News Briefs Archive 2013

  

 

December

A Bit of Advice

Here’s a cautionary Christmas tale for anyone considering taking a punt on Bitcoin, the high-profile digital currency. During a festive feature dubbed the ‘12 Days of Bitcoin’ Bloomberg TV reporter Matt Miller surprised his fellow presenters with gifts of Bitcoin vouchers worth around 20 dollars. Sharp-eyed viewer ‘milkywaymaster’, watching the broadcast on his HDTV, spotted the QR Code on the voucher, which was held up to the camera in close-up for several seconds. This was long enough for him to scan it with his smartphone, and nab the 20 dollars worth of Bitcoin, which was instantly transferred into his digital wallet. Milkywaymaster later contacted Miller and promised to return the money but the presenter took it in good humour, suitably chased and lesson learned, told him to keep it.

3012

 

Wired For Colour

Sadly this item will only be of use to those living in New York or Chicago, and probably only for the next few days, but if that includes you, or someone you know, get down to your nearest newsstand fast and pick up the January 2014 edition of Wired magazine. You’ll find that one of the pages, an advert for the Moto X phone, is a little thicker than normal. That’s because it contains LEDs, a wafer thin battery and some membrane type buttons. As you press he buttons so the picture of the Moto changes colour, demonstrating this phones highly customisable personality. Okay, so it’s not exactly life-changing technology, but it might just catch on, making magazines a whole lot more interesting, as well a source of cheap batteries and colourful LED panels….

2312

 

Wireless Wrangle

It seems like only yesterday that we last reported on the format battle for wireless charging, between the Power Matters Alliance and the Wireless Power Consortium (in fact it was back in April), but things could never be that straightforward.  We can now add the Alliance 4 Wireless Power (A4WP) to the mix, with its system called Rezence. The name comes from magnetic resonance. This appears to be spin on existing wireless power systems and like them, is based on the principles of electromagnetic induction, that goes back to the 1830’s. It has an operating frequency of 6.78Mhz and that, coupled with some tricksy electronics, apparently overcomes the limitations and drawbacks of first generation systems. Rezence, it is claimed, can simultaneously charge multiple devices, each with different power requirements, it has better range, and can charge devices through solid objects, it is not bothered by the presence of metal objects in the charging zone (keys, coins etc) and it uses Bluetooth for communicating with the device and for possible future developments, like ‘Smart’ charging zones. It has certainly attracted a few big hitters in the smartphone and tablet biz, including the likes of Fairchild, Funai, HTC, Intel, LG, NEC, Omron, Qualcomm, Samsung, SanDisk, TDK and Texas Instruments, plus plenty of other not to well known names, so who knows, maybe this is the one to watch, but one thing is certain, there will be casualties…  

16/12/13

 

Microsoft Mind Reader?

If you were ever worried about how much Microsoft knows about you, here’s something to give you nightmares. It’s called Telpathwords, and it comes to you courtesy of Microsoft Research. Don’t worry, there’s no mental jiggery-pokery going on. Basically it’s a website that tries to guess your passwords, all you have to do is type in a letter, and it tells you what it thinks the next letters or word is going to be. It’s basically a dictionary type process that uses a database of common passwords and phrases and selection behaviour algorithm, which apparently understands how we decide on sequences of letters and words. If you are in the habit of using words because they are memorable you may find it disturbingly good at guessing your passwords, and if Microsoft can do it on the fly, through a simple web program, then so too can hackers and the vastly faster and more sophisticated programs that they use, so take heed!

 

By the way, you may not have missed the irony of revealing your carefully crafted passwords to this site. Of course MS insists that it is secure, but you may want to try it with an old or unused password, rather than any current ones, just in case someone is watching…

0912

 

Cold Fusion, Scam or Salvation?

Cold fusion hit the headlines a few years ago and everyone got rather excited, for a while at least. It was hardly surprising and the promise of near limitless energy, harnessing the power of the sun but using what were essentially cheap, low-tech reactors, that didn’t rely on monster atom-smashers and gigabuck budgets was a tempting prospect indeed. Sadly it turned out to be a dud, and everything went quiet once again. Research continued though, and there have been a number of tantalising announcements from an Italian team, led by Andrea Rossi, who had developed a working. He’s at it again and this time serious enough to be taking pre-orders for a 1MW cold fusion plant, called E-Cat, using the Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) process. Details are still rather sketchy, but if you have got the thick end of a million quite going spare you can have your own E-Cat generator, delivered in early 2014. It consists of 106 separate reactors that when connected together, and fed with power and specially treated hydrogen, get very hot, producing steam that can be used to spin turbines and generate electricity. Now here’s the catch. To get that megawatt of power, you have to pump in 200 kilowatts of electricity, and that exotic-sounding hydrogen fuel, but this net gain in power in versus power out means that electricity can, in theory be produced for one hundredth the cost of conventional fossil fuelled generators. The lack of patents and unqualified endorsements from the scientific community is a little worrying, but if it turns out to be real, then basically, all of our worries about the cost of producing energy, safety, pollution and global warning could be over, maybe, possibly… We shall see.

0212

 

Cold Fusion, Scam or Salvation?

Cold fusion hit the headlines a few years ago and everyone got rather excited, for a while at least. It was hardly surprising and the promise of near limitless energy, harnessing the power of the sun but using what were essentially cheap, low-tech reactors, that didn’t rely on monster atom-smashers and gigabuck budgets was a tempting prospect indeed. Sadly it turned out to be a dud, and everything went quiet once again. Research continued though, and there have been a number of tantalising announcements from an Italian team, led by Andrea Rossi, who had developed a working. He’s at it again and this time serious enough to be taking pre-orders for a 1MW cold fusion plant, called E-Cat, using the Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) process. Details are still rather sketchy, but if you have got the thick end of a million quite going spare you can have your own E-Cat generator, delivered in early 2014. It consists of 106 separate reactors that when connected together, and fed with power and specially treated hydrogen, get very hot, producing steam that can be used to spin turbines and generate electricity. Now here’s the catch. To get that megawatt of power, you have to pump in 200 kilowatts of electricity, and that exotic-sounding hydrogen fuel, but this net gain in power in versus power out means that electricity can, in theory be produced for one hundredth the cost of conventional fossil fuelled generators. The lack of patents and unqualified endorsements from the scientific community is a little worrying, but if it turns out to be real, then basically, all of our worries about the cost of producing energy, safety, pollution and global warning could be over, maybe, possibly… We shall see.

0212

 

November

Better Batteries Won’t Catch Fire

The lithium Ion battery packs that power most mobile devices, and some cars have reached something of a plateau, when it comes to packing in more power. It’s not that it can’t be done, but using current manufacturing techniques, increasing the so-called energy density beyond current norms tends to make them catch fire or explore. Not that it doesn’t happen anyway, so anything that can make these batteries safer, and more efficient has to be good news. It may just happen, and a company called Solid Energy claims to have developed a form of Li-On battery that it is said, can increase capacity by 30 to 40 percent. The key developments are to replace the conventional graphite electrode used in current generation batteries with one made from lithium metal, and an improved electrolyte that reduces the risk of fires and short circuits. Solid Energy, which is a spin off company formed by MIT, is still at the prototype stage and being understandably cagey about the finer details, but is working to scale up the technology and get batteries onto the market, initially for powering portable devices like cellphones and tablets.

2511

 

Superman Crystal Memory Accident

The Man Of Steel’s famous crystal-based memory sticks may not be that far off, following an accidental discovery by Washington State University student Marianne Tarun. Whilst experimenting with crystals of Strontium Nitrate she discovered that when they were exposed to light the material’s conductivity was increased by around 400 percent. It appears that that photons are able to dislodge electrons in the crystal structure, which dramatically lowers its electrical resistance. That is not that unusual and plenty of materials exhibit the so-called photoconductive properties, but what makes this one special is that the effect has persistence. It can take several days to wear off, in effect creating a form of memory. The other unexpected benefit is that this all happens at room temperature, and the exposure time is relatively short – currently around 10 minutes, but they’re working on that. The upshot of this discovery is that, in theory, it may be possible to construct a viable memory device utilising this phenomenon. Unlike solid-state memory, where information is stored in micro-thin layers, in crystal-based memory it’s theoretically possible to use holographic techniques to store data throughout the material’s entire volume, which could result in a huge increase in the amount of data a device can store. As always lots of ifs, buts and maybes but if the sci-fi movies teach us anything, a lot of what we see on the silver screen has a habit of coming true.

1811

 

Tattoos And The End Of Humanity!

Uh-oh, they’re at it again… If we haven’t already got enough to worry about, like super intelligent robots taking over the world, plans are afoot to impregnate humans with electronic implants, and it all sounds quite innocent. Mark my words; if Sci-Fi movies have taught us anything, it is that such developments can only end in disaster. This latest wheeze is down to Motorola, who have filed a patent for a neck tattoo that uses special ink to pick up vibrations from the wearer’s larynx, effectively turning it into a microphone. Okay, so it may not sound like a big deal, possibly even quite convenient, saving you the trouble of having to pick up your mobile phone and hold it close to your mouth (don’t we already have gizmos for that?)  but think of the implications. Don’t be fooled by the happy looking fellow in the patent application drawing (right) this is serious stuff, he is doomed and so are we. It’s tantamount to having a bug implanted in your body, and what’s next? First it will be something innocuous, possibly even useful, like tattooed earphones, then GPS location tags, followed by brain electrodes and finally chips that blow you to bits when you reach 30. It was all there in Logan’s Run, over 30 years ago; have we learned anything? It seems not…

1111 

 

Two-Way Stretch

Here’s a development to keep your eyes on, that one day could double the amount of data your cellphone and other wireless devices can handle, freeing up space on the radio spectrum and reducing interference. It’s called Full Duplex – a terms that may need some re-thinking as it is already in use – but it is undeniably one of the Holy Grails of wireless communications. In a nutshell, and in this context it means being able to simultaneously receive and transmit data on the same frequency. Until now this was considered if not impossible, technically too challenging to be practical. At the moment most wireless devices either transmit and receive on different frequencies (the existing definition of full duplex), or use the same frequency but switch between transmit and receive modes (half duplex). What we’ll now call True Full Duplex has been developed by researchers at Kumu in Santa Clara California, Networks, which is a startup, formed by a team of Stanford University Professors and PhD graduates. The nuts and bones of the technology remain a closely guarded secret but in essence, they have developed a way to cancel out the so-called Self Interference that occurs when a transmitter and receiver operates on the same frequency. No predictions or timelines, but if it works as well as Kumu suggest, it could take off quickly, and in a very big way

In case you were wondering the picture is of the Croydon (old Crystal Palace) Trasmsitter in Upper Norwood, taken shortly after its construction in 1962

0411

October

Track The Trackers

By now most of us are aware that our activities on the web are being monitored and tracked, but by whom? Until now it has required almost forensic skills to hunt down the source of all those cookies and tools that infest our browsers, let alone discover how they are being used. Now there’s a way to take a peek at what is happening behind the scenes, with a free Firefox add-on called Lightbeam. It operates in the background, analysing the websites we visit, logging the tracking cookies and how they all link up. The results can be presented as graph or chart, and you can see straight away, by clicking on the nodes, who is out there, watching and following you around. What you do with this information is open to debate, but even if you do nothing it is fascinating to see how much is going on, even after just a few minutes of browsing. You can chose to share your data with the developers, to help them refine the add-on and understand better how all this surveillance works and links together. It’s not going to stop the snoopers or end tracking and monitoring, but knowing and seeing that it is happening is a valuable exercise for anyone who isn’t yet concerned about their privacy and it provides a tantalising glimpse of just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

2810

 

Turbo Top-Ups

What does drying paint and boiling kettles have in common with mobile phones? Answer, it’s not much fun waiting for any of them to do their stuff, but maybe not for much longer. According to Engadget the next generation of Sony smartphones, due out in about a year will have a wireless charging feature that takes the battery from flat to full in around an hour. Fast charging isn’t exactly a new idea, nor is wireless charging, but until now the big problem has been overheating, and the not inconceivable threat of the battery bursting into flames as the charger dumps 15 or more watts of energy into the phone. The chips in the new charging system are designed to manage and take the heat. The system will be using the latest (2011) Medium-Power version of the industry standard QI (pronounced ‘chee’) charging system, established by the Wireless Power Consortium. The current Low-Power QI spec, adopted by most of the major phone makers, is rated to a maximum of 5-watts.

2110

 

TDK's Storage Heater

For those of us who remember when attaching a 20Mb hard drive to a computer for the first time was a huge deal, and investment, and the warm, cosy feeling that you would probably never fill it up in your lifetime, here’s something to make your eyes water. The good folks at TDK have figured out a rather counter intuitive way of squeezing yet more data onto a spinning disc, making the prospect of 40 terabyte drives a distinct possibility in the next few years. That’s roughly ten times the current capacity. The technology is based on the fact that it gets easier and quicker to magnetise certain materials, and squeeze more data into a given space, when they are heated. Having been indoctrinated into the belief that cooler is always better when it comes to electronic gizmos it goes against the grain but apparently not, in this case. TDK’s heat-assisted head system, which uses a specialised rear/record head called a near-field light generator, uses an ultra short wavelength and finely focused laser beam to heat up the area of the disc where the data is being written or erased. The first drives to employ the new technology could be in a PC near you within the next couple of years.

1410

 

Return Of The Hand Signal?

Making gestures in your car generally means you are attempting to convey irritation, or your views on fellow motorist’s level of intelligence but in the future you had better be careful. Waving your hands around could be really dangerous, in more ways than one, if Google have their way. Engadget reports that the company has applied for patents for a system that allows some aspects of a car to be controlled using hand gestures. They’ll be picked up by a camera and laser scanner mounted in the roof and used to operate various features. A downward swipe, for example, might open a window, and pointing at the radio could increase or decrease the volume or change stations. Theoretically there’s no reason why hand movements could also be used to control the steering, throttle and brakes, though whether or not the system can be sufficiently refined to be marketed in France or Italy, remains to be seen…

0710

September

iPhone 5S Finally Fingered

t took less than three days for the new iPhone 5’s fingerprint based security system to be cracked and various individuals and groups have been publicising their tricks and techniques on the web and YouTube, but to date they’re all fairly involved. One of the ‘simplest’, devised by a German group devoted to puncturing holes in allegedly safe security systems involves taking a high resolution photograph of the user’s greasy dabs, left on iPhone screen. The image is then reversed and printed out on a laser printer, using the extra heavy toner setting, which produces a raised image. This is used as a mould, by coating the image with liquid latex. After carefully peeling off the impression the next step is to lightly moisten it, by breathing on it, and this, apparently, is enough for the sensor to recognise it as a genuine fingerprint. Given the high cost of these things it is probably just about worth it. But it’s all a bit desperate, and it won’t get your phone back or change what usually happens to lost and stolen smartphones as they’re quickly sold on, wiped or hacked and given a new IMEI number to bypass blocking (though IMEI changing may not yet be possible on the 5S), stripped for parts or shipped abroad to countries where IMEI blocking isn’t implemented.

3009

 

Wooden It Be Mice

Mice come in all shapes and sizes but pretty well all of them are made of plastic. It’s cheap and durable and does the job but it doesn’t have to be that way, as this one from Shanghai Donya proves. It’s handcrafted from wood, bamboo to be precise, which the manufacturer’s reckon can help to reduce stress. It going to be available in a range of colours and finishes, including natural, red, orange and black. Apart from the wooden case it’s pretty much business as usual with an 880 dpi optical sensor, compatible with all versions of Windows (XP onwards) and Mac (OS10 onwards), and if you want one, it’s going to be selling wholesale for around £10, when it goes on sale in Japan. No news yet on UK availability or price but if you are desperate you can try your hand at ordering one online from the Donya website (and it helps if you can understand Japanese….).

2309

 

Happy Fiftieth Compact Cassette!

The Compact Cassette’s actual birth date is the subject of some debate. Philips, who invented it, has the best claim and says it was officially launched at its Eindhoven HQ on September 13th 1963. However, there are counter arguments for earlier dates, when the patents were filed or the first recording on the first working prototype. Or maybe later dates, like its first public outing at the Berlin radio show, a few days after the Eindhoven launch, But one thing isn’t in dispute and one way or another the audio cassette has reached its first half century and in some quarters at least, it is still going strong.

 

It was originally designed for use in dictating machines – in the years BC (Before Cassette) there were scores of rival tape recording systems for this application, from the familiar open reel-to-reel layout to some weird and wacky cassette designs. These included several side by side formats, wacky tandem reel setups (the reels are stacked on top of one another), and even a couple of single reel arrangements, where the tape is drawn from the centre of the reel and wound back onto the outside. Philips got it right first time, the Cassette format was robust, reliable and capable of half decent sound quality from day one and it became an almost instant hit. By the end of the sixties not only had it seen off virtually all of its rival dictating machine formats, it marked the beginning of a slow decline of the traditional reel-to-reel tape recorder. The cassette went on to revolutionise the music industry, and the way we listen to, interact with and enjoy music; we’ll forgive it the hissy sound, unreliable cassettes and cassette players, and the hours spent making rubbish mix tapes and just say a heartfelt thank you, to Philips, a very happy birthday to Compact Cassette, and don’t forget to mark September 13th on your 2063 calendar.

1609

 

Robot Takeover Alert No 38

Just don’t say we didn’t warn you about the robot subjugation of humanity – if we are lucky. It’s looking increasingly likely they’ll just squash us like flies, if this new evidence from the National University of Singapore is anything to go by. Until now robots have largely relied on clumsy and power hungry motors, pulleys and pneumatic rams for movement and other actions but now we learn that researchers at NUS have developed a new polymer material that can be turned into artificial muscles. The bad news for human weaklings is that this stuff, which can stretch and contract up to five times it’s own length, could enable future robots to lift up to 80- times their own weight, giving them superhuman strength. The new material also requires very little power, so running away in the hope that their batteries will expire probably won’t do you any good.

0913

 

3D Printing Is Rocket Science

While we’re waiting for someone to come up with a genuinely useful application for home 3D printers, other than fashioning cooker knobs and cute key rings, the white coats at NASA have been using one to make parts for rocket engines. It’s nothing like the 3D printers you’ll find in Maplin, at least not yet, and it makes things – in this case a fuel injector – using a laser to melt nickel-chromium powder, to build up the object in layers. The engine in which the part was used went on to be successfully test-fired and it generated a reported 20,000 pounds of thrust. Okay, so the chances of anyone other than organisations like NASA needing to be able to print rocket parts are relatively small, but we like the idea of being able to make things out of metal. Just last week we needed a new sprocket for the bike and the garden gate is starting to look a bit rusty, so come on Maplin, get your finger out.

0209

August

Mind Reading Closer Than You Think?

Researchers at the Radbound University Nijmengen in the Netherlands have taken what promises to be the first steps in reading people’s minds. They’ve harnessed the power of MRI scanners to peer into subject’s brains and by analysing the data they can now tell what the subject is looking at. Don’t worry just yet. At this very early stage of development they can only reconstruct crude images of simple shapes – letters of the alphabet – and the results are still pretty fuzzy, but it’s a start. Plans are afoot to use more powerful scanners with higher resolutions, so it is surely only a matter of time before they’ll be able to probe your deepest darkest thoughts, probably without you even knowing it. Be on your guard, it’s going to happen, keep those tin-foil hats handy!

2608

 

Bounce Your Batteries

Here’s one from the incredible but true department, courtesy of Gizmodo. Here’s the plot, the batteries in your TV remote have just run out, you have few AA batteries kicking around in the back of the drawer but no means of testing them so what do you do? Well, you could try swapping them around until you find a couple that work, or you could just drop them from a height of around 5cm onto a hard surface. The good ones will hit with a firm slap and may even remain standing, the duds will bounce and fall over. In our fairly un-scientific test of random AA cells around the office it actually seems to work, most of the time. Almost all of the dead or dying cells – checked on a test meter – really did bounce and more often than not the good cells didn’t. So what’s happening? The theory is there’s a build up of gas inside expired alkaline cells, which, in technical terms, makes them bouncy. Try it for yourself, or see the KipKay video on YouTube.

1908

 

Lost Android Finder

Google has finally got around to incorporating a lost phone device manager into the Android operating system. Of course apps that remotely locate and even wipe your phone have been around, almost since day one, but this one will be integrated into the Android 2.2 and above during routine updates later this month. The main feature are remote ring at maximum volume, so if you mislay it or it falls down the back of the sofa all you have to do is log on to your Google account and use your ears to locate your wayward device. If it’s out of earshot, or you left it down the pub no problem. It will also show up on a map on your PC, in real time. Last but not least, if it was pinched and looks like its gone for good then you can remotely erase all of the data on the phone.

1208

 

Hacking On The Road

Revelations that governments and security services can record everything that you do online, and dip into your emails and phone calls any time they like didn’t come as much of a surprise. Even the news that ‘they’ can turn on the cameras and microphones on our tables and eavesdrop didn’t raise many eyebrows, after all we’ve nothing to hide, and it’s the bad guys we really need to worry about ... You may even be feeling fairly safe from hackers, with the latest and most effective anti virus and spyware software installed on all of your devices, but what about your car?

 

That’s right, these days cars are chock full of computers, just waiting to be hacked, and now it has happened. ‘White Hat’ (i.e. good guys) hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasak are announcing at the annual Defcon hacker conference in Las Vegas, that they can take control of the computers in some Ford and Toyota models. By attaching laptops to the car’s bus system they can force a car to brake suddenly at 80mph, jerk the steering wheel, disable the brakes at slow speeds and accelerate the engine. It’s probably not something we need to worry too much about at the moment, this trick requires a great deal of access to the car’s wiring, so it’s not something the average Herbert could do whilst you are not looking. They won’t be making the finer details public either, not until they’ve informed the car makers and given them the opportunity top patch the loopholes, but with cars becoming increasingly connected to the web, and more reliant on computers, its probably only a matter of time before it becomes a real threat.

0508

July

3D Printing Gets Incestuous…

Once you get past the headline grabbing uses for 3D printers – making copies of themselves, guns, pizzas for astronauts, cutesy animal keyrings and washing machine knobs – it’s difficult to see what use they are in the real world, but maybe not for much longer. UK based printing supply company InkFactory has come up with a way for 3D printer to rattle out inkjet cartridges. Thus far it’s only been used to make Kodak carts (the photo shows originals and copies side by side) mainly because they’re a relatively simple design, but other makes will surely follow. We can foresee a few problems though. The one’s that have built-in microchips and sensors are going to take a bit of work, and you are still going to need a supply of the messy inky stuff to fill them with, but now, at least we can see a future for these clever bits of kit. No doubt the printer manufacturers will keeping an eye on this one, and if it pans out, work out ways to make it harder, or cash in…

2907

 

VLC Back on iOS

Good news for iOS users, Videolan’s VLC, one of the best free media player around is now available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. In fact this is VLC’s second outing for iOS, the first, a couple of years ago, lasted only a few months before being withdrawn due to licensing problems. The new player app features most of the functionality and extensive format compatibility of the Windows, Mac, Linux and Android versions and adds a number of Apple related extras, including AirPlay, background audio and network streaming. There’s the familiar array of controls and options, such as playback speed adjustment, a full set of picture controls, and subtitle support. Other players are available but if the iOS version of VLC lives up to expectations it will become the go-to app for playing just about any type of media. Available now, for free, from the app store.

2207

 

Do You Want Rice With That Battery?

News reaches us from the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, via Gizmodo, that another use has been found for rice husks. Normally they go into animal feed and other low value agricultural processes but this concerns a way to use them in the manufacture of lithium ion batteries. That’s right, they’re the ones used to power most laptops, smartphones, tablet PCs, media players and so on. It turns out that rice husks are made up of nanoporous silica layers, which protect the kernels from attack by insects and bacteria, but allow the passage of air and moisture. This handy property is put to good use in a new process that converts the silica into silicon, which is then used to make the anodes in high capacity Lithium Ion batteries. Apparently they can perform as well, if not better than conventional materials. No word yet on whether brown rice is better for your battery, there’s more power from Patna or extra amps from Ambaroo varieties, but rest assured, if rice ever becomes the dish of the day for battery manufacturers, we’ll let you know.

1507

 

Scary Scuttlebot

At last, a real use for those 3D printers we have been hearing about. It’s a robotic spider and you can see how scarily lifelike it is on the videos on the videos on the Robugtix website. Now, before we get too carried away with the 3D printer thing, it’s only used to create the parts for the shell and chassis, all of the clever stuff is done by no less than 26 servo motors and a microcontroller board. And before you worry about being overrun by millions of malevolent motorised arachnids, each one costs the thick end of £1000, and that doesn’t include controller modules, or the 3D printer.

0807

June

 

Flight Ban To Be lifted?

The irksome announcement about turning off all electronic devices prior to landing and takeoff may soon be lifted by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for some classes of equipment, according to a report on Endgadget. Gizmos likely to be included are said to be e-readers and personal stereos, though the ban on mobile phones is likely to stay in place for the foreseeable. One of the reasons given for the change of heart is the lack of evidence of these devices causing problems as many are inadvertently, or deliberately left switched on during takeoff and landing. The restrictions, which currently prevent devices being used until the aircraft has reached an altitude of at least 10,000 feet, and during landing will be relaxed for all phases of the flight, though presumably cabin crew will still insist earphones are removed and attention paid during the safety briefing, The likely date for the announcement is said to be late September, when and if this will be applied to UK and European carriers remains to be seen.

2406

 

Image Sensors Go Organic

Fulifilm and Panasonic have got together to develop a new generation of image sensors based on organic compounds, and advanced processing circuitry to take advantage of the new sensors. Stay with us, it may not sound terribly exciting but here’s the thing, the new technology should lead directly to brighter pictures with more vivid colours and enhanced contrast on our smartphones and digicams, and it’s particularly good, so they say, in brightly lit scenes or on darker subjects. The key to the new technology, which was announced at a recent semiconductor seminar in Kyoto, Japan, is in the photoelectric conversion properties of the organic materials. To put some numbers on it, the new organic CMOS sensors have a dynamic range of 88db, which is around 1.2 times more sensitive then regular sensors, which use inorganic silicon photodiodes. They also have a wider incident angle, so they capture more light, and can be made smaller. To sum up, okay, it’s not exactly earth shattering, but the facility to take better pictures in a wider range of conditions, especially low light, is something we can all appreciate. However, don’t put off buying that new camera or smartphone, it may take a while before they reach the high street, but when they do, at least you’ll be able to say you knew it was coming…

1706

 

iOS Charger Danger?

Possible scary times ahead for Apple iPhone and iPad users as news reaches us of a device called Mactans. It looks like a regular plug-in charger but concealed inside is a circuit that takes advantage of a security loophole in iOS device’s USB capabilities. The charger is able to insert software into a device within a minute of it being plugged in, and it works on both stock and jailbroken phones and tablets, and with no action, other than plugging it in, on the part of the user. The first public demo will be at Black Hat 2013, held in late July in Las Vegas. This is the now mostly-respectable annual conference and gathering of hackers and codeheads, who make it their business to poke and probe into security systems until they crack. And they are very good at it, having highlighted in the past numerous flaws and loopholes in once supposedly bulletproof systems. By bringing these things to everyone’s attention the company’s concerned will take action before it becomes a problem, hopefully… Just be careful where you shop if you are in the market for a new charger for your iPhone or iPad this Summer.

1006

 

Timed To Perfection

Since the 1950s atomic clocks have been capable of incredible accuracy, and they’ve been steadily improving, to the point where you have t ask, do we really need to be able to tell the time to within a few billionth’s of a second? Apparently we do, and according to Gizmodo scientists at The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder Colorado, have come up with yet another world’s most accurate clock. This one uses the now well-established technique of measuring the frequency of the vibrations of atoms, which. However, inaccuracies – the odd billionth of a second – can occur due movement caused by the influences of gravity and electrical fields and so on. TO get around that problem this clock works by bouncing laser light from mirrors to create a lattice like structure that captures atoms of Ytterbium. The trapped atoms, now securely held in place by the light lattice, can be shot at with lasers and the vibrations of the reflected light processed to calculate time that is equivalent to an accuracy of plus or minus one second in 31 billion years, (which as we all know can be expressed as: $\bm{1.6\times 10^{-18}}$ after only $\bm{7}$ hours of averaging), so they say…

0306

 

 

May

New Windows Old Habits

Whilst the Windows 8 operating system has been generally well received research carried out by Soluto appears to suggest that many users, not equipped with tablet PCs, prefer the old familiar desktop to the flashy Metro interface. This ties in with recent reports that Microsoft is responding to user feedback and will be making it easier to use the traditional desktop; they may even be reinstating the Start button in new releases and a forthcoming update. Seasoned users will already know that there are several freeware utilities, like StartMenu 8, which we looked at last year -- that can make a W8 PC look and work like a W7 or XP machine. More evidence, if it were needed, that Microsoft has heard our pain, is the announcement of two new mice, designed specifically for Windows 8 and the big selling point is, you guessed it, a Start button function. Sculpt Control wireless mouses have a blue button and swipe strip (incidentally, Blue is now officially the code name for W8) that can be used to call up the Start screen and toggle through apps. No UK price yet but they’re about to go on sale in the US for just under $30.

2705 

 

Running Out Of Time…

How fast can you run? It had better be faster than 22km/hr, because that’s how fast the MIT Biometrics Cheetah robot can run. In fact it’s not a record and even faster animal robots have been developed but to date they’ve all been unwieldy contraptions, unable to operate independently or support the weight of the batteries that would allow them to roam freely and chase humans. What makes this one really scary – and whatever you do don’t watch this video if you are of a nervous disposition -- is that the use of highly efficient electric motors to move the legs, rather than pneumatics, has resulted in a lighter and more agile beast that can carry its own batteries. If science fiction movies teach us anything it is only a matter of time before packs of these malevolent mechanical monsters will be prowling the streets…

2005 

 

Flying Car by 2020?

Well, it may happen one day; probably at around the same time that I get my long awaited personal jetpack and take holidays on Mars… This latest prediction comes from a Massachusetts outfit called Terrafugia, which, to be fair, has already come up with a flying car design, called Transition, though this was a proper small plane, with folding wings, that could, at a pinch, be driven on the road. The new concept craft, is called the TF-X, which currently only exists as drawings and an animation. It seeks to address the many problems of flitting around the sky without a pilot’s licence by automating take off, flying, navigation and landing. The passenger does have a final veto on landing though, and can override the autopilot if they think it is unsafe. The design is quite cunning with two swivelling electrically powered rotors for near vertical take-off and landing. In flight they fold away and a petrol (avgas) engine drives a ‘pusher’ fan at the rear that propels it through the air at up to 200mph and at the same time recharges the batteries. The range should be around of 500 miles. On the ground the stubby wings fold down and it can be driven like a car. Terrafugia reckons that anyone with an ordinary driving licence can handle it after 5 hours training. The price is said to be around the same as a top-end luxury car. There really are too many issues to mention but here’s a couple to be getting on with starting with the minor problem that batteries with the capacity to provide this aircraft with lift haven’t yet been invented. But the biggest and most obvious one is letting Joe public go aloft without proper training and at least a grounding in aerodynamics, metrology, and the perils of gravity and let’s not even get into the regulatory arguments. Pigs will probably fly before this one gets off the ground…

1305

 

iPhone Obsolete Already

It seems like only yesterday when Apple wowed the world with the revolutionary iPhone. Actually it was in 2007, which wasn’t that long ago, but such is the pace of development, and Apple’s eagerness to get you to upgrade every few weeks that the original iPhone is about to become officially obsolete. It will happen on June 13th to be exact, according to leaked documents seen by 9to5mac.com. Don’t worry, in the unlikely event that you’ve been deviant and are still using a Mk1, it’s not going to suddenly stop working on that date, but if and when it does curl up its toes, you won’t be able to get it fixed in Apple Stores, unless you happen to live in California. They have a local statute that says manufacturers are obliged to continue to service and repair ‘vintage’ products purchased in the state.

0605

 

April

That Old Trick...

How old are you? Good question, and if you are not sure, here’s a way to find out, or rather, let researchers at Harvard University’s Lab In The Wild project have a stab at guessing your age from the way you use your computer (sorry, PCs and laptops only, no tablets or phones). The test involves clicking on 50 or so ‘targets’ that flash up on your screen. The speed at which you react and the motion of your pointing device are all measured and along with a few simple questions at the end, it attempts to work out how old you are. For the record it failed miserably with me (thank you Harvard, I just wish I really was 30 years younger that I really am…) but have a go anyway, and see what it makes of your motions…

2904

 

Power Trip

It took the mobile phone industry more than ten years to agree on a common charger connection format – micro USB -- and even then Apple declined to join in, but you would have thought that they would all get together to decide on a common system for wireless charging. No, of course they haven’t, so now the stage is set for a mini format war with HTC, LG and Samsung backing PMA (Power Matters Alliance), which is still drawing up the specs for a system tat will, hopefully, go beyond wirelessly charging mobile phones to powering a wide range of gadgets and devices, both in the home and out and about, and on the other side we have the Wireless Power Consortium, with a system called QI which, is now being used by Nokia, Muvit, iLuv and, confusingly LG for a range of phones and tablets. On the face of it the PMA system looks like it should have the best prospects for the future, but QI is out there now, so it’s anyone’s guess and expect plenty of fun and games along the way..

2204

 

Drive for Faster Blood Tests

We’re big fans of reycycling and repurposing technology so this item, from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, caught our eye. Last year researchers at the institute, in partnership with Plarion, announced that they were testing a way of using modified DVD discs and drive mechanisms as the basis of a molecular and cellular analysis instrument, using a technique known as a centrifugal microfluidics. The project has borne fruit and the teams behind the development have refined the concept and now have working prototypes of a DVD drive based laser-scanning microscope, capable of cellular imaging and analysing blood samples. Successful trials have been carried out, counting CD4+ cells in blood samples; this is one of the key tests for HIV and the new system is able to complete the check in just a few minutes. Currently this kind of analysis requires bulky equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds. The new system, dubbed Lab-On-DVD could be cheaply mass-produced, it’s also portable, and easier to use, which would be an enormous benefit to health care providers in developing countries.

1504

 

A Lidl Light Relief

Here are three words you probably never expected to see strung together: Lidl, LEDs and toilet seats. That’s right, your favourite purveyor of cut-price comestibles has snagged a consignment of futuristic high-tech toilet seats, fitted with no less than 10 light emitting diodes that switch on and off when the lid is opened and closed. Key features of this £16.99 wonder gadget include polyresin construction, sticky pads for the battery box, and according to the specs it is manufactured to IP4 standard. In case you are not familiar with Ingress Protection (IP) ratings, IP4 means that it is basically splashproof and ‘protected against water spray from all directions with only limited ingress permitted’. Just as well, we say, and you’ll also be pleased to know that batteries are included; it comes with a 2-year warranty and is available in three eye-catching designs.

0804

 

Bio Transistor Alert

Humankind takes one step close to oblivion with an announcement from Stanford University that tells of the world’s first genuinely biological transistor. Transistors, as you know, are one of the basic electronic building blocks, and there are millions, if not billions of them inside computer microchips. Each transistor operates as a switch and there have been lots of attempts to replicate this switching action with biological material and cells, but this development, dubbed a Transcriptor, is entirely new. It’s based on the building blocks of life, namely DNA molecules and the breakthrough has been the ability to engineer a living cell to control the flow of RNA within the cell, in much the same way as a transistor switches or controls the flow of an electrical current. We all know where this is headed. One day it’s being touted as a possible future treatment for cancer, the next thing we know the super intelligent robots are force-feeding Cornflakes laced with Transcriptors and our computerised overlords’ll finally enslave us. Just don’t say you weren’t warned!

0104

 

March

3D Printers Go Ballistic

We’ve been hearing a lot about 3D printers recently and although the technology has been around for a couple of decades, it’s looking increasingly likely that one day soon they could become affordable consumer products. The list of uses around the home is virtually endless. For example if a plastic part in your washing machine fails, say, then rather than having to go out and buy a new one, you’ll just download the appropriate file and print out the replacement. Already they can be used make all sorts of useful things, from children’s toys to garden gnomes and ornaments. It all sounds wonderful, except that now we’re starting to hear more about what may become the technology’s darker side. Several groups in the US have reportedly developed designs for 3D printable guns, from simple one-use firearms to semi automatic assault weapons, and plans are afoot to establish a wiki type database and archive of downloads. Proponents cite the fact that homemade guns are nothing new but this is clearly a rather different kettle of fish, and staying with the animal theme, opens up a very large can of worms. There’s talk of legislation, anti-gun printing software built into commercial printers, and a whole lot of questions surrounding the issues of licensing and safety. This is one to keep an eye on and if it comes to pass then it is surely only a matter of time before the first death or injury attributed to a printed gun hits the headlines.

2503

 

Ears to Graphene

This Graphene stuff is starting to live up to the early claims of it being a wonder material. Now we have news, via Gizmodo, from the University of California in Berkley, of Graphene being used to make the diaphragm in a pair of in-ear phones. It turns out that the super thin, strong and flexible carbon based structure has some remarkable acoustic qualities, with a frequency response that is comparable with the best currently available in-ear phones. Don’t forget this is the first experimental outing, so who knows how good it can get with further refinement and tweaking. For the record the 7mm diameter diaphragm is just 30 nanometers thick, and to make it vibrate, it’s sandwiched between two electrodes, made from silicon dioxide. The real benefit of using Graphene is its strength and similarly thin diaphragms made from other materials simply tear themselves apart as soon as they start to vibrate. The downside? Well, there had to be one, and at this stage it’s going to be the price, so it is probably best not to ask, but if it’s as good as they say, we hopefully won’t have too long to wait and hear how great it is for ourselves.

1803

 

Terrabit Teaser

How much of your life has been wasted watching progress bars creep across the screen as your latest download competes with everyone else in your street for a slice of the local broadband pie? One day we’ll laugh at pitifully slow 100Mb/s download speeds, in much the same way as we now look back with amusement at dialup Internet, and it could all be thanks to Graphene. Scientists at Georgia Tech University have figured out a way to turn this incredibly thin carbon-based miracle material into wireless antennas. And because it is so thin it can handle super-high frequencies, in the terrahertz region, which in theory means the capability to move data from one place to another at speeds of more than one terrabits per second. That equates to around one hundred movies in less than five minutes. The antennas are constructed from micrometer long Graphene strips, between 10 and 100 nanometers wide. As usual our advice is not to get too excited or hold your breath for new superfast services from the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm any time soon. There are several fairly significant hurdles to be over come first, not least the need to invent the electronics that will be required either side of the antennas, capable of handing those sorts of data speeds…

1103

 

Follow Your Feet

Imagine the situation, you want to head North, but uh-oh, you’ve left your compass at home. It’s a cloudy day/night, there are no trees around to see which side the moss is growing on, and no one to ask, so what do you do? Luckily you remembered to strap on your North Paw Directional Anklet. Now all you have to do is walk, and the anklet will tell you, through subtle vibrations, when you are heading North. To get to that fortunate position you would have had to have jumped through a number of hoops, not least being able to solder and assemble the Anklet, as it’s only available in kit form. It costs the thick end of £106, but you do get a compass module, 8 pager vibrating motors, and all of the electronic gubbins needed to make it work. OK, so maybe it’s not for everyone, but before you dismiss it, there one more thing to consider. Some users have discovered that a few days after stopping using the kit they find that they have somehow instinctively developed a sense of direction. Spooky…

0403

February

Flashy New Camera Chip

The imaging chips in cameras and smartphones could be about to get a lot cleverer, thanks to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). What happens at the moment is that once a picture has been taken by the image sensor the data is then processed by software on other chips inside the camera or phone, and all this takes time and compromises have to be made. The MIT development is basically a single chip that captures the image and carries out all of the post processing in one go, in just a few hundred milliseconds, compared with several seconds on a smartphone. This can be the sort of fancy high-end tricks taking multiple images at different exposure settings – so called High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) – which when combined produces pictures with a wider contrast range and greater depth. Another possibility is better low light snapping, with pictures taken in quick succession, with and without flash, and then mixed together to produce a better exposed, more natural looking photo. The new chips also use less power, so it’s a good news all around; all we have to do now is wait for them to become a reality…     

2502

 

Crash Avoidance?

News reaches us, via New Scientist, of a computer developed by researchers at University College London. So what, we hear you ask, well, this one is different, and the headline feature is that it never crashes. This rather nifty, and we have to say, highly implausible sounding trick, is accomplished by running multiple interconnected systems side by side, combining both data and instruction, and using random number technology to decide which core or system executes the program. If one system fails then another takes over, whilst the broken one automatically repairs itself. All clever stuff, but until humans can be completely removed from the equation, computers will always crash – all it takes is one carelessly placed cable or cup of coffee, and to paraphrase Engineer Scott of the Enterprise, who once memorably said of complex technology, ‘The more they over think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain’... 

1802

 

Flashy New Camera Chip

The imaging chips in cameras and smartphones could be about to get a lot cleverer, thanks to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). What happens at the moment is that once a picture has been taken by the image sensor the data is then processed by software on other chips inside the camera or phone, and all this takes time and compromises have to be made. The MIT development is basically a single chip that captures the image and carries out all of the post processing in one go, in just a few hundred milliseconds, compared with several seconds on a smartphone. This can be the sort of fancy high-end tricks taking multiple images at different exposure settings – so called High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) – which when combined produces pictures with a wider contrast range and greater depth. Another possibility is better low light snapping, with pictures taken in quick succession, with and without flash, and then mixed together to produce a better exposed, more natural looking photo. The new chips also use less power, so it’s a good news all around; all we have to do now is wait for them to become a reality…     

2502

 

Farewell MiniDisc

Sony’s MiniDisc format has been on the critical list for the past decade but now it’s official. The last MD machines will be shipped in March this year. The format lasted a little over 20 years, some way short of the average 25 – 30 year lifecycle for audio and video recording formats, and quite surprising considering that it never really took off. The system was technically brilliant, with compressed data stored on the titchy discs using an ingenious magneto-optical technology. Recording quality was excellent, and it saw off Philips DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) -- the only other rival to the tape cassette --  which, by 1992 was already well past its sell by date. MD was initially well received, helped by some excellent little machines, but it was very expensive and the excitement died down as solid-state media and the open MP3 format gained ground. By the late 90’s it was limping along, supported mainly by professional users and broadcasters. So it’s goodbye MiniDisc, a noteworthy but ultimately doomed landmark in the history of digital audio, and fun while it lasted…

0402

January

Cheaper Solar? Again…

One day it may happen but for the moment this item from the University of Michigan is best filed in the possibly, maybe category. It’s a new way of producing the ultra pure crystalline silicon used in the manufacture of microchips and solar cells. Currently it’s an expensive and highly energy intensive process, requiring the cooking of constituent materials at more than 1000 degrees centigrade, and that’s hot! The new process runs at just over 80 degrees C, which is below what you use to cook the Sunday roast. If it can be scaled up it should represents a major cost saving in the production of silicon-based devices. The technique uses a liquid gallium metal electrode layered with silicon tetrachloride. Electrons from the metal convert the silicon tetrachloride into raw silicon, which dissolves into the liquid metal. At this stage the silicon crystals are tiny, just 1/2000th of a mm across, so they’re not much use for anything, but hey, they have to start somewhere and if larger crystals can be produced it could be cheaper to cover your roof in solar panels than tiles, well, maybe… As usual if anything comes of it we’ll keep you posted. 

2801 

 

No Charge

The next time you buy a new mobile phone don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t come with a wall charger. Moves are afoot to stop supplying every new gadget with a charger using the now virtually standard Micro USB connector, for the simple reason that research from O2 suggests that 70 percent of us already have at least one, and quite possibly several of them already. It has begun already in the US with some HTC smartphones going chargerless. O2 reckons that around 24 million of the things are dished out each year in the UK alone, amounting to more than 18,700 tons of unused wall warts, enough to fill four Olympic sized swimming pools (you will have to do the equivalent to XX London busses or Jumbo Jet calculation yourself). Anyway, the upshot of all this is that O2 says it will stop supplying chargers by 2015, and other makers and suppliers are likely to be doing the same, freeing up all that plastic and copper wire for something more useful.

2101

 

Clean Sweep in Vegas

This year’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas appears to be even duller than usual, judging by all of the reports, trying desperately to make new yet another tablet PC or giant telly sound interesting. The CES hype always was more exciting than the reality, though back in the 80s and 90s there were some really major announcements and unveilings at both the Vegas and the Summer CES in Chicago. But even in the boring years there were always a few interesting tidbits in and around the margins, most of which never saw the light of day, and this new transparent washing machine from Haier is probably no exception. There’s actually not a lot to say about it, apart form the fact that not only do you get to see your washing going around, you can also watch all of the bits and bobs that make it work, illuminated by neon lights and LEDs. Presumably it also makes service engineers lives easier, allowing them to spot faults without having to take the thing apart. Sadly it’s one of those concept designs which is shorthand for probably never going into production but if it does, and my old machine is on its last legs, they can count on at least one sale – it has to be more interesting than watching the same on nonsense even on a monster TV…

1401

 

Beam Me Up Panny

‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’, so the old saying goes. Well, maybe it’s about time that was updated, and could it be that what the world has really been waiting for is a better torch? If so then the Panasonic BF-BM10 ‘Any Battery’ has to be a strong contender. It’s a LED torch, designed to take single or multiple cells of the most common types (AA & AAA), and some cunning electronic circuitry means that it’s very light on the power drain, providing illumination for up to 86 hours with a full load of Panny’s high-end Evolta alkaline cells onboard, though it’s probably going to be closer to 30 to 60 hours for most regular types. Even so, that’s still pretty good going. It goes on sale in Japan, in red or white, in the next couple of weeks, no word yet about the UK but the price in Japan works out at around £18.00 or so, so it’s not going to break the bank and well worth having if you’re living at the flickery end of the power grid.

0701

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