. Our smartphones, for instance, are equipped with an array of performant sensors. Whenever you fly a plane, there’s a whole arsenal there, telling the pilot everything about air pressure, speed, tilt, anything that can really help fly the plane.

Look around you (even ignoring the device you’re reading this on): how many sensors can you see around you?

At first glance, you may think there’s not too many. But look deeper. Are you in a car, or are there cars around you? Obviously, cars have a flurry of sensors, even the older ones. Public transit in many places is equipped with sensors. The thermostat inside the building — you’ve guessed it, also a sensor. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that unless you’re reading this while camping in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably surrounded by sensors that you don’t even notice.

It wasn’t always like this. Sensors used to be large, bulky, and expensive. Now, they’re small and easy to carry around. Researchers and engineers aren’t just looking at how well the sensor works — they’re looking at its energy consumption, necessary materials, sturdiness, and cost. Micro and nanotechnology and novel materials are making sensors smaller, smarter, and more adapted. As a result, we’re seeing sensors being applied in many new and exciting fields. For instance, some sensors can now be used as medical devices, either as wearables (for detecting things like glucose or insulin levels) or even inside the human body.

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at how sensors actually work.

How sensors work

A digital pressure sensor.

You first start with something that you want to sense — the quantity you’re measuring. The human body, for instance, is great at sensing light (with our eyes), smells (with our nose), and tastes (with our mouth). In essence, our body is equipped with a set of sensors, but each carries out a specific task.

Similarly, if you want to build an electronic sensor, you first think about what you want to measure, or sense. Let’s say you want to build a light sensor. You need an instrument to transform light into an electrical signal. That instrument is called a photodiode, and it does just what you want it to do: it converts light energy into electrical current. But let’s dig a bit deeper: how does the photodiode do this?

Without going into too many technicalities, photodiodes are built from specific materials and when photons hit the surface of these materials, they create something called the photoelectric effect, which disrupts the previously stable energy configuration of the material. This can generate an electric signal which is then picked up (and sometimes amplified) so it can be read by the system.

If you want to build a motion sensor, you need different types of materials, that can produce small amounts of current when they are moved or distorted. The rest of the mechanism is the same.

An example of an (almost) wearable sensor that tracks alcohol in the body. Image credits: UC San Diego.

So in essence, sensors generally work in a similar fashion: you need something (like a photodiode) that can transform your desired input into an electric current. You then pick up that electric current, amplify it if necessary, and pass it on to your computer.

A good sensor must have the ability to tell current very precisely. For instance, if the light increases slightly, so too will the current produced by the photodiode, and the sensor must be able to tell this. The better the ability, the better the sensitivity. But sensors also need to be able to withstand vibrations and temperature changes, which often affect the quality of the output.

Types of sensors

Image credits: Jorge Ramirez.

Sensors can be classified based on several different aspects. For instance, sensors can be either:

  • active (which require an external signal); or
  • passive (which work without any external signal).

Sensors can also be:

  • analog (produce an analog output, ie a continuous signal); or
  • digital (which work with discrete, digital data).

Most commonly, however, sensors are classified based on the physical property they measure. Here are some examples:

  • light sensors (which we’ve already discussed) are used everywhere, including on phones;
  • motion sensors;
  • proximity sensors, which can use different physical methods, like optical with laser, ultrasonic, or capacitive, etc;
  • temperature sensors;
  • chemical sensors, which can work for various types of chemical substances, like alcohol, smoke or gas, for instance;
  • humidity sensors (excellent for agriculture);
  • tilt sensors.

The sensor world has never been so active and diversified, which is why many now believe that sensors will usher in a new type of technological revolution.

Internet of Things and beyond

Sensors are no longer used just in engineering — in medicine and biotechnology, they are important tools that measure biological or physical processes. Environmental science as we know it today wouldn’t exist without accurate sensors, and practically every field that needs physical information uses sensors to get it. Every smart object is smart thanks to its sensors, and the more we look around us, the more objects are becoming smart.

You may have heard of the Internet of things (or IoT) — the idea of having objects around us connected in an internet-like network. This would mean that the “things” would be embedded with sensors and software, and could communicate with each other. For instance, a smarthome is a great example of how the IoT would work: your smart thermostat would turn on the heat automatically once temperature falls below a certain value, or, say, 30 minutes before you leave work, so your home is nice and cozy when you arrive. Lighting would have sensors to detect and automatically turn off when not used, and smoke/gas detectors would constantly work in the background.

Of course, the smart home isn’t the only idea of the IoT. Driverless cars would also need to be connected to the IoT so that they don’t collide with each other and keep the drivers safe. Virtually everything that benefits from automation, from medicine to high-end technology, could benefit from an IoT approach. But for all of this futuristic stuff to work, you need accurate, robust, and connected sensors.

Our world is full of sensors, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon — if anything, we can expect sensors to play an even more important role in our lives.

Arque tail.

Robotic, seahorse-inspired tail can help people maintain balance through sickness or hard work

Three graduates from Keio University’s (Japan) graduate school of media design have created a bio-inspire robotic tail — that you can wear.

Arque tail.

Arque, the new robotic tail.
Image via Youtube / yamen saraiji.

If you’ve ever envied your pet‘s tail, Junichi Nabeshima, Yamen Saraij, and Kouta Minamizawa have got you covered. The trio designed an “anthropomorphic” robotic tail based on the seahorse’s tail that they chirstened ‘Arque’. The device could help extend body functions or help individuals who need support to maintain balance.

Tail-ored for success

Most animals rely on their tails for mobility and balance. While our bodies lack the same ability, the team hopes that Arque can help provide it. The authors explain in their paper that “the force generated by swinging the tail” can change the position of a person’s center of gravity. “A wearable body tracker mounted on the upper body of the user estimates the center of gravity, and accordingly actuates the tail.”

The tail is constructed out of several individual artificial vertebrae around a set of four pneumatic muscles. The team notes that they looked at the tail of seahorses for inspiration when designing the tail’s structure.

“In this prototype, the tail unit consists of a variant number of joint units to produce,” the trio told The Telegraph. “Each joint consists of four protective plates and one weight-adjustable vertebrae.”

“At each joint, the plates are linked together using elastic cords, while the vertebrae are attached to them using a spring mechanism to mimic the resistance to transverse deformation and compressibility of a seahorse skeleton, and also to support the tangential and shearing forces generated when the tail actuates.”

Arque’s modular design means that its length and weight can be adjusted to accommodate the wearer’s body. Apart from helping patients with impaired mobility, the tail could also be used in other applications, such as helping to support workers when they’re moving heavy loads.

The team also has high hopes for Arque to be used for “full-body haptic feedback”. Just as the tail can be used to change the center of mass and rebalance a user’s posture, it can be employed to generate full body forces (depending on where it’s attached to the body) and throw them off balance — which would help provide more realism to virtual reality interactions.

Arque’s intended use is to be worn, but one has to take into account personal experience and social interactions when predicting whether this will work or not. How likely would it be for people to feel comfortable putting one on, or wearing them outside? Most people definitely enjoy gadgets but, as the smart-glasses episode showed us, they need to perceive it as ‘cool’ or they won’t ever succeed. Whether or not a robotic tail will ever be as socially acceptable as a cane remains to be seen but.

In the meantime, it definitely does look like a fun tail to try on.

The tail was presented at the SIGGRAPH ’19 conference in Los Angeles. A paper describing the work “Arque: Artificial Biomimicry-Inspired Tail for Extending Innate Body Functions” has been published in the ACM SIGGRAPH 2019 Emerging Technologies journal.

Steam Power Might Help in Space Exploration

WINE prototype. Credit: HONEYBEEROBOTICS LTD.

WINE prototype. Credit: HONEYBEEROBOTICS LTD.

A vast array of gas fuels have been used in the launching and transportation of spacecraft with liquid hydrogen and oxygen among them. Other spacecraft rely heavily on solar power to sustain their functionality once they have entered outer space. But now steam-powered vessels are being developed, and they are working efficiently as well.

People have been experimenting with this sort of technology since 1698, some decades before the American Revolution. Steam power has allowed humanity to run various modes of transportation such as steam locomotives and steamboats which were perfected and propagated in the early 1800s. In the century prior to the car and the plane, steam power revolutionized the way people traveled.

Now, in the 21st century, it is revolutionizing the way in which man, via probing instruments, explores the cosmos. The private company Honeybee Robotics, responsible for robotics being employed in fields including medical and militaristic, has developed WINE (World Is Not Enough). The project has received funding from NASA under its Small Business Technology Transfer program.

The spacecraft is intended to be capable of drilling into an asteroid’s surface, collecting water, and using it to generate steam to propel it toward its next destination. Late in 2018, WINE’s abilities were put to the test in a vacuum tank filled with simulated asteroid soil. The prototype mined water from the soil and used it to generate steam to propel it. Its drilling capabilities have also been proven in an artificial environment. To heat the water, WINE would use solar panels or a small radioisotopic decay unit.

“We could potentially use this technology to hop on the moon, Ceres, Europa, Titan, Pluto, the poles of Mercury, asteroids — anywhere there is water and sufficiently low gravity,” The University of Central Florida’s planetary researcher Phil Metzger stated.

Without having to carry a large amount of fuel and assumably having unlimited resources for acquiring its energy, WINE and its future successors might be able to continue their missions indefinitely. Similar technology might even be employed in transporting human space travelers.

Plant cyborg.

MIT designs and builds a plant-robot plantborg that can move towards light

An MIT Media Lab team build a plant-cyborg. Its name is Elowan, and it can move around.

Plant cyborg.

Image credits Harpreet Sareen, Elbert Tiao // MIT Media Labs.

For most people, the word ‘cyborg’ doesn’t bring images of plants to mind — but it does at MIT’s Media Lab. Researchers in Harpreet Sareen’s lab at MIT have combined a plant with electronics to allow it to move. The cyborg — Elowan — relies on the plant’s sensory abilities to detect light and an electric motor to follow it.

Our photosynthesizing overlords

Plants are actually really good at detecting light. Sunflowers are a great example: you can actually see them move to follow the sun on its heavenly trek. Prior research has shown that plants accomplish this through the use of several natural sensors and response systems — among others, they keep track of humidity, temperature levels, and the amount of water in the soil.

However, plant’s aren’t very good at moving to a different place even if their ‘sensor and response systems’ tell them conditions aren’t very great. The MIT team wanted to fix that. They planned to give one plant more autonomy by fitting its pot with wheels, an electric motor, and assorted electrical sensors.

The way the cyborg works is relatively simple. The sensors pick up on the electrical signals generated by the plant and generate commands for the motor and wheels based on them. The result is, in effect, a plant that can move closer to light sources. The researchers proved this by placing the cyborg between two table lamps and then turning them on or off. The plant moved itself, with no prodding, toward the light that was turned on.

While undeniably funny, the research is practical, too. Elowan could be modified in such a way as to allow it to move solar panels on a house’s roof to maximize their light exposure. Alternatively, additional sensors and controlling units would allow a similar cyborg to maintain optimal temperature and humidity levels in, say, an office. With this in mind, the team plans to continue their research, including more species of plants to draw on their unique evolutionary adaptations.

Bendy circuit.

Stretchy, bendy electronic circuits paves way to new wearable tech, bioimplants

Elastic circuits that can bend and stretch are here — and they mean business.

Bendy circuit.

LED circuits interconnected by MPC can undergo repeated bending, twisting, and stretching.
Image credits Tang et al., 2018, iScience.

Chinese researchers have developed a novel hybrid material — part elastic polymer, part liquid metal — that can bend, stretch, and still work as an electric circuit. The material can be cast in most two-dimensional shapes and, based on the polymer used, can be completely non-toxic.

Circuits, with a twist

“These are the first flexible electronics that are at once highly conductive and stretchable, fully biocompatible, and able to be fabricated conveniently across size scales with micro-feature precision,” says senior author Xingyu Jiang.

“We believe that they will have broad applications for both wearable electronics and implantable devices.”

The material the team developed is known as a metal-polymer conductor (MPC). As the name suggests, it’s a combination of two components. The metal bit of the mix carries electric charges — handling the ‘circuit’ part. However, the team didn’t use materials commonly seen in circuits, such as copper, silver, or gold, but settled on gallium and indium. These two metals form a thick fluid that’s a good electric conductor — meaning the circuits can ‘flow’ and still function while accommodating any stretching. The second component is a silicone-based polymer. This imparts mechanical resilience to the circuit, keeping the fluid ‘wires’ all neat and orderly.

Jiang’s team found that embedding globs of this gallium-indium mixture into the polymer substrate created a mechanically-strong material that can function as a circuit. Close-up, the MPC looks like a collection of metal islands in a sea of polymer. A liquid metal mantle runs underneath these islands to ensure conductivity is maintained at all times.

The team successfully trialed different MPC formulations in a wide range of applications — from sensors in wearable keyboard gloves to electrodes embedded in cells. There’s a huge range of applications these MPCs can be used for, they note, limited only by their particular polymer substrate.

“We cast super-elastic polymers to make MPCs for stretchable circuits. We use biocompatible and biodegradable polymers when we want MPCs for implantable devices,” says first author Lixue Tang.

“In the future, we could even build soft robots by combining electroactive polymers.”

The team is also confident that the MPC manufacturing method they developed — it involves screen printing and microfluidic patterning — can be used to produce any two-dimensional geometry. It can also handle different thicknesses and electric properties — which are a function of metal concentration in the circuits. This versatility could allow researchers to rapidly develop flexible circuits for a wide range of uses, the team notes, from wearable tech to bioimplants.

“We wanted to develop biocompatible materials that could be used to build wearable or implantable devices for diagnosing and treating disease without compromising quality of life, and we believe that this is a first step toward changing the way that cardiovascular diseases and other afflictions are managed,” says Jiang.

The paper “Printable Metal-Polymer Conductors for Highly Stretchable Bio-Devices” has been published in the journal iScience.

Yarn-like battery can be knit into clothing

Chinese researchers have created a thin yarn-like battery that can be woven into fabric. It is flexible, waterproof, rechargeable, and can be cut into pieces and still work. As you can imagine, it has great potential for wearable electronics.

Wearable electronics, like smartwatches and exercise monitors, are becoming very popular. Now, researchers are developing ways to make even more flexible, durable, and smaller electronics. One way is to physically integrate electronics into clothing. Then, you could have an exercise shirt that monitors your heart rate, keeps you cool, and has lights that turn on in the dark.

The fibre-battery is promising because it is small, flexible, and lightweight. The battery that these researchers have invented in this study maintains its charge, is waterproof, and is flexible.

“The yarn batteries are integrated in parallel and in series by metal wire. We designed two special charge jacks for the cathode of the first battery and the anode of the last battery and integrated these charge jacks into the textile with good protection. The recharging of these batteries is conducted by connecting the charge jacks with the external charger,” said Chunyi Zhi, from the Department of Materials Science & Engineering at the City University of Hong Kong, to ZME Science.

Image credits: Pixabay.

First, the researchers twisted carbon nanotubules into a “yarn”. To make it into a battery, they coated one piece of yarn with zinc to form an anode and another in magnesium oxide to form a cathode. These two pieces were entwined together and coated with a polyacrylamide electrolyte and encased in silicone.

An electric display powered by the new battery. Image credits: American Chemical Society.

The battery was durable enough to be stretched (up to 300%) and knitted into clothing and still work optimally. One meter-long piece of yarn was cut into eight pieces, which were able to power a belt with 100 LED lights and an electroluminescent picture of a panda. In day-to-day life, weather can be unexpected and perhaps you get stuck in a surprise rain shower on the way home. You wouldn’t have to worry about the battery short-circuiting because it is waterproof thanks to it silicone coating. The battery is even machine-washable.

“One advantage of this yarn battery is this excellent waterproof capability. In this study, we fully immersed the yarn battery in water for 12 h. Surprisingly, the yarn battery still had 96.5% of its initial capacity, demonstrating good waterproof capability and high durability. We also tried to simulate the machine washing process– the yarn battery was immersed in water and stirred vigorously with a high power magnetic stirrer. Surprisingly, the battery retained 92.3% of its initial capacity after being stirred for over 5 min and was able to power an electronic watch after being stirred in water for over 30 min, demonstrating impressive waterproof performance and mechanical high durability,” said Zhi to ZME Science.

These fibre batteries could be useful for sportswear, pressure sensors, military uniforms, and medical devices. The possibilities are endless.

Li et al. 2018. Waterproof and tailorable elastic rechargeable yarn zinc ion batteries by a cross-linked polyacrylamide electrolyte. ACSNano.

Transparent screen ilussion.

Novel material paves the way for atom-thin, invisible displays

Researchers from UC Berkeley have designed a millimeter-wide, light-emitting device that’s fully transparent when powered off. The material, just three atoms thick, could form the base for displays that would be invisible when turned off.

Transparent screen ilussion.

Image credits Steve Webel / Flickr.

The device is based on a novel material — a light-emitting, monolayer semiconductor. It was developed in the laboratories of Ali Javey, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at Berkeley, and its light-emitting properties were first reported on in 2015. However, the team hadn’t been able to construct an actual light-emitting device using the novel semiconductor by that time — mostly due to fundamental constraints of using LED (light emitting diode) technology in tandem with monolayer semiconductors.

They’ve been working hard to solve those problems, however — in their new paper, the team details how they’ve worked around these limitations, allowing them to scale down LED technology anywhere from a few millimeters to under the width of a human hair. The team made the devices wide and long, to make sure the devices emit light intense enough for our eyes to pick up on.

Now you see it, now you don’t

“The materials are so thin and flexible that the device can be made transparent and can conform to curved surfaces,” said co-author Der-Hsien Lien, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley.

The kind of LEDs you can buy right now are made from a semiconducting material, injected with positive and negative electrical charges. When electricity runs through these LEDs, electrons move from the positively-charged area into electron ‘holes’ on the negative side, releasing light in the process. That’s the fancy explanation. The simple explanation is that LEDs work pretty much the same way as an incandescent light bulb, the main difference being LEDs don’t ‘burn’ and they don’t generate heat — the light you see comes solely from the passing of current through a semiconductor material, not from heating something. This makes them last much, much longer than an incandescent bulb.

One of the fundamental challenges I mentioned earlier is to form a contact that can efficiently inject these charges — and it’s a particularly problematic one for monolayers because there’s physically very little material to work with. The team worked around this issue by engineering a device that only uses one contact on the semiconductor.

Gif of the device in action. Probes inject positive and negative charges into the light emitting device, which is transparent under the campanile outline, producing bright light. Credit: Javey lab

They layered the semiconducting on an insulator, then placed electrodes on the monolayer and underneath this insulator. This allowed them to apply an alternating current (AC) signal across the surface of the insulator. As the AC switches polarity from positive to negative (and vice versa), both negative and positive charges are present in the semiconductor at the same time — which creates light. The team showed that this mechanism works with four different monolayer materials, all of which emit a different colored light.

Soon-to-be

The team’s efforts amount only to a proof-of-concept right now; much more research needs to be done before their atom-thin material is ready for commercial use. Most notably, the team has to work on improving its efficiency. While the tools they can use to measure this device’s efficiency leave a pretty significant margin of error, the team says it’s probably 1% right now. Commercial LEDs, to put that into context, run at about 25-30% efficiency — usually.

“A lot of work remains to be done and a number of challenges need to be overcome to further advance the technology for practical applications,” Javey said. “However, this is one step forward by presenting a device architecture for easy injection of both charges into monolayer semiconductors.”

However, the concept is likely applicable to other kinds of materials and devices. Given its versatility, we’re likely to see the team’s device used in all manner of applications where an invisible display is necessary or desirable. We’re also likely to see it used for ‘cool’ applications — the team doesn’t write off the possibility that their research will lead to atomically-thin displays used for decoration, from skin to architecture.

The paper “Large-area and bright pulsed electroluminescence in monolayer semiconductors” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Slug P. californica.

‘Self-aware’, predatory, digital slug mimics the behavior of the animal it was modeled on

Upgrade, or the seeds of a robot uprising? U.S. researchers report they’ve constructed an artificially intelligent ocean predator that behaves a lot like the organism it was modeled on.

Slug P. californica.

Image credits Tracy Clark.

This frightening, completely digital predator — dubbed “Cyberslug” — reacts to food, threats, and members of its own ‘species’ much like the living animal that formed its blueprint: the sea slug Pleurobranchaea californica.

Slug in the machine

Cyberslug owes this remarkable resemblance to its biological counterpart to one rare trait among AIs — it is, albeit to a limited extent, self-aware. According to University of Illinois (UoI) at Urbana-Champaign professor Rhanor Gillette, who led the research efforts, this means that the simulated slug knows when it’s hungry or threatened, for example. The program has also learned through trial and error which other kinds of virtual critters it can eat, and which will fight back, in the simulated world the researchers pitted it against.

“[Cyberslug] relates its motivation and memories to its perception of the external world, and it reacts to information on the basis of how that information makes it feel,” Gillette said.

While slugs admittedly aren’t the most terrifying of ocean dwellers, they do have one quality that made them ideal for the team — they’re quite simple beings. Gillette goes on to explain that in the wild, sea slugs typically handle every interaction with other creatures by going through a three-item checklist: “Do I eat it? Do I mate with it? Or do I flee?”

Biologically simple, this process becomes quite complicated to handle successfully inside a computer program. That’s because, in order to make the right choice, an organism must be able to sense its internal state (i.e. whether it is hungry or not), obtain and process information from the environment (does this creature look tasty or threatening) and integrate past experience (i.e. ‘did this animal bite/sting me last time?’). In other words, picking the right choice involves the animal being aware of and understanding both its state, that of the environment, and the interaction between them — which is the basis of self-awareness.

Behavior chart slug.

Schematic of the approach-avoid behavior in the slug.
Image credits Jeffrey W. Brown et al., 2018, eNeuro.

Some of Gillette’s previous work focused on the brain circuits that allow sea slugs to operate these choices in the wild, mapping their function “down to individual neurons”. The next step was to test the accuracy of their models — and the best way to do this was to recreate the circuits of the animals’ brains and let them loose inside computer simulations. One of the earliest such circuit boards to represent the sea slug‘s brain, constructed by co-author Mikhail Voloshin, software engineer at the UoI, was housed in a plastic foam takeout container.

In the meantime, the duo have refined both their hardware and the code used to simulate the critters. Cyberslug’s decision-making is based on complex algorithms that estimate and weigh its individual goals, just like a real-life slug would.

“[P. californica‘s] default response is avoidance, but hunger, sensation and learning together form their ‘appetitive state,’ and if that is high enough the sea slug will attack,” Gillette explains. “When P. californica is super hungry, it will even attack a painful stimulus. And when the animal is not hungry, it usually will avoid even an appetitive stimulus. This is a cost-benefit decision.”

Cyberslug behaves the same way. The more it eats, for example, the more satiated it becomes and the less likely it will be to bother or attack something else (no matter its tastiness). Over time, it can also learn which critters to avoid, and which can be prayed upon with impunity. However, if hungry enough, Cyberslug will throw caution to the wind and even attack prey that’s adept at fighting back, if nothing less belligerent comes around for it to eat.

“I think the sea slug is a good model of the core ancient circuitry that is still there in our brains that is supporting all the higher cognitive qualities,” Gillette said. “Now we have a model that’s probably very much like the primitive ancestral brain. The next step is to add more circuitry to get enhanced sociality and cognition.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen researchers ‘digitizing’ the brains of simpler creatures — and this process holds one particular implication that I find fascinating.

Brains are, when you boil everything down, biological computers. Most scientists are pretty confident that we’ll eventually develop artificial intelligence, and sooner rather than later. But it also seems to me that there’s an unspoken agreement that the crux falls on the “artificial” part; that such constructs would always be lesser, compared to ‘true’, biological intelligence.

However, when researchers can quite successfully take a brain’s functionality and print it on a computer chip, doesn’t that distinction between artificial and biological intelligence look more like one of terminology rather than one of nature? If the computer can become the brain, doesn’t that make artificial life every bit as ‘true’ as our own, as worthy of recognition and safeguarding as our own?

I’d love to hear your opinion on that in the comments below.

The paper “Implementing Goal-Directed Foraging Decisions of a Simpler Nervous System in Simulation” has been published in the journal eNeuro.

C.elegans.

A worm’s brain was uploaded to a hard drive and put to the test — without a single line of code

Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology (VUT) have put a brain on a circuit board — specifically, the brain of the nematode C. elegans. They are now training it to perform tasks without a single line of human-written code.

C.elegans.

C. elegans worms.
Image credits PROZEISS Microscopy / Flickr.

C. elegans isn’t much to look at. Growing to just under one millimeter in length, it’s not just tiny, it’s also a very, very simple organism. But in one respect, this little nematode is unique and uniquely valuable for science — it’s the only living being whose neural system has been fully analyzed and mapped. In other words, its brain can be recreated as a circuit — either onto a circuit board or one simulated with software — without losing any of its function.

This has allowed researchers at the VUT to ‘copy-paste’ its brain into a computer, creating a virtual copy of the organism that reacts to stimuli the same way as the real thing. The researchers are now hard at work training this digi-worm to perform simple tasks, and it has already mastered the standard computer science trial of balancing a pole.

Worm in the software

So are your brains at risk of spontaneous copyfication? No. Researchers have been able to map C. elegans‘ neural systems precisely because it’s quite dumb — it can only draw on 300 neurons worth of processing power. However, that’s enough gray matter to allow the worm to navigate its environment, catch bacteria for dinner, and react to certain external stimuli — such as a touch on its body, which triggers a reflexive squirming-away.

This behavior is encoded in the worm’s nerve cells, and governed by the strength of the connections between these neurons. When recreated on a computer, this simple reflex pathway works the same way as its biological counterpart — not because it’s been programmed to do so, but because this behavior arises from the structure itself.

“This reflexive response of such a neural circuit, is very similar to the reaction of a control agent balancing a pole,” says co-author Ramin Hasani.

Pole balancing is actually a typical control trial in computer science. It involves a pole, fixed on its lower end on a moving object, which the device has to keep in a vertical position. It does this by moving the object slightly whenever the pole starts tilting, in a bid to keep it from tipping over.

Worm test pole.

The worm’s natural behavior is very similar to that required in this test.
Image credits TU Wien.

Standard controllers don’t have much trouble passing this test. The trial is functionally similar to the processes the nematode’s neural system has to handle in the wild — move when a stimulus is registered. So, the team wanted to see if it could solve the problem without adding any extra code or neurons, just by tuning the strength of connections between cells. They chose this final parameter based on the fact that shifting synaptic strength is the characteristic feature of any natural learning process.

After some tweaking, the network managed to easily pass the pole trial.

“With the help of reinforcement learning, a method also known as ‘learning based on experiment and reward’, the artificial reflex network was trained and optimized on the computer,” explains first author Mathias Lechner.

“The result is a controller, which can solve a standard technology problem — stabilizing a pole, balanced on its tip. But no human being has written even one line of code for this controller, it just emerged by training a biological nerve system,” says co-author Radu Grosu.

After establishing that the method works, the team plans to probe the capabilities of similar circuits further. Still, the research does raise some very impactful questions — are machine learning and our brain processes fundamentally the same? If so, is silicon intelligence any less valuable or ‘alive’ than biological intelligences?

For now, however, we simply don’t know — C. elegans doesn’t know or care whether it lives as a worm in the ground or as a virtual collection of 1’s and 0’s on a computer in Vienna.

The paper “Worm-level Control through Search-based Reinforcement” has been published in the preprint server arXiv.

Living Tattoo.

3D-printed “living tattoo” turns bacteria into sensors and computers you can wear

MIT researchers have developed “living” tattoos. They rely on a novel 3D printing technique based on ink made from genetically-programed cells.

Living Tattoo.

Image credits Xinyue Liu et al., 2017, Advanced Materials.

There seems to be a growing interest in living, 3D-printable inks these days. Just a few days ago, we’ve seen how scientists in Zurich plan to use them to create microfactories that can scrub, produce, and sense different chemical compounds. Now, MIT researchers led by Xuanhe Zhao and Timothy Lu, two professors at the institute, are taking that concept, and putting it in your skin.

The technique is based on cells programmed to respond to a wide range of stimuli. After mixing in some hydrogel to keep everything together and nutrients to keep all the inhabitants happy and fed, the inks can be printed, layer by layer, to form interactive 3D devices.

The team demonstrated their efficacy by printing a “living” tattoo, a thin transparent patch of live bacteria in the shape of a tree. Each branch is designed to respond to a different chemical or molecular input. Applying such compounds to areas of the skin causes the ‘tree’ to light up in response. The team says the technique can be sued to manufacture active materials for wearable tech, such as sensors or interactive displays. Different cell patterns can be used to make these devices responsive to environmental changes, from chemicals, pollutants, or pH shifts to more common-day concerns such as temperature.

The researchers also developed a model to predict the interactions between different cells in any structure under a wide range of conditions. Future work with the printing technique can draw on this model to tailor the responsive living materials to various needs.

Why bacteria?

Previous attempts to 3D print genetically-engineered cells that can respond to certain stimuli have had little success, says co-author Hyunwoo Yuk.

“It turns out those cells were dying during the printing process, because mammalian cells are basically lipid bilayer balloons,” he explains. “They are too weak, and they easily rupture.”

So they went with bacteria and their hardier cellular wall structure. Bacteria don’t usually clump together into organisms, so they have very beefy walls (compared to the cells in our body, for example) meant to protect them in harsh conditions. They come in very handy when the ink is forced through the printer’s nozzle. Again, unlike mammalian cells, bacteria are compatible with most hydrogels — mixes of water and some polymer. The team found that a hydrogel based on pluronic acid was the best home for their bacteria while keeping an ideal consistency for 3D printing.

“This hydrogel has ideal flow characteristics for printing through a nozzle,” Zhao says. “It’s like squeezing out toothpaste. You need [the ink] to flow out of a nozzle like toothpaste, and it can maintain its shape after it’s printed.”

“We found this new ink formula works very well and can print at a high resolution of about 30 micrometers per feature. That means each line we print contains only a few cells. We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimeters.”

Gettin’ inked

The team printed the ink using a custom 3D printer they built — its based largely on standard elements and a few fixtures the team machined themselves.

A pattern of hydrogel mixed with cells was printed in the shape of a tree on an elastomer base. After printing, they cured the patch by exposing it to ultraviolet radiation. They then put the transparent elastomer layer onto a test subject’s hand after smearing several chemical samples on his skin. Over several hours, branches of the patch’s tree lit up when bacteria sensed their corresponding stimuli.

Logic gates with ink.

Logic gates created with the bacteria-laden ink. Such structure form the basis of computer hardware today.
Image credits Xinyue Liu et al., 2017, Advanced Materials.

The team also designed certain bacterial strains to work only in tandem with other elements. For instance, some cells will only light up when they receive a signal from another cell or group of cells. To test this system, scientists printed a thin sheet of hydrogel filaments with input (signal-producing) bacteria and chemicals, and overlaid that with another layer of filaments of output (signal-receiving) bacteria. The output filaments only lit up when they overlapped with the input layer and received a signal from them.

Yuk says in the future, their tech may form the basis for “living computers”, structures with multiple types of cells that communicate back and forth like transistors on a microchip. Even better, such computers should be perfectly wearable, Yuk believes.

Until then, they plan to create custom sensors in the form of flexible patches and stickers, aimed at detecting to a wide variety of chemical and biochemical compounds. MIT scientists also want to expand the living tattoo’s uses in a direction similar to that developed at ETH Zurich, manufacturing patches that can produce compounds such as glucose and releasing them in the bloodstream over time. And, “as long as the fabrication method and approach are viable” applications such as implants and ingestibles aren’t off the table either, the authors conclude.

The paper “3D Printing of Living Responsive Materials and Devices” has been published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Sample circuit printed on fabric. Credit: Felice Torrisi

Scientists embed flexible, washable integrated circuits into fabric

Researchers used special graphene inks to print electronics on fabric, opening new avenues of opportunity for smart clothing and wearable electronics. The integrated circuits are flexible, washable, and breathable, making them perfectly adapted for fabric-based applications.

Sample circuit printed on fabric. Credit: Felice Torrisi

Sample circuit printed on fabric. Credit: Felice Torrisi

“Digital textile printing has been around for decades to print simple colourants on textiles, but our result demonstrates for the first time that such technology can also be used to print the entire electronic integrated circuits on textiles,” said co-author Professor Roman Sordan of Politecnico di Milano.

“Although we demonstrated very simple integrated circuits, our process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.“

The team, which involved researchers from Britan, Italy, and China, employed a graphene ink formulated during earlier work. The ink was directly printed onto polyester fabric, resulting in a fully integrated electronic circuit with both active and passive components. Tests suggest the all-printed electronics on fiber can survive up to 20 cycles in a typical washing machine.

Wearable electronics on the market today rely on rigid electronics mounted on rubber or plastic. For this reason, the clothing or wearable electronics are easily damaged when washing or offer limited compatibility with the skin.

The graphene-based ink is cheap, safe, and environmentally friendly, as opposed to previous attempts that generally involve toxic solvents, which makes them unsuitable for human contact. Moreover, the integrated circuits require low power, making them ideal for wearable electronics applications.

“Turning textile fibres into functional electronic components can open to an entirely new set of applications from healthcare and wellbeing to the Internet of Things,” said Torrisi. “Thanks to nanotechnology, in the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based electronics, such as displays or sensors and become interactive.”

Scientific reference: Tian Carey et al. ‘Fully inkjet-printed two-dimensional material field-effect heterojunctions for wearable and textile electronics.’ Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01210-2

This bacterial colony was used to build a pressure sensor. The black dots are gold nanoparticles which the bacteria was genetically programmed to be attracted to. Credit: Duke University.

Scientists coax bacteria to assemble into a pressure sensor

Electronics don’t necessarily have to be built out of inanimate wires and silicon. American scientists, for instance, programmed living cells seeded with metal nanoparticles to assemble into one of the components of a pressure sensor.

This bacterial colony was used to build a pressure sensor. The black dots are gold nanoparticles which the bacteria was genetically programmed to be attracted to. Credit: Duke University.

This bacterial colony was used to build a pressure sensor. The black dots are gold nanoparticles which the bacteria was genetically programmed to be attracted to. Credit: Duke University.

It makes sense to employ biological processes in engineering since nature has mastered fabricating both living and non-living components. Just take a look in the mirror if you need proof. Your organs, hands, skin or, most importantly, your brain all started from a single cell that divided and divided and later differentiated into all sorts of specialized tissue, all coded by a genetic blueprint. We and other organisms do this by combining inorganic and organic matter from the environment. Some mollusk species, for instance, will mix calcium carbonate (a mineral dissolved in seawater) with small amounts of proteins their cells produce to increase shell strength. Similarly, our bones are made from collagen — them most abundant protein in our bodies — mixed with inorganic minerals.

Living electronics

Taking cues from nature, a team of researchers at Duke University led by Lingchong You genetically engineered the common E. coli bacteria with a gene circuit that directs cells to produce certain proteins. The modified bacteria was introduced into a nutrient solution that encouraged it to grow, eventually producing a protein called T7 RNA polymerase (T7RNAP), which, in turn, triggers the production of a small molecule called AHL that diffuses into the cell’s environment and acts as a messenger.

Because T7RNAP activates its own expression in a feedback loop, the cells kept on proliferating until the AHL concentration hit a critical concentration threshold. At this point, the production of two more proteins is triggered. The first, called T7 lysozyme, inhibits the production of T7RNAP so the cells stop growing. The second, called curli, works like a sort of biological Velcro that latches onto inorganic compounds.

The gist of it all is that all of these biological interactions eventually cause the bacterial colony to grow in a dome-like shape for as long as it has food. When a suspension of gold nanoparticles is added to the dome, the outermost bacteria grab onto the metal with the help of the Velcro proteins, forming a gold shell about the size of a freckle, as reported in Nature Biotechnology.

In an experiment, the researchers grew two such bacterial domes embedded with gold nanoparticles and then sandwiched them together, with the gilded side inward. Each side was connected in a circuit with a battery and LED. Merely pressing one side of the bacterial sandwich reduced the electrical resistance, causing the current to flow and the LED to switch on. The LED’s brightness corresponds to the amount of pressure applied. Essentially, the researchers had built a pressure sensor with bacteria and metal, which is quite impressive.

What’s beautiful about this method is that the 3D structure grows by itself on the principle of cellular self-assembly. This scaffold can then be used in industrial applications to build a device with desirable physical properties. It’s all done with the help of nature, with some guiding by human hands along the way. At the fundamental level, it’s not all that different from how a cell is programmed to grow into an entire tree. And this is just the beginning — bacteria are known to form extremely complex branching patterns that could be exploited in surprising ways. We don’t know how to make these patterns ourselves yet, but we’ll learn along the way.

Designer Oscar Lhermitte brings the moon to your fingertips

We love art that not only thrills your senses but also makes you think, and this project does just that. Oscar Lhermitte’s MOON brings the stunning beauty of the lunar globe on your desk — 100% topographically accurate.

MOON24

There are few sights as captivating the full moon on a clear night’s sky. There’s something very tranquil and beautiful in seeing the white aster transiting the sky. Probably driven by similar emotions, product designer Oscar Lhermitte took the feeling down from the sky and brought it to our fingertips — at a 1:20 million scale.

Teaming up with design studio Kudu, he spent 4 years constructing a topographically accurate lunar globe from data recorded by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

In order to create the lunar globe, Oscar first reached out to the team at the Institute of Planetary Research. They gave him access to their database, which he used to design the MOON. The data used are DTM (Digital Terrain Model) and are constructed from stereo images.

The images were then developed to achieve the correct scale of terrain and make it spherical. One full Moon was 3D printed in order to become the MOON Master (the one the molds are then made from).

All images provided by Oscar Lhemitte

The globe is dotted with all of the moon’s craters in precise detail, so you can get an exquisite feel of our planet’s favorite satellite.

Petavius

Tycho-Clavius

A ring of LEDs follows the path of the Moon in real time, keeping its correct face constantly lit. You either set the moon to the position you desire, see all of its phases in 30 seconds in demo mode or switch it to live to have it synchronize with the current position of the actual moon.

MOON has 3 modes of operation:

  1. Manual – allowing you to rotate the sun yourself, setting the lunar phase that you would like to see.
  2. Demo – letting you observe a synodic month in just 30 seconds.
  3. Live – Synchronising itself with the current position of the real moon. All MOONs are manufactured in London, England.

MOON2

Also, MOON’s system has the exact same memory capacity as the Apollo 11 computers that brought the first people to the moon. You can’t get any more lunar than this without leaving the planet.

MOON was available £500 on Kickstarter with a discounted price of £450 for early backers. Now, the retail price price is £700. MOON was successfully launched on Kickstarter in May 2016 and raised more than £140K.

All image credits go to Oscar Lehrmitte.

Google researchers are able to perfectly and simply remove watermarks from photographs

Although there are laws against using someone’s photo without their permission, it is very hard to enforce them. There are so many different photos on the internet and impossible to sort through them all. One surefire way to prevent illegal reuse is to slap a watermark on. Watermarks are additional features made so that you can preview the photo but are unable to reuse it. To remove the watermark you need to pay for the right to use it or spend a long time editing it out on PhotoShop. Now, researchers at Google found an automated way to easily get rid of watermarks and they also created a defense against it.

Examples of stock images. Image credits: Google via Youtube.

Watermarks have complex structures, such as thin lines and shadows that make them particularly tricky to get rid of. A computer has trouble being able to tell which structures are part of the image and which part of the watermark.

The thing about watermarks for large stock websites is that they are all exactly the same. They are usually the same size, opacity, and in the same location. Keeping this in mind, the researchers created an algorithm with a simple image matting model that goes through all the stock photos of a particular company and recognizes the repeating pattern of the watermark. Thus, it can estimate where the watermark is and remove it perfectly. The more photos with the same watermark, the more precise the estimation. This approach only really works with photographs from one provider that has hundreds or thousands of images.

Video credits: Google via Youtube.

Do not fear, the researchers also invented an easy way that people or companies with watermarked images can use to protect their copyrighted images. The key is to make each watermark slightly unique. The most effective way is to slightly warp the watermark in each image. Then it is pretty much impossible to remove; obvious pieces of the watermark are left behind on the image.

So Google found a weakness that we didn’t even know existed and found a solution for it. Now photographers and photography websites can protect their copyrighted images.

Reference: Dekel, T., Rubinstein, M., Liu, C., Freeman, W.T. 2017. On the Effectiveness of Visible Watermarks. Computer Vision Foundation.

Bionic Skin.

3D-printed bionic skin can give bots a sense of touch, protect soldiers from explosions

University of Minnesota engineers have developed an innovative 3D printing process which can lay down stretchable electronics. The devices could be used to coat robots in a sensitive layer or to provide feeling-from-a-distance for surgeons.

Bionic Skin.

Image credits Shuang-Zhuang Guo, Michael McAlpine / University of Minnesota

The fabric-like material is created using a unique multifunctional 3D printer the team designed and built in their lab. It has four different nozzles and uses specialized inks to print the device up in layers. The process starts with the printer laying down an initial layer of silicone to give the device mechanical resilience, followed by two (one top and one bottom) conductive layers which act as electrodes, a coil-shaped pressure sensor, and a final ‘sacrificial’ layer to hold everything in place while they set. This last layer won’t be part of the final device but will be washed off in the final steps of the process.

Skin-deep

The device can ‘feel’ and relay pressure, functioning very much like out skin’s tactile sensors. And this outsourcing of tactile sense could lend itself well to many applications — for example, installing this bionic skin on surgical robots would enable surgeons to actually feel around during these procedures, instead of relying solely on cameras like they do now. It could also be used to give robots a sense of touch, helping them walk or better interact with the environment.

But one of the most exciting aspects of this printing process is that the layers are fully flexible and the whole printing process can be performed at room temperature. Each of the layers can also stretch up to three times their original size. Taken together, this means that unlike conventional 3D printing systems — which use hot, molten materials — the team’s device can print directly on live human skin. The layers are also flexible and resilient enough not to hinder motion or break during use. Here’s the printer in action on a dummy.

Michael McAlpine, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the study says the technology could eventually lead to wearable electronics to perform a wide range of tasks, from monitoring a user’s health all the way to protecting soldiers from explosives of chemicals in combat.

“While we haven’t printed on human skin yet, we were able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique,” McAlpine said. “We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and were surprised that the device was so sensitive that it could detect your pulse in real time.”

“This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics,” he adds. “We have a multifunctional printer that can print several layers to make these flexible sensory devices. This could take us into so many directions from health monitoring to energy harvesting to chemical sensing.”

Another advantage of the bionic skin is that every step of manufacturing is built into the current process, so there’s no need to scale anything up for industrial production. The skin is ” ready to go now,” according to McAlpine.

Next, the team plans to expand the process to include semiconductor inks and work on printing on a real body.

The full paper “3D Printed Stretchable Tactile Sensors” has been published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Thermal diode could allow computers to one day function on heat alone

A research team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering has developed the first bit required for heat-fueled computers: the thermal diode.

Image credits Mahmoud Elzouka & Sidy Ndao, (2017), Scientific Reports.

Ever since humanity has put together the first electronic computer, we’ve been locked in an endless battle to keep these things cool enough so they won’t fry and shut down. A struggle made all too personal as your phone is cooking in your hand after a particularly lengthy call or game. Is this the price we have to pay for modern communication and computation? Are we doomed to a future choke-full of fans and thermal conductive paste, anxiously blowing into PC cases or wailing at the sight of the on-screen thermometer?

Well, maybe not

Sidy Ndao, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and Mahmoud Elzouka, a graduate student in mechanical and materials engineering, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering, developed a thermal diode that may allow computers to harness heat as an alternate energy source and keep on functioning even in ultra-high temperatures. The duo says they got the idea of creating a  nano-thermal-mechanical device, or thermal diode, after struggling with the question of how to better cool down computers. Instead of trying to dissipate heat (essentially wasting energy) like before, they decided to try and harness it for the computer’s system.

“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways,” Ndao said. “In principle, they are both energy carriers. If you could control heat, you could use it to do computing and avoid the problem of overheating.”

The rectifier (diode) made from a fixed terminal (top), a moving terminal (bottom), and a thermally-expandable structure (v-shaped bent beam). Variable thickness arrow represents the decrease in thermal radiation intensity with distance from the heated surface. (b) False-color scanning electron micrograph of a quarter of the proof-of-concept microdevice, showing 6 pairs of terminals (24 pairs total.) (c) Scanning electron micrograph of the proof-of-concept microdevice. (d,e) Zoomed-in views showing the connection of the moving terminal to the folded-beam spring and the bent beam, respectively.
Image credits Mahmoud Elzouka & Sidy Ndao, (2017), Scientific Reports.

Their NanoThermoMechanical rectifier (NTMR) uses heat exclusively, meaning it could be powered by waste heat (which the authors note equals about 60% of the total domestic consumption in the US) so would “obviously cut down on waste and the cost of energy,” Ndao points out. The system is made up of two metallic plates, one fixed (upper) and one mobile (lower plate), called terminals, and can be constructed “using conventional microfabrication techniques”. Near-field thermal radiation processes carry the heat between the two plates, and their intensity decreases exponentially with distance between the terminals. So, the wider the gap between them, the lower the heat transfer rate becomes (negative bias). When the expandable structure pushes the mobile terminal up, the distance closes, increasing the rate of heat transfer (positive bias).

The mobile terminal rests on a thermally-expandable structure, which activates when the lower plate is heated and pushes the two terminals close to each other. If the upper plate is heated, the thermal radiation processes which carry heat between two close-by objects isn’t strong enough to heat the expandable structure, so there is no motion — allowing the system to act like a diode.

Hot stuff

The prototype diodes.
Image credits Karl Vogel / University of Nebraska-Lincoln Engineering.

It’s not the first time scientists toy around with heat-based systems for computers, but “the technologies proposed so far operate at cryogenic or room temperatures.” By contrast, the team’s prototype device still functions at around 630 degrees F (332 C), which is a lot more than my rig can take without melting and/or exploding. Ndao says that in the future, he expects to take the system’s limit to some ridiculous temperatures — even as high as 1,300 F (704 C).

The only major gripe I have with this system right now is that electro-mechanical computers tend to be really slow compared to pure electrical ones — that’s why we switched to electronic computers in the first place. Well, that and the fact that mechanical computers have a lot of parts in motion which tend to break. So we’ll have to wait and see just how fast this thing can be. But if they can pull it off, the thermal computer could comfortably compute in places where regular systems would boil to a halt.

Ndao said the team is trying to make the device more efficient and faster. Elzouka said that although they’ve filed for a patent already, there is still work to be done to improve the diode and its performance.

“If we can achieve high efficiency, show that we can do computations and run a logic system experimentally, then we can have a proof-of-concept,” Elzouka said. “(That) is when we can think about the future.”

“We want to to create the world’s first thermal computer,” Ndao said. “Hopefully one day, it will be used to unlock the mysteries of outer space, explore and harvest our own planet’s deep-beneath-the-surface geology, and harness waste heat for more efficient-energy utilization.”

The paper “High Temperature Near-Field NanoThermoMechanical Rectification” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The new displays enabled by blue-liquid crystals could be extremely useful in VR applications where a high resolution on a small screen is desirable. Credit: Pixabay.

Thought 4K was impressive? New tech can triple the sharpness of TVs and other displays while reducing power demand

The new displays enabled by blue-liquid crystals could be extremely useful in VR applications where a high resolution on a small screen is desirable. Credit: Pixabay.

The new displays enabled by blue-liquid crystals could be extremely useful in VR applications where a high resolution on a small screen is desirable. Credit: Pixabay.

The resolution density of today’s displays is nearing its limits. But an international team of scientists has found a way to cram in more pixels per square inch than ever before. Using a new type of blue-phase liquid crystal optimized for field-sequential color liquid crystal displays (LCDs), the team claims it’s possible to up the resolution density three fold compared to the state of the art. Moreover, the new technology consumes less power.

“Today’s Apple Retina displays have a resolution density of about 500 pixels per inch,” said Shin-Tson Wu, who led the research team at the University of Central Florida’s College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL). “With our new technology, a resolution density of 1500 pixels per inch could be achieved on the same sized screen. This is especially attractive for virtual reality headsets or augmented reality technology, which must achieve high resolution in a small screen to look sharp when placed close to our eyes.”

12K displays?

The current state of the art in display screen resolution. The new tech could triple the sharpness.

Your typical LCD screen is comprised of a thin layer of nematic liquid crystal onto which white light is fired from LEDs. This incoming backlight is modulated by thin-film transistors to display graphics while colours are produced by combining red, green, and blue filters.

Experiments suggest that blue-phase liquid crystals can be switched on and off by transistors almost ten times faster than the nematic variety. This incredibly fast sub-millisecond response time means that different coloured LEDs (red, green, and blue) can fire light at different times. The switching frequency is so fast that you brain can’t process the variation and instead you’ll feel like it’s all a continuous experience. Basically, this feature removes the need for colour filters drastically saving space in a display device.

Scientists think this configuration can triple the number of pixels per square inch. It ought to triple the optical efficiency as well since the light isn’t required to pass through filters anymore — these used to limit light transmittance to only 30 percent.

Blue-phase liquid crystals aren’t exactly new. Samsung first demonstrated an LCD display prototype based on blue-phase crystals for the first in 2008. However, it proved difficult at the time to scale the technology commercially due to high operational voltage and slow capacitor charging time.

Wu and colleagues collaborated with academic and industry partners to try to solve these issues. Their efforts eventually paid off after the international team of researchers combined the liquid crystals with a special performance-enhancing electrode structure that lets the electric field penetrate the liquid crystals more deeply.

The triangular electrode structure penetrates the crystals so the electric field is stronger. Credit: OSA.

The triangular electrode structure penetrates the crystals so the electric field is stronger. Credit: OSA.

This configuration successfully reduced the operational voltage to 15 volts per pixel and achieved a light transmittance of 74 percent, as reported in the Optical Materials Express journal. These figures suggest field-sequential color displays are now practical and could soon see commercial development.

“We achieved an operational voltage low enough to allow each pixel to be driven by a single transistor while also achieving a response time of less than 1 millisecond,” said Haiwei Chen, a doctoral student in Wu’s lab. “This delicate balance between operational voltage and response time is key for enabling field sequential color displays.”

A working prototype might be available as soon as next year, Wu said.

Scientists develop memory chips from egg shells

Eggshells might become the data storage of the future. A Chinese team showed that the material can be used to create greener RAM storage for out computers.

Image credits Steve Buissinne / Pixabay.

You’ve heard of eggplants, but what about eggcomputers? Seeking to bring the term about, a team from the Guizhou Institute of Technology hatched a cunning plan: they went to the market, bought a few random eggs, and ground their shells for three hours to make a homogeneous, nano-sized powder. After it was dry, the team mixed this powder into a solution and poured it onto a substrate.

They thus ended up with the part of a memory chip through which electricity actually flows — the electrolyte. But eggshells are not an item you tend to see in chip factories, so how could it function as RAM? Well, the team tested the egg-paste to see if it changes its electrical resistance when a voltage flows through it. This property can be used to create memory chips of the ReRAM, or resistive random access memory, variety. There’s a lot of interest in ReRAMas it could be used to create faster, denser, and more energy efficient storage media than traditional RAM or flash memory.

And it worked. The team was able to encode 100 bits of binary information into the eggmemory before it failed. It doesn’t stack up to the billions of cycles regular materials can take, but as a proof of concept it’s incredible.

It’s ground eggshell. That can store binary data.

Still, we’re a long way off from seeing one of these devices on the market. But if they do show promise for future applications and, with enough developement, could provide a clean, sustainable, and very egg-y alternative to the electrolytes in use today.

The full paper “A larger nonvolatile bipolar resistive switching memory behaviour fabricated using eggshells” have been published in the journal Current Applied Physics.