Tag Archives: video

Researchers build the first wireless camera that fits on a beetle

It’s a good day to be a tech-loving beetle, as researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a tiny, wireless camera that can be mounted on top of live insects such as beetles and robots of similar size.

Image credits Mark Stone / University of Washington.

The camera can stream video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second — which, admittedly, isn’t a lot. But that performance becomes much more impressive when you consider that it weighs just 250 milligrams (0.008 ounces) and can pivot 60 degrees (to get wide-angle panorama shots).


“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

“Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”

The team mounted the cameras on top of live beetles and insect-sized robots to test their efficiency. The cameras themselves are lightweight but the batteries needed to power them would be much too large for the insects to bear, so the team used a different approach.

Vision is inherently energy-hungry. Flies, the authors note, use between 10% and 20% “of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing”. In order to reduce this strain, their eyes have a central area of high-focus and an external area of low-focus. To see clearly, they need to turn their heads in the direction they want to see; the outer area then helps them keep watch for predators, but doesn’t produce a high-quality image.

This setup also means that their brains have to use much less energy to process the incoming images.

To mimic this approach, the team installed a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera on a mechanical arm that they can sweep across the field of view. The arm moves when a high voltage is applied (which bends the material). Unless more power is applied, the arm stays in place for about a minute and eventually relaxes back into its original position

“One advantage to being able to move the camera is that you can get a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering.

“We can track a moving object without having to spend the energy to move a whole robot. These images are also at a higher resolution than if we used a wide-angle lens, which would create an image with the same number of pixels divided up over a much larger area.”

The whole setup can be controlled with a smartphone via Bluetooth from a distance of up to 120 meters away.

The beetles chosen to test this camera were a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle, as there was evidence they could bear weights of around half a gram. The team ensured the device didn’t impede the insects’ motions, and let them loose on gravel, on a slope, and on a tree. The beetles successfully navigated them all, even managing to climb the tree. The authors note that the beetles lived for at least a year after the experiment.

“We added a small accelerometer to our system to be able to detect when the beetle moves. Then it only captures images during that time,” Iyer said.

“If the camera is just continuously streaming without this accelerometer, we could record one to two hours before the battery died. With the accelerometer, we could record for six hours or more, depending on the beetle’s activity level.”

The robot used in the tests is the smallest power-autonomous terrestrial robot with wireless vision, according to the paper. It uses vibrations to move (which makes it very energy-efficient). While the setup worked, the vibrations distorted the overall image, so the team had the robot make a short stop, take a picture, and resume moving. In this mode, the robot managed 2 to 3 centimeters per second and a camera battery life of around 90 minutes.

Applications for tiny cameras abound. It’s the first time we’ve been able to have direct footage from the back of an insect, and the camera’s diminutive size means it can go where no other similar device has in the past.

But the team is particularly worried about privacy concerns. They hope that by introducing the public to their creation, “people can start coming up with solutions to address them”.

The paper “Wireless steerable vision for live insects and insect-scale robots,” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

The first prescription video game fights ADHD

EndeavorRX, an obstacle-dodging, target-collecting game, is by no means a full replacement for traditional therapies. But it is a great example of how video games can be used for medical applications.

Image via Youtube.

Seven years’ worth of study with 600 different children has shown that one-third of these children “no longer had a measurable attention deficit on at least one measure of objective attention” after playing the game for 25 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks.

A game for good

“Improvements in ADHD impairments following a month of treatment with EndeavorRx were maintained for up to a month,” Akili Interactive cites one of five studies looking into the game’s effectiveness.

EndeavorRX (trailer below) has been in development for over seven years now, but it’s finally ready to publish, according to a company spokesperson. Once it does, it will officially be the first prescription video game available commercially.

The FDA approved for doctors to prescribe game (available on the iPhone and iPad) for kids between ages eight and 12 years old “with primarily inattentive or combined-type ADHD who have demonstrated an attention issue”.

“The EndeavorRx device offers a non-drug option for improving symptoms associated with ADHD in children and is an important example of the growing field of digital therapy and digital therapeutics,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health said in the statement.

However, this is by no means meant as a replacement for full treatment. Even the company’s own research found as much, saying there’s “[not enough evidence that] it should be used as an alternative to established and recommended treatments”.

On the bright side, playing this game has been shown to help some kids better manage their ADHD with improvements in attention, academic performance, and as judged by other assessment tools.

The only side effects seen in the study were frustration and headache, arguably better than those caused by medication.

It’s definitely exciting to see video games, a medium which I hold very dear, offering potential help for medicine. Especially so since it’s legally recognized as a medical tool. Hopefully, it will catch on.

Take yourself out (of any video stream) with this new app

Ever felt like you’d just want to disappear? Jason Mayes, a senior developer advocate at Google, made it so you can — on video, at least.

Image via Youtube / Jason Mayes.

Mayes has developed an app he calls ‘Disappearing People,’ which can remove individuals from video streams in real-time. While it’s not perfect yet, with one example Mayes posted online still showing some pixelation and other flaws, it’s definitely workable. The app was built using Javascript and TensorFlow, a comprehensive library of free tools and resources for machine learning, and Mayes made the code freely available.


The app works by first recording a series of images through a user’s webcam, which it uses to establish a baseline of their empty room. Once someone enters the room, the app recognizes them as being a human and erases their pixels out of the video. The gaps are then filled in with pixels from the baseline images of the room to create a seamless video.

In the sample video Mayes uploaded to Youtube, you can see him moving around the room (raw footage on the top part of the video) but not registering on the stream (bottom part of the video). There are a few seconds when his lower arms become visible, the app doesn’t remove his shadow on the wall to the left of the shot, and there are a few other glitches as well, but overall, it was a very fine performance.

You can also try the app for yourself here, and the code can be accessed here.

So far, the app is more entertainment than a practical tool, but it is a very nice proof of concept. If you don’t like taping over your laptop’s camera lens but are nonetheless concerned about privacy, it might just be the app for you, though.

Smallest-yet image sensor for medical use wins Guinness World Record

A new, diminutive optical sensor has won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being so, so small (and still functional).

The newly-developed camera.
Image credits OmniVision.

OmniVision, a California-based developer of advanced digital imaging solutions has announced the development of its OV6948 image sensor — a piece of gear that now holds the record for the smallest image sensor in the world.

Eagle-eyed, but small

The sensor will be used in a camera module, which the company has christened CameraCubeChip. OmniVision’s announcement (published on their website) of the new device all but earmarks it for medical use, stating that it’s meant to “address the market demand for decreased invasiveness and deeper anatomical access”. In the future, the company hopes to also expand the range of potential users to include veterinarians, dental practitioners, and the health industry at large.

And it’s easy to see why. The new sensor measures just 0.575 x 0.575 mm (1 mm = 0.03 in), while the wafer-shaped CameraCubeChip is only slightly larger: 0.65 x 0.65 x 1.158 mm, roughly the size of a grain of sand. Because of its very small size, the sensor and camera module can be fixed to disposable endoscopes and used to imagine the smallest parts of the body, from nerves and parts of the eye to the spine, heart, the inside of joints, or the urological system. Patients are bound to appreciate how small the devices are, considering that alternatives available today are uncomfortable, and can become quite painful.

The camera will also be much cooler (in terms of temperature) than traditional probes, which means it can be used for longer inside a patient’s body without posing any risk. This is due to its very modest power usage: just 25 mW (milliwatts) of power.

The new sensor has a 120-degree field of vision, a focus range of 3 to 30 mm, allows for 200 x 200 resolution, and can process video at 30 fps (frames per second). It will also be able to transmit data in analog form over a maximum distance of 4 meters.

Another important advantage of the new sensor is that it can be affixed to disposable endoscopes. Patient cross-contamination caused by endoscope reuse is a growing public health concern, one which the camera can help fix, or at least reduce.

New AI turns simple doodles into photorealistic landscapes — within seconds

Nvidia has released a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm capable of producing stunning photos from only a few lines and shapes. Not only are the results strikingly realistic and quick to produce, but the AI also exhibits impressive adaptive capabilities, generating realistic reflections on water or modifying the sky if snow is present.

Image credits: Nvidia / Youtube.

Called GauGAN, the software is just a demonstration of what’s Nvidia’s neural network platforms have to offer. Its essential purpose is to produce an image as if it were painted by a human, and it seems to work as intended.

The AI uses generative adversarial networks (GAN) — a system in which two neural networks contest with each other, most often to produce different types of images. It’s an unsupervised learning technique: you feed a database into it and “teach” the AI how to progress. Of course, there’s much more to it in the actual process. Nvidia used 1 million images, mostly from Flickr’s Creative Commons.

“It’s like a coloring book picture that describes where a tree is, where the sun is, where the sky is,” said Bryan Catanzaro, vice president of applied deep learning research at NVIDIA. “And then the neural network is able to fill in all of the detail and texture, and the reflections, shadows and colors, based on what it has learned about real images.”

It has a simplistic user interface and only three tools: a paint bucket, pen, and pencil. But even with these limited means, the algorithm shows impressive performance. You simply select a tool, and then you click on the type of object you want to produce. Want to draw a tree? Just draw a few lines or a rough shape. Rocks or mountains? A rough shape will do. Waterfall? Yeah, that’s just a line.

To make things even more stunning, it does all this in a matter of seconds — of course, while running on highly performant hardware. But Nvidia developers say that with small tweaks, the algorithm can run on any platform.

The AI can generate thousands of different objects, learning from the real world. It also has a randomness figure embedded into it, so if you draw the same shape several times, the result will come out different each time.

It’s easy to see how this could be used for nefarious purposes like producing fake videos — and we’ve already seen how realistic fake videos can be —  but Nvidia says it wants to use this AI to make the world a better place, enabling anyone to become an artist and improving the workflow of people working in fields like architecture and urban planning; only time will tell.

If only this was around in the Paint days of yore, eh?

Here’s a quick demo of the AI’s capabilities:

Dragon fight.

Exposure to graphic images shifts your perception of reality, video games study shows

It’s an unlockable perk.

Dragon fight.

Player fighting a dragon in Skyrim.
Image credits Eliot Carson / Flickr.

Gamers, particularly those who partake in violent video games, show greater resilience when viewing disturbing images than their peers, a new study suggests. While the research doesn’t establish a cause-effect relationship between the two, it is an important look into how exposure to violent images can alter perception.

Needs more dakka

“Our study focused on perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli. This is very different from other research on the link between violent video games and social behaviour, such as aggression,” says study author and cognitive psychologist Dr. Steve Most from University of New South Wales (UNSW) Psychology.

People who frequently play violent video games may gain a degree of immunity to disturbing images. The findings come from a study on emotion-induced blindness at the UNSW carried out under the supervision of Dr. Most. Emotion-induced blindness is a process via which a person’s emotions impact their perception of the world.

Emotions have a central role in shaping our perception. You can read more about that relationship here and here.

Such players were more adept at ignoring graphic content while viewing a rapid succession of images, making them better at focusing on the pictures they were asked to spot. The study doesn’t prove that this happened because of gaming history per se — it established a correlation, not causation. However, it’s an interesting look into how our perception might shift following exposure to violent imagery.

“When people rapidly sift through images in search of a target image, a split-second emotional reaction can cause some of them to be unable to see the target,” Dr Most explains. “This occurs even if you’re looking right at the target. It’s as if the visual system stops processing the target in order to deal with the emotional imagery it’s just been confronted with.”

For the study, the team split participants into two groups: a group of ‘heavy gamer’ participants and a control group of people who played no video games at all. They classified heavy games as those who played more than 5 hours per week of video games that ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ involved violence. Participants were not told that the experiment would focus on their video game playing history so as not to skew the results.

Call of Duty drones.

Call of Duty is definitely violent. And one of the most popular games out there right now.
Image via Flickr.

During the experiment, the participants were shown a sequence of 17 images, each flashing on the screen for 0.1 seconds. These images were combinations of upright landscape-style photos, but among them was one ‘target’ image — which was rotated to the left or right by 90 degrees — which participants were asked to spot and report on its rotation.

In some of these sequences, the team also included a ‘distractor’ image. These would appear for a significantly longer period — between 200 and 400 milliseconds — before the target image and were either emotionally-neutral (such as non-threatening animals or people), or they showcased graphic / emotionally negative content. This could be violent (depictions of assault) or simply kind of gross (like dirty toilet bowls, for example).

Those in the gamer group seemed to be largely immune to these emotional disruptions, the team reports. They were able to correctly identify target images and their rotation with greater accuracy than the control group, despite the team’s attempts to throw them off. In neutral-images streams, the two groups performed virtually the same, with no significant differences in accuracy.

This last bit is important because it rules out that gamers were simply better at paying attention than the control group. Those who regularly play violent video games were generally less responsive to emotional images instead, the team believes. Since they didn’t focus disproportionately on these pictures, gamers could better perceive other elements around them.

“This study suggests that, depending on the situation, people with different levels of violent media and game consumption can also have different perceptions of the environment,” says Dr Most.

“This suggests a link between violent video game exposure and a person’s perception, that is, how they process information.”

The team underscores that the results don’t mean violent video games make people emotionally numb. Instead, the study only focused on “perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli,” Dr. Most explains, and shouldn’t be seen as linking violent video games with social behavior such as aggression.

“There is conflicting literature about the degree to which playing violent video games affect real-world behaviour. This study only investigated a low-level effect on an individual’s perception, and we definitely need further research into the mechanisms that underlie this impact of emotion on perception.”

The team plans to follow-up on their study by investigating emotion-induced blindness in emergency first responders — another group that is frequently (and very directly) exposed to graphic images.

The paper “Aversive images cause less perceptual interference among violent video game players: evidence from emotion-induced blindness” was published in the journal Visual Cognition.

Crystals of Kaydor.

The right video game can help children develop empathy and better emotional control

Empathy is a skill that can be learned, new research shows. The research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping middle schoolers develop it in the most entertaining way possible — with a video game.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Crystals of Kaydor, the Adventures of…. Lettucehead..?
Image credits Center for Healthy Minds / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On a distant planet, one space-braving robot explorer is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Bits and pieces scatter everywhere, and our intrepid explorer is now stranded. Needless to say, it’s not his best day. Luckily for the bot, however, the planet is inhabited. The locals don’t speak his language, but the robot can gather the pieces needed to fix his ship by building emotional rapport with them.

The robot is played by the middle schoolers, and the whole scenario is a video game — one that can help kids become more empathetic, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that study how learning empathy changes the brain.

The game of empathy

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” says co-author Tammi Kral.

The game, named Crystals of Kaydor, was created by the team for this study and it is designed to teach empathy.

The team worked with 150 middle schoolers in two groups. One played Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available game called Bastion. I can attest that this latter is quite an enjoyable adventure game, but it does not target empathy in any way.

Kids rake an average of over 70 minutes of gameplay each day, the team notes. This time tends to increase during adolescence, which coincides with a period of rapid brain development. Teenagers are also highly susceptible to developing feelings of anxiety and depression during this stage of their lives, and they’re also likely to run into bullies. The team’s plan was to see if their game could help them develop emotional finesse during this often confusing period of the children’s lives.

In the game, kids have to interact with the crashlanded alien. However, players can’t understand the character’s language, and must learn to identify the emotions he’s feeling as well as their intensities from his expression — luckily, the alien exhibits the same range of emotions as a human being, and they’re accompanied by humanlike facial expressions. The game is intended to help the kids practice and develop empathy. The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.

Neural connectivity changes.

Training-related increases in neural connectivity after Crystals relative to Bastion. Significant group-wide connectivity changes in red, significant differences per individual participants in blue.
Image credits Tammi A. Kral et al., 2018, npj Science of Learning.

By contrast, kids who played Bastion embarked in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

According to Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds and paper co-author, empathy is the foundation of prosocial behavior, and as such, an important skill for our children to develop.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson.

“Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

Did it work?

The team took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from both groups before and after the gaming phase of the study. Both groups played for two weeks. After the two weeks, the team compared the connections between different areas of the brain, focusing on those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Several screenshots depicting the player-controlled robot, the emotion recognition mechanics — which include selecting an emotion and its intensity — and other game mechanics.

After the two weeks of play, kids in the first group showed greater connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy and perspective thinking, the team reports. Some among them exhibited changes in neural networks linked with emotion regulation as well. The team says this last skill is crucial and begins developing around this age — and their game can help promote healthy development.

Kids that played Bastion also showed more robust neural connectivity in brain areas that underpin empathy — however, the effect was much less pronounced than that seen in the Crystals of Kaydor group. They further report that kids in the first group who showed increase connectivity in brain areas related to emotion regulation also scored better on the empathy test after the two week period.

Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson.

“One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Davidson adds that simply teaching empathy skills to groups that have trouble with them, including individuals on the autism spectrum, may be an accessible way to improve their quality of life.

The game is currently only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public, but it has helped inform other games that are currently being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The paper “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial” has been published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

Massive analysis of gamers’ habits reveals how to best reach excellence in any skill

Scientists are learning tips and tricks for reaching excellence in what most people would call an unlikely source — gamers. A team at Brown University has analyzed countless hours of competitive play to see which practices work best when trying to improve a skill.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

It’s easy to dismiss gamers as slack-offs, but what most people who don’t partake in video gaming fail to understand is how competitive and skill-centric some game communities can be. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s designed purely as a time-and-money sink — a title about crushing candies comes to mind. But in the kind of games that attract competitive players, the ones you’ll see in eSport competitions, you live or die by your skill. Through their very nature, by pitting player against player, these games rear their community with a single overarching goal — to git gud.

Mastering a game isn’t much different from mastering anything else. Mostly, it comes down to practice. So when you think about it, studying gamers, a demographic in which individuals continually order themselves after levels of excellence/skill at a common task, can yield some valuable insight into which practice patterns work best.

Which is exactly what a team led by a Brown University computer scientist has done. They’ve analyzed data gathered from thousands of online matches of Halo: Reach and StarCraft 2.

“The great thing about game data is that it’s naturalistic, there’s a ton of it, and it’s really well measured,” said Jeff Huang, a computer science professor at Brown and lead author of the study.

“It gives us the opportunity to measure patterns for a long period of time over a lot of people in a way that you can’t really do in a lab.”

The results obtained from the first showed how different patterns of play affected skill improvement rates, while the latter showed how highly successful players’ unique and consistent “rituals” play a key part in their success.

There were several reasons for choosing these games: they’re both hugely popular. They have built-in ranking systems which sort players according to their success, providing the team with a solid estimation of individual skill levels. They’re also both highly competitive games, but play very differently from one another.

From zero to hero

Halo: Reach is a first-person shooter, a genre of games in which players take on the role of a single character and have to use a plethora of weapons to battle others. FPS games generally rely on motor skills (e.g. hand-eye coordination), reaction and decision speed, as well as individual tactical choices. One of the most popular game modes is Team Slayer, where players are placed on opposing teams which compete to get the most kills by the end of the 10-15 minute game time.

To make sure the game is fair for everyone, the game uses a metric system called TrueSkill — whose ratings are constantly updated with a player’s performance following each match — to put the together teams of roughly equal ability. TrueSkill gave Huang and his colleagues the means to see how playing habits influence gamers’ skill acquisition. They looked at data mined from all the online Halo matches played since the game’s release — totaling a staggering seven months of continuous game-play.

People who played the most matches every week (more than 64) had the largest overall increase in skill over time. But simply playing a lot isn’t the most efficient way to improve your skill, the team reports. Over the first 200 matches played, people who played 4-8 matches a week showed the most improvement on a per-match basis. They were followed by those who played 8-16 matches every week.

“What this suggests is that if you want to improve the most efficiently, it’s not about playing the most matches per week,” Huang said.

“You actually want to space out your activity a little bit and not play so intensively.”

The team also looked at the effect breaks had on a player’s skill. Players who took short breaks — i.e. one or two days — showed some decrease in skill in the first match following the downtime, but no decrease in their second one. Longer term breaks, however, had more pronounced effects on their efficiency. The effects of a 30-day break, for example, lasted for around 10 matches. So the lesson here is moderation — don’t overdo it on either the practice or the rest.

Tap it like it’s (a) hot (key)

The second study focused on the real-time strategy game Starcraft 2. Like other RTS games, it puts players in control of an entire army. They have to secure resources and manage an economy, build up bases and infrastructure, train their forces, and direct them in battle — often taking place on multiple fronts, with hundreds of units at a time. It’s an entirely different game from Halo, promoting management skills, large-scale tactical choices, sustained attention, and strategical thinking.

By comparing the in-game habits of elite players to those of average or lower skill, the team found one major difference: heavy use of hotkeys. These are customizable keyboard shortcuts which enable complex commands to be issued much more quickly. Less skilled players usually gave orders using the mouse. Elite players universally prefer hotkeys, the team found.

Image credits: Josef Glatz.

This gives them a huge advantage. For instance, the task of finding a free worker and selecting it with the mouse, clicking on the build icon, selecting the right building, and finally placing it in the desired location — which can take 4-5 seconds — can be done in under a second with hotkeys. Just press F1, B, B, click, and you have a barracks under construction. Skilled players can issue up to 200 different orders a minute in typical matches with hotkeys, dwarfing anything possible through the mouse alone.

But that’s pretty common knowledge in the StarCraft player-base. Hotkeying is the one skill all my friends say has improved their game the most — and we’re nowhere near an ‘elite’ level of play. What top players do differently is that they form unique hotkeying habits and stick with them. These habits are so distinctive and consistent, in fact, that the team was able to identify specific players with over 90% accuracy just by looking at how they hotkey. These habits are almost like a second nature, the researchers say, enabling players to issue commands efficiently when pressure is on.

They also seem to “warm up” this skill in every match. The study shows that even in the very early stages of a game when there’s almost nothing going on, these players will rapidly scroll through their hotkey habits issuing dummy commands to whatever units they have available.

“They’re getting their minds and bodies into the routines that they’ll need when they’re at peak performance later in the game,” Huang said.

“They’re getting themselves warmed up.”

Mastering mastery

Huang hopes their research will help people can improve their performance in other areas of life. Professions which require specialists to pay attention to lots of different elements at once could benefit from a “warming up” similar to that in StarCraft.

“Air traffic controllers come to mind,” he said.

“Maybe when someone first gets in the seat, they should take a few moments and re-enact what they do until they can get warmed up and in the zone.”

The results of the Halo study confirm previous cognitive research, he adds, which suggests that moderate activity coupled with short breaks can improve learning efficiency.

“People have seen this for other things, like studying.”

“Cramming is generally regarded as less efficient than doing smaller bits of studying throughout the semester. I think we’re seeing something similar here in our study.”

Taken together, the results show that the best way to become good at something is to “practice consistently, stay warm,” Huang concludes.

The full paper “Master Maker: Understanding Gaming Skill Through Practice and Habit From Gameplay Behavior” has been published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.

Young children may benefit from playing video games

A new study found that playing video games may have a positive impact on young children’s cognitive development. Researchers found a positive association between the amount of time spent playing video games and children’s mental health as well as their cognitive and social aptitudes.

Video games have imposed themselves as a centerpiece of entertainment media — we’re willing to shell out a lot more for a good game than for a good movie. Millions of people worldwide enjoy them, from almost all age brackets. But the largest consumer of video games by percentage currently are young children.

Image credits wikimedia user Gamesingear

Because children are still learning how to be, well, human beings, the way video games guide their development has always attracted lots of criticism. Their violent nature in particular has been drawing a lot of misguided flak over the past few years; but they’re also perceived as being socially-isolating (how many times has someone called you “nolifer” when you frag them in Counter Strike?) and as a waste of time better spent on studying. So I’d say it’s safe to assume that most parents consider them to have a negative influence over their children.

Not so fast, says science. A recent study from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Paris Descartes University assessed the association between the amount of time spent playing video games and children’s mental health and cognitive and social skills, and found that playing video games may have positive effects on young children.

The data was obtained from the School Children Mental Health Europe Project. Children’s mental health was assessed by their parents and teachers through a questionnaire and the children themselves responded to questions through an interactive application. Teachers also evaluated their academic success.

Boys tended to play more than girls, and both genders spent increasingly more time on gaming as they got older. Children of average-sized families tended to play more games, while kids from single-parent families or less educated ones play less.

After adjusting for subject’s age, gender and number of siblings, researchers found that children who engaged in heavy video game use had 75% more chance of showing a higher level of intellectual functioning than their counterparts. They also had 88% more chance of achieving a higher overall level of school performance. More time spent playing was also associated with less social problems with their peers.

“Video game playing is often a collaborative leisure time activity for school-aged children,” said Katherine M. Keyes, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Furthermore, the team was unable to find any significant association between video game use and either parent, teacher or self-reported mental health problems. Previously, research showed there is no evidence that violent video games make children more aggressive. Any fits can be attributed to a sense of frustration, not the violence depicted in the video games.

“These results indicate that children who frequently play video games may be socially cohesive with peers and integrated into the school community,” Keyes added.

“We caution against over interpretation, however, as setting limits on screen usage remains and important component of parental responsibility as an overall strategy for student success.”

The full paper was published online in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, and can be read here.


Compulsive gaming rewires the brain, both beneficial and harmful

Brain scans of nearly 200 adolescent boys recorded as part of a new study performed in South Korea show that compulsive video game players have radically different wiring in their brains. The most notable change is increased communication (known as hyperconnectivity) between several functional brain networks. While the changes in morphology make chronic video game players more adept at responding to new information, the authors also point out that they’re associated with distractability and poor impulse control.

The study provides evidence that several regions of the brain are hyperconnected in adolescent boys diagnosed with Internet gaming disorder (lines between colored areas, colored areas represent specific brain networks).
Some of the changes may help game players respond to new information, others are associated with distractibility and poor impulse control.
Image via sciencedaily

While I don’t identify with the gamer culture, I do enjoy games; I’ve lost some nights and had quite a few rushed meals for a good LAN party or MMO raid. But for those suffering from Internet gaming disorder, playing video games even to the detriment of sleep or nutrition isn’t necessarily a choice, but a compulsion.

A collaboration between the University of Utah’s School of Medicine and Chung-Ang University in South Korea, aimed to understand the brains of compulsive gamers in an effort to gain insight into possible treatments for the condition. It’s the largest investigation of differences in the brains of compulsive video game players to date, says first author Doug Hyun Han. Participants were screened from South Korea, where video game playing is a major social activity. The Korean government supports his research with the goal of finding ways to identify and treat addicts.

The team used magnetic resonance imaging to look into the brains of 106 boys aged 10 through 19 who were seeking treatment for Internet gaming disorder. Their recordings were compared to those taken from a control group of 80 boys of similar age, looking for brain areas that activate simultaneously while the participants were at rest. A more frequent activation translated to a stronger functional connectivity, the study reads.

The authors looked at activity in 25 pairs of brain regions for a total of 300 combinations. Participants suffering from the disorder showed significant functional connections between the following pairs of regions:

  • Auditory cortex (hearing) — motor cortex (movement)
  • Auditory cortex (hearing) — supplementary motor cortices (movement)
  • Auditory cortex (hearing) — anterior cingulate (salience network)
  • Frontal eye field (vision) — anterior cingulate (salience network)
  • Frontal eye field (vision) — anterior insula (salience network)
  • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — temporoparietal junction

“Hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognize novel information in the environment,” says senior author Jeffrey Anderson, M.D., Ph.D. and associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

“The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently.”

The study also found that certain brain networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory data tend to have better connectivity to the salience network. This structure is responsible for focusing out attention on events or objects, preparing us to take action in response to a threat or an expected event. In real life, this network is what allows you to slam the brakes when a dog runs in front of your car, for example. In the context of a video game, this translates into faster reaction time to an incoming opponent or environmental change.

But it’s not all roses; for compulsive video game players, the participants also showed increased connectivity between two other structures, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and termporoparietal junction.

“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them,” Anderson adds

“Having these networks be too connected may increase distractibility,” he concludes.

These connections have also been identified in patients with conditions such as schizophrenia, Down syndrome, autism and are associated with poor impulse control. It’s not currently known whether this rewiring is a cause of or an effect of the disorder, i.e. if the changes are brought about by persistent gaming or if they make people particularly drawn to video games, and the authors note that further research is required to address this question.

The paper, titled “Brain connectivity and psychiatric comorbidity in adolescents with Internet gaming disorder” was published online in the journal Addiction Biology.

The ugly truth behind the ‘cute’ video of the orangutan and tiger cubs

Social media was abuzz when it came out – just look at this video of an orangutan bottle-feeding a tiger cub. Tens of millions of people tuned in to watch this “cuteness overload”… but the truth behind this is not cute at all. It’s actually quite saddening. We’ll discuss why, after the video.

The almost surreal scene came from Myrtle Beach Safari’s The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in South Carolina, United States. They claim to be a safe haven for wildlife (especially tigers), but in reality, the facility is little more than a touristic attraction where animals are taken to serve as props for visitors. Let’s face it – tigers are magnificent creatures, and few people would pass the chance of being around one if they knew it was completely safe. After all, most visitors spend a few hours with wild animals, give some money which they believe goes to animal conservation, and they’re actually think they’re helping – but they’re not.

Animals at T.I.G.E.R.S. are bred or bought solely for profit, with no conservation efforts and without even considering reintroduction to the wild. But don’t take it from me, take it from them:

“You can support us in our conservation efforts by participating in our T.I.G.E.R.S. preservation station photo encounter. During this encounter, you will get hands-on with a baby tiger and a young ape while they sit on your lap. Photo encounters start at $100 a person […]”

OK, Tigers are put on display in small enclosures, removed from their mother, but this is all… for conservation purposes, right? According to their website, the Rare Species Fund (a charity owned by them) “donated and personally transported 7 tigers from our Myrtle Beach, South Carolina preserve to the Samutprakarn Wildlife Preserve South of Bangkok.” It’s all fine, until you find out that the Samutprakarn Wildlife Preserve in Thailand is not really a preserve. Actually called the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, the facility is another for-profit organization, hosting what they call “freak” animals such as 6-legged crocodiles. The money they spend on “conservation” is actually spent on bringing animals into captivity.

As a matter of fact, breeding animals in captivity seems to be one of their main activities – including inbred animals such as ligers. Ligers are crossbred from lions and tigers; they are sterile, have shorter lifespans and often suffer from numerous health problems. Due to their size, the tigress mother can only deliver a liger by Ceasarian section and there are numerous reports of mothers rejecting her hybrid cubs all together. But of course, people are fascinated by them, so they have the potential to make a lot of money. All animals seem to be bred and trained for this specific purpose, and the training starts quickly after birth.

“Cubs used by exhibitors to make money from handling are typically torn from their mothers shortly after birth, a torment to both cub and mother. They are deprived of the comfort and nutrition of nursing and grooming by the mothers, subjected to unnatural levels of stress that lower their immune systems, and typically not allowed the natural amount and timing of sleep in order to satisfy customers,” 911animalabuse writes.

T.I.G.E.R.S. are very vague about what training methods they use, but they have a hefty list of USDA violations. They were cited for abandoning deer and peacocks and in total have wracked up 38 more violations between 1988 and 2014. For a fee, you can swim with Bubbles the elephant, or stand on her like on a surfboard. It’s obvious that the elephant was subjected to heavy conditioning to accept this treatment. But there’s another puzzling (and extremely worrying) question: what do they do with tigers after they’re no longer cubs?! They claim they’ve trained over 400 cats yet there are only some 60 cats currently living at Myrtle Beach Safari, so what happened to the rest of them? Well… no one really knows; from what I could there is no tiger tracking program in the US. Among the few known cases took place in 2009 when they gave two cats to a man who had lost his USDA license due to abandoning 75 of his own tigers in Palm Bay, Florida. Their final destination was to Zoological Imports 2000, an exotic dealership.

This is not how animals should be treated, and videos like that one may be cute, they come at quite a price. Think twice before encouraging such “sanctuaries”, and before sharing. This might turn out to be not so cute after all.

Breathtaking aerial footage of Antarctica

While he was touring Antarctica with his father, Stockholm-based filmmaker Kalle Ljungbrought along a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter to film their trip from above. The result, as you can bee here, is spectacular – a dazzling mixture of nature/travel films shot with GoPros and drones highlighting everything from isolated icebergs to pods of whales breaching the surface. Brilliant!

(via Vimeo Staff Picks)

Biologists find algal embryo that “turned itself inside out”

Researchers from Cambridge have, for the first time, captured a 3D video of a living algal embryo turning itself inside out: from a sphere into a mushroom and into a sphere again. The results could help us better understand the process of gastrulation in animal embryos — which biologist Lewis Wolpert called “the most important event in your life.”

Biologists were studying the embryos of a green algae called Volvox, that forms spherical colonies of up to 50,000 cells. They live in a variety of freshwater habitats and interestingly, they demonstrated both individuality and working for the good of their colony, acting like one multicellular organism.

Using fluorescent microscopy, scientists were able to test a mathematical model of morphogenesis — the origin and development of an organism’s structure and form — and see how it behaves when it turns itself from a sphere to a mushroom shape and then back again.

Credit: Stephanie Höhn, Aurelia Honerkamp-Smith and Raymond E. Goldstein

The process is important not only for algae, but also for animals, as it is very similar to a process called gastrulation – a phase early in the embryonic development of most animals, during which the single-layered blastula is reorganized into a trilaminar (“three-layered”) structure known as the gastrula. Gastrulation is the result of complex cellular interactions, which makes it extremely difficult to quantify and understand in terms of raw numbers.

“Until now there was no quantitative mechanical understanding of whether those changes were sufficient to account for the observed embryo shapes, and existing studies by conventional microscopy were limited to two-dimensional sections and analyses of chemically fixed embryos, rendering comparisons with theory on the dynamics difficult,” said Professor Raymond E. Goldstein of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, who led the research.

Now is the first time scientists have been able to capture this process in 3D, which will also aid them in understanding gastrulation.

Volvox is a genus of chlorophytes, a type of green algae. Image via Wikipedia.

“It’s exciting to be able to finally visualise this intriguing process in 3D,” said Dr Stephanie Höhn, the paper’s lead author. “This simple organism may provide ground-breaking information to help us understand similar processes in many different types of animals.”

Journal Reference: Stephanie Höhn, Aurelia R. Honerkamp-Smith, Pierre A. Haas, Philipp Khuc Trong, and Raymond E. Goldstein. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 178101 – Published 27 April 2015 [Link]


Astronauts Submerge a GoPro camera Inside a Floating Ball of Water On The ISS

photo credit: GoPro in water by Steve Swanson, Reid Wiseman, and Alexander Gerst. Screen capture from YouTube.

Curious about how water surface tension “behaves” in microgravity, astronauts onboard the International Space Station decided to stick a GoPro camera inside a floating ball of water. They filmed the results in 2D and in 3D:

The crew “submerged” a sealed GoPro camera into a floating ball of water the size of a softball and recorded the activity. The video was filmed in the Summer of 2014 by Steve Swanson, Reid Wiseman, and Alexander Gerst, who also appear in the video.

In space, liquids aren’t affected by gravity, and therefore they maintain a somewhat spherical shape. Instead, it’s surface tension which dictates how they behave. Surface tension is a contractive tendency of the surface of a liquid that allows it to resist an external force. Hydrogen bonding between water molecules naturally pulls them together, resulting in a spherical configuration that minimizes surface area. You can also see the results in 3D below, but you need 3D glasses to view the video properly:

Curiosity rover snaps a video of Martian moonrise

The otherwordly new video features one of the two Martian moons – Phobos, as it rises on the sky. Even though the movie only has 32 seconds, the action actually took place over the course of 27 minutes.

Mars has two moons: Phobos (which is just 22 km wide on average), and Deimos, which is even smaller. They are believed to be asteroids trapped a long time ago by the Martian gravitational field.

This video isn’t the first from Curiosity to represent Phobos – just five weeks after it landed on Mars, it sed its workhorse MastCam camera to photograph the moon as it crossed the face of the sun, covering a small fraction of the star.

The Curiosity rover landed inside a geological feature called Gale Crater last August, kicking off a planned two-year surface mission to find out if the Red Planet was ever able to support (microbial) life. So far, the mission was a great success, as the rover already showed that a site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.


Via WikiCommons

New type of CPR is more effective and easier to perform

The number of people that die from sudden cardiac arrest growing larger and larger every year. Just so you can make an idea, only in America, more people die from sudden cardiac arrest every three days than the people that died in 9/11. Thing is, many of those deaths could be avoided, if local bystanders wouldn’t be bystanders, and would instead perform CPR.

This new type of CPR is called Continuous Chest Compression, was developed by Gordon A. Ewy, MD, and Karl Kern, MD; it’s a hands only method, no mouth to mouth. You also don’t have to be certified to do it, and it’s really really easy to learn. It may very well be the thing that saves a life. Just watch this video:

The symphony of science

I was quite stunned to stumble across this video. As the name says, it’s a… well it’s not quite a symphony, but it’s definitely musical, and you can definitely learn a lot of things, or re-hear them in an unique way, if you already know them. Did I mention it’s featuring Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye?


This following video was published just a few hours ago and… it’s even better than the first one!