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October 23, 2018
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Gadgets

The space pen became the space pen 50 years ago

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Everyone knows about the space pen. NASA spent millions on R&D to create the ultimate pen that would work in zero gravity and the result was this incredible machine. Well, no. In fact it was made by a pen manufacturer in 1966 — but it wasn’t until October of 1968 that it went into orbit and fulfilled its space pen destiny.

The pen was created by pen maker (naturally) Paul Fisher, who used $1 million of his own money to create the AG-7 anti-gravity pen. As you may or may not know, the innovation was a pressurized ink cartridge and gel ink that would deploy reliably regardless of orientation, temperature or indeed the presence of gravity.

He sent it to NASA, which was of course the only organization reliably worried about making things work in microgravity, and they loved it. In fact, the Russians started using it shortly afterwards, as well.

Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele took the pens aboard with them for the Apollo 7 mission, which launched on October 11, 1968, and they served them well over the next 11 days in orbit.

A 50th anniversary edition of the pen is now available to people who have a lot of money and love gold stuff. It’s $500, a limited edition of 500, and made of “gold titanium nitride plated brass,” and it comes with a case and commemorative plaque with a quote from Cunningham:

“Fifty years ago, I flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.”

Okay, that’s pretty cool. Presumably astronauts get a lifetime supply of these things, though.

Here’s to the Fisher space pen, an example of American ingenuity and simple, reliable good design that’s persisted in use and pop culture for half a century.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Researchers create virtual smells by electrocuting your nose

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The IEEE has showcased one of the coolest research projects I’ve seen this month: virtual smells. By stimulating your olfactory nerve with a system that looks like one of those old-fashioned kids electronics kits, they’ve been able to simulate smells.

The project is pretty gross. To simulate a smell, the researchers are sticking leads far up into the nose and connecting them directly to the nerves. Senior research fellow at the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia, Kasun Karunanayaka, wanted to create a “multisensory Internet” with his Ph.D. student, Adrian Cheok. Cheok is Internet famous for sending electronic hugs to chickens and creating the first digital kisses.

The researchers brought in dozens of subjects and stuck long tubes up their noses in an effort to stimulate the olfactory bulb. By changing the intensity and frequency of the signals, they got some interesting results.

The subjects most often perceived odors they described as fragrant or chemical. Some people also reported smells that they described as fruity, sweet, toasted minty, or woody.

The biggest question, however, is whether he can find a way to produce these ghostly aromas without sticking a tube up people’s noses. The experiments were very uncomfortable for most of the volunteers, Karunanayaka admits: “A lot of people wanted to participate, but after one trial they left, because they couldn’t bear it.”

While I doubt we’ll all be wearing smell-o-vision tubes up our noses any time soon, this idea is fascinating. It could, for example, help people with paralyzed senses smell again, a proposition that definitely doesn’t stink.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Banksy’s rigged art frame was supposed to shred the whole thing

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In the connected future will anyone truly own any thing? Banksy’s artworld shocker performance piece, earlier this month, when a canvas of his went under the hammer at Sothebys in London, suggests not.

Immediately the Girl with Balloon canvas sold — for a cool ~$1.1M (£860,000) — it proceeded to self-destruct, via a shredder built into the frame, leaving a roomful of designer glasses paired with a lot of shock and awe, before facial muscles twisted afresh as new calculations kicked in.

As we reported at the time, the anonymous artist had spent years planning this particular prank. Yet the stunt immediately inflated the value of the canvas — some suggested by as much as 50% — despite the work itself being half shredded, with just a heart-shaped balloon left in clear view.

The damaged canvas even instantly got a new title: Love Is in the Bin.

Thereby undermining what might otherwise be interpreted as a grand Banksy gesture critiquing the acquisitive, money-loving bent of the art world. After all, street art is his big thing.

However it turns out that the shredder malfunctioned. And had in fact been intended to send the whole canvas into the bin the second after it sold.

Or, at least, so the prankster says — via a ‘director’s cut’ video posted to his YouTube channel yesterday (and given the title: ‘Shred the love’, which is presumably what he wanted the resulting frame-sans-canvas to be called).

“In rehearsals it worked every time…” runs a caption towards the end of the video, before footage of a complete shredding is shown…

The video also appears shows how the canvas was triggered to get to work cutting.

After the hammer goes down the video cuts to a close-up shot of a pair of man’s hands pressing a button on a box with a blinking red LED — presumably sending a wireless signal to shreddy to get to work…

The suggestion, also from the video (which appears to show close up shots of some of the reactions of people in the room watching the shredding taking place in real time), is that the man — possibly Banksy himself — attended the auction in person and waited for the exact moment to manually trigger the self-destruct mechanism.

There are certainly lots of low power, short range radio technologies that could have been used for such a trigger scenario. Although the artwork itself was apparently gifted to its previous owner by Banksy all the way back in 2006. So the built-in shredder, batteries and radio seemingly had to sit waiting for their one-time public use for 12 years. Unless, well, Banksy snuck into the friend’s house to swap out batteries periodically.

Whatever the exact workings of the mechanism underpinning the stunt, the act is of course the point.

It’s almost as if Banksy is trying to warn us that technology is eroding ownership, concentrating power and shifting agents of control.

News Source = techcrunch.com

This 3D-printed prosthetic hand combines speed and strength with simplicity

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Prosthetic limbs have come a long way from the heavy, solid hands and legs of yesteryear, but it’s still difficult to pack a range of motion into them without complex or bulky machinery. But new research out of Cornell uses a cleverly designed 3D-printed mechanism to achieve speed and strength with simple construction — and it costs a lot less, too.

“Developing prosthetic limbs requires designers to make difficult trade-offs among size, weight, force, speed, and cost of the actuation system,” the researchers say in their paper. For example, they point out, state of the art mechanical prosthetic hands can cost well over $10,000, with the high-end motors inside alone costing hundreds each. Cheaper hands use cheaper components, of course, which might mean that the hand can grip hard but not quickly, or vice versa.

This is partly because a mechanical hand needs to be able to adjust the force it’s applying very quickly on the fly, and this usually involves some kind of variable transmission or dynamic gear ratio. But Kevin O’Brien and his colleagues developed a new way to have the motor adjust its speed and force without using hundreds of finely machined components. In fact, it and the hand it actuates can be almost entirely 3D-printed.

It works like this: The fingers of the hand are controlled, like many other such hands and indeed our own, by flexible cords that run along their lengths. These cords can be tightened or slackened to make the fingers take different positions, and that’s often done by having a spool take up the slack or deal it out. It’s this spool that must move precisely and is the end point of the complex gearing mentioned above in other hands.

But in the ADEPT hand (adaptively driven via elastomeric passive transmissions — we’ll stick with the acronym) these spools have in their centers a flexible cylindrical core, the shape of which can be modified by tightening a separate “tendon” around it. When the tendon is loose, the core is wider and spins quickly, producing fast, responsive movement. When the tendon is tightened, the core is reduced in radius and correspondingly increases in torque while decreasing in speed.

There’s no switching of gears, no meshing of teeth — if the hand determines that it needs just a little bit more torque to hold something, it can get it by tightening the tendon just that little bit. And as soon as it needs to quickly release or catch something, the tendon can loosen up and the fingers move quickly and lightly.

This simplicity and the ease of manufacturing make this much cheaper than other options, while it still provides a great deal of versatility and responsiveness.

“The benefits of elastomeric transmission systems are that they can be 3D printed quickly (50 per hour), cheaply (<$1 per part), and in many compact form factors,” the researchers wrote. A whole hand could be built for less than $500, they estimate.

Unfortunately the materials aren’t quite up to the task just yet — the part that’s constantly having its shape adjusted tends to degrade, though they managed to get it to the point where it could be adjusted about 25,000 times before failing (not catastrophically, just not doing its job well enough any more). That may sound like a lot, but your fingers move a lot. So there’s still work to do before this is a realistic replacement for other mechanical parts.

Still, it’s a promising approach and general enough that it also could be used in artificial legs, arms and exo-suits. You can read more at Science Robotics.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

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A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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