A monthly digest of technologies, developments and trends that will shape our lives. (If you would prefer not to receive these digests, flip back 'NO THANKS' and you will be removed from the list).

Virtual Grocery Shopping On The Subway

In a trial run, Tesco Home Plus has plastered a subway station in Seoul, Korea with facsimiles of groceries, labeled with a unique code for each product. As commuters pass by on their way to work, they can use a mobile-phone app to take pictures of the products they want, then check out. The groceries are automatically delivered to their doorstep by the end of the work day.

In Home Plus's virtual store, each image of a grocery item is accompanied by a quick-response (QR) code, a boxy geometric image that encodes data—the product and its price. When each code is scanned, the item goes into an online shopping cart. Customers then use their phones to pay before hopping the train to work.

The virtual grocery store has been a hit among more than 10,000 customers, with Home Plus reporting a 130 percent increase in online sales.

Wireless Power Could Cut Cord For Patients With Implanted Heart Pumps

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have tested a wireless power system for ventricular assist devices (mechanical pumps to give failing hearts a boost), also known as 'VADs'.

VADs were originally developed as temporary measures for patients awaiting a heart transplant. But as the technology has improved, these ventricular assist devices commonly operate inside patients for years.

The researchers devised an inductive system that adjusts the frequency and other parameters as the distance or orientation between the transmitter and receiver coils changes, allowing for flexible yet efficient wireless power over medium distances.

Using this wireless system means no power cable poking through the skin, dramatically reducing the risk of infection and improving the patient’s quality of life, the researcher said. They envision a vest that could hold an external transmitter coil connected to a power cord or battery.

Smoke Alarm Sends You A Text In The Event Of A Fire

A new smoke alarm called 'FireText' will let you know if your house is going up in smoke wherever you may be by sending a text message to up to four mobile phone numbers as soon as it detects smoke.

According to ELS Limited, the makes of the FireText Smoke Alarm, 15 percent of house fires occur in vacant properties. The battery-powered FireText features a SIM card slot so it can send a user-defined text message to up to four recipients when it detects smoke with its photoelectric smoke detector. The unit will also function as a traditional smoke alarm, belting out an 85db alarm in the event of a fire..

Bionic Glasses For Poor Vision

Bionic glasses using video cameras, position detectors, facial recognition and tracking software, and depth sensors have been developed by Oxford University researchers.

“We want to be able to enhance vision in those who’ve lost it or who have little left or almost none,” explains Dr Stephen Hicks of the Department of Clinical Neurology at Oxford University. “The glasses should allow people to be more independent — finding their own directions and signposts, and spotting warning signals.”

The glasses would be appropriate for common types of visual impairment, such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. (NHS Choices estimates around 30% of people who are over 75 have early signs of age-related macular degeneration, and about 7% have more advanced forms.)

Plastic2Oil Process Turns Plastic Waste Into Fuel

Canadian company JBI has developed a process that uses plastics that are normally unrecycleable as a feedstock, and turns them into fuel.

JBI's Plastic2Oil process starts with a variety of unwashed post-commercial and industrial non-recyclable plastics, which are fed through a shredder and a granulator - the system can handle up to 1,800 pounds (816.5 kg) at a time. It is then heated in a process chamber, after which it proceeds into the main reactor. There, a proprietary reusable catalyst is used to crack the plastic's hydrocarbons into shorter hydrocarbon chains, which exit the plastic in a gaseous state. Those gases are captured, compressed and stored.

Gases containing gasoline and diesel can be condensed and separated, the resulting liquid fuel then temporarily stored in tanks. Methane, ethane, butane and propane 'off-gas' out of those tanks, and are subsequently compressed and stored themselves. The butane and propane liquefy upon compression, allowing them to be separated, stored and sold, while the others are used to help power the system. Emissions that make it into the atmosphere are said to be less than those that would be produced by a natural gas furnace.







LED Wallpapers Could Brighten Your Room

Dutch electrics giant Philips has announced plans to develop wallpapers containing integrated LEDs. The luminous sound-absorbing textiles would glow in variety of colours accordingly to the user's requirements. To develop the luminous wallpaper panels, Philips is collaborating with customisable acoustic panels manufacturer Kvadrat Soft Cells, based in Denmark. Soft Cells acoustic panels are flexible and can be tailored to fit a wide variety of interiors.The Philips' LED illuminated texture wallpapers could provide designers with a variety of options to create unusual interiors, suiting the purpose (and atmosphere) of a particular space. For example, the panels' function to change colours could be integrated into an audio system and respond accordingly to the music. The Soft Cells panels could also dampen noises and soften echoes.

Nanotube Cables Could Boost Grid Efficiency

Power grids lose about 5% of the electricity they carry every 100 miles of distance, so new cables which are made of nanotubes and which lose almost none of the power they carry seem very attractive.

A weave of metallic nanotubes known as armchair quantum wire (AQW) is seen as an ideal solution as it can carry electricity over long distances with negligible loss, but manufacturing the massive amounts of metallic single walled carbon nanotubes required for the development of this 'miracle cable' has proven difficult.

Now researchers at Rice University have made a pivotal breakthrough that could make the development of such a cable possible.The Rice team has found a way to take small batches of individual nanotubes and make them dramatically longer. They say that ideally, long 'armchair' nanotubes could be cut, re-seeded with catalyst and re-grown indefinitely, potentially making the development of a cable that will make an efficient electric grid of the future possible.

However, switching power grids to operate on DC current rather than AC current would also reduce losses significantly.

New Ways Of Storing Solar Energy

MIT researchers have developed a new application of carbon nanotubes that shows promise as an innovative approach to storing solar energy for use whenever it’s needed.

Storing the sun’s heat in chemical form — rather than first converting it to electricity or storing the heat itself in a heavily insulated container — has significant advantages: in principle, the chemical material can be stored for long periods of time without losing any of its stored energy.The researchers created carbon nanotubes in combination with a compound called azobenzene. The resulting molecules, produced using nanoscale templates to shape and constrain their physical structure, and the concept that can be applied to many new materials.This material is vastly more efficient at storing energy in a given amount of space — about 10,000 times higher in volumetric energy density, making its energy density comparable to lithium-ion batteries, the MIT researchers said.

Keystrokes May Power Laptops In Future

Everlasting batteries and self-powered portable electronics have come one step closer to reality, according to the results of new research by Australian scientists from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). The researchers successfully measured a piezoelectric thin film's capacity for turning mechanical pressure into electricity. The discovery could eventually lead to laptops that are powered through typing.

Piezoelectric materials are able to to convert mechanical energy into electric power. Piezoelectricity as a phenomenon was discovered in the 19th century, and is used in things like electric cigarette lighters, which use a piezoelectric crystal capable of producing a high voltage electric current after being hit by a spring-loaded hammer, to ignite gas. Piezoelectric bulk or block materials (like crystals or ceramics) have been studied thoroughly, but research on thin films is relatively new.

The scientists at RMIT were able to quantify the amount of energy that can be generated by piezoelectric thin films coatings. 'Our study focused on thin film coatings because we believe they hold the only practical possibility of integrating piezoelectrics into existing electronic technology,' Dr. Bhaskaran of RMIT said. She believes it is possible to implement the discovery into consumer electronics on a wider scale. 'The power of piezoelectrics could be integrated into running shoes to charge mobile phones, enable laptops to be powered through typing or even used to convert blood pressure into a power source for pacemakers - essentially creating an everlasting battery.'

Robots Get Sensitive Skin

Technische Universität München (TUM) scientists are developing an artificial skin for robots that will provide tactile information to robots to supplement information from cameras, infrared scanners, and gripping hands.

The idea is to let the robot know when it touches an object so it can then visually search for whatever it just touched. Vision alone is not enough, the TUM scientists explain, since some objects can be hidden. It will prove helpful if your personal bot knows when it’s about to slice your finger instead of the carrots.

Back issues of 'Glimpses' are archived here.