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Soon Smartwatches Will Follow Finger Commands In Mid-Air

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As wearable devices grow and screens shrink, a team of Indian-origin researchers has developed a new sonar technology that allows you to interact with smarwatches by writing or gesturing on any nearby surface — a tabletop, a sheet of paper or even in mid-air.

Called FingerIO, it tracks fine-grained finger movements by turning a smartphone or smartwatch into an active sonar system using the device’s own microphones and speakers.

Because sound waves travel through fabric and do not require a line of sight, users can even interact with a phone inside a front pocket or a smartwatch hidden under a sweater sleeve.

“You can’t type very easily onto a smartwatch display, so we wanted to transform a desk or any area around a device into an input surface,” said lead author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, doctoral student in computer science and engineering from University of Washington.

“I don’t need to instrument my fingers with any other sensors. I just use my finger to write something on a desk or any other surface and the device can track it with high resolution,” Nandakumar added.

FingerIO can accurately track two-dimensional finger movements to within eight-mm, which is sufficiently accurate to interact with mobile devices.

Using FingerIO, one could use the flick of a finger to turn up the volume, press a button or scroll through menus on a smartphone without touching it, or even write a search command or text in the air rather than typing on a tiny screen.

“Using sound waves to track finger motion offers several advantages over cameras and other technologies like radar that require both custom sensor hardware and greater computing power,” explained Shyam Gollakota, senior author and assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

FingerIO turns a smartwatch or smartphone into a sonar system using the device’s own speaker to emit an inaudible sound wave.

That signal bounces off the finger, and those “echoes” are recorded by the device’s microphones and used to calculate the finger’s location in space.

“Acoustic signals are great because sound waves travel much slower than the radio waves used in radar, you don’t need as much processing bandwidth so everything is simpler,” Gollakota noted.

From a cost perspective, almost every device has a speaker and microphones so you can achieve this without any special hardware.

The researchers employed a type of signal typically used in wireless communication called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing.

They demonstrated that it can be used to achieve high-resolution finger tracking using sound.

Their algorithms leverage the properties of OFDM signals to track phase changes in the echoes and correct for any errors in the finger location to achieve sub-centimeter finger tracking.

To test their approach, the researchers created a FingerIO prototype app for Android devices and downloaded it to an off-the-shelf Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone and a smartwatch customised with two microphones which are needed to track finger motion in two dimensions.

Today’s smartwatches typically only have one which can be used to track a finger in one dimension.

The average difference between the drawings and the FingerIO tracings was 0.8 centimeters for the smartphone and 1.2 centimeters for the smartwatch.

“Given that your finger is already a centimeter thick, that’s sufficient to accurately interact with the devices,” said co-author Vikram Iyer.

The team is now working on how FingerIO can be used to track multiple fingers moving at the same time and extending its tracking abilities into three dimensions by adding additional microphones to the devices.

The paper will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s CHI 2016 conference in San Jose, California, in May.

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Ever Wonder How Two Pendulum Clocks Always Oscillate In Sync?

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Two pendulum clocks, hung from the same wooden structure, will always oscillate in synchronicity. Called “Huygens synchronisation” after the renowned Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens, the secret behind this 350-year-old phenomenon has now been solved.

Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology along with Mexican colleagues have presented the most accurate and detailed description of “Huygens synchronisation’ to date.

The insights help us understand synchronisation in all kinds of oscillating systems such as the biological rhythms of the human body, they noted.

Lacking the requisite mathematics at the time, Huygens contended that the effect was being caused by tiny vibrations in the wooden structure on which the clocks were hanging.

Henk Nijmeijer, professor of dynamics and control at Eindhoven University, found that Huygens explanation was right.

In the journal Scientific Reports, the team described the most comprehensive study undertaken to date on the effect.

“An odd sympathy” was the way Huygens termed the unexpected discovery he made at home in The Hague in 1665.

The team performed a modern variant of Huygens’ experiment whereby two pendulum clocks specially made for the purpose by the Mexican clock manufacturer Relojes Centenario were placed on a wooden undersurface.

In addition to taking extensive measurements, they analysed and simulated the effect using the most detailed mathematical model developed for this experiment.

This enabled them to dissect the mechanism behind the synchronisation correctly and in detail and consign to the bin the theory proposed two years ago that the synchronisation was attributable to acoustic pulses.

The team also discovered what variables determine whether the clocks swing in parallel with or counter to each other, something that Huygens did not observe.

“Another new discovery is that pendulum clocks are not only synchronous but also move more slowly over time and thus are not very reliable timekeepers,” they noted.
The scientists believe many similar occurrences of synchronisation are present in engineering and in nature like imbalanced rotor motion or the human heartbeat.

There are also indications that certain epileptic attacks are caused by the synchronisation of neurons that takes place in the brain.

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Coming Soon, A Polymer Nanobrush That Repels Dirt And Dust

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Scientists have developed a new way to make “polymer nanobrush” — bristly materials which prevent dust from accumulating on various surfaces.

Polymer brushes have been used to coat everything from eyeglass lenses, boats and medical devices — where they keep away smudges, damaging chemicals and germs — to artificial joints and mechanical components in vehicles where they act as a lubricant.

Developed by a team of engineers led by Christopher Li, professor at Drexel University’s college of engineering in Philadelphia, it gives scientists a higher degree of control over the shape of the brush and bristles and is much more efficient.

“The past few decades witnessed exciting progresses in studies on polymer brushes, and they show great promises in various fields, including coating, biomedical, sensing, catalysis to name just a few,” Li said.

His approach involves growing a functional two-dimensional sheet of polymer crystals — similar to a nanoscale piece of double-sided tape. When the sheet is stuck to an existing substrate, and the crystals are dissolved, the remaining polymer chains spring up, forming the bristles of the brush.

“We believe that our discovery of a new way to make polymer brushes is a significant advance in the field and will enable use of the brushes in exciting new ways,” added Li in the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The new brush is the most densely packed polymer brushes to date, with bristles less than a nanometre apart.

Polymer brush materials are especially useful in situations where pieces need to fit tightly together but need to be able to move without friction throwing a wrench in the works.

These are also effective for keeping important surfaces free of particles, chemicals, proteins and other fouling agents.

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Now Don’t Wash Clothes, Just Expose Them To Light

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The day when you can look tidy even without washing your clothes does not seem too distant as researchers, including one of Indian origin, have developed a technology to make textiles clean themselves within less than six minutes when put them under a light bulb or out in the sun.

The researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a cheap and efficient new way to grow special nanostructures — which can degrade organic matter when exposed to light — directly onto textiles.

“There’s more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles,” said researcher Rajesh Ramanathan.

The research paper was published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.

The work paves the way towards nano-enhanced textiles that can spontaneously clean themselves of stains and grime simply by being put under light.

The process developed by the team had a variety of applications for catalysis-based industries such as agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and natural products, and could be easily scaled up to industrial levels, Ramanathan said.

“The advantage of textiles is they already have a 3D structure so they are great at absorbing light, which in turn speeds up the process of degrading organic matter,” he explained.

The researchers worked with copper and silver-based nanostructures, which are known for their ability to absorb visible light.

When the nanostructures are exposed to light, they receive an energy boost that creates “hot electrons”.

These “hot electrons” release a burst of energy that enables the nanostructures to degrade organic matter.

The challenge for researchers has been to bring the concept out of the lab by working out how to build these nanostructures on an industrial scale and permanently attach them to textiles.

The RMIT team’s novel approach was to grow the nanostructures directly onto the textiles by dipping them into a few solutions, resulting in the development of stable nanostructures within 30 minutes.

When exposed to light, it took less than six minutes for some of the nano-enhanced textiles to spontaneously clean themselves.

“Our next step will be to test our nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to see how quickly they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine,” Ramanathan said.

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