Sound Beaming

Imagine a world where you move around in your own personal sound bubble. You listen to your favorite tunes, play loud computer games, watch a movie or get navigation directions in your car — all without disturbing those around you. That’s the possibility presented by “sound beaming,” a new futuristic audio technology from Noveto.

The technology uses a 3-D sensing module and locates and tracks the ear position sending audio via ultrasonic waves to create sound pockets by the user’s ears. Sound can be heard in stereo or a spatial 3-D mode that creates 360 degree sound around the listener. The company expects the device will have plenty of practical uses, from allowing office workers to listen to music or conference calls without interrupting colleagues to letting someone play a game, movie or music without disturbing their significant others. The lack of headphones means it’s possible to hear other sounds in the room clearly.

Adapted and abridged from Source (New device puts music in your head — no headphones required, AP News, 12.11.2020)

Keeping time more precisely with a new type of atomic clock

Atomic clocks are the most precise timekeepers in the world, which use lasers to measure the vibrations of atoms. They keep time with such precision that, if they had been running since the beginning of the universe, they would only be off by about half a second today. Still, they could be even more precise. If atomic clocks could more accurately measure atomic vibrations, they would be sensitive enough to detect phenomena such as dark matter and gravitational waves, which would give answers to questions like what effect gravity might have on the passage of time and whether time itself changes as the universe ages.

The researchers Pedrozo-Peñafiel et al. report in the journal Nature that they have built an atomic clock that measures not a cloud of randomly oscillating atoms, as state-of-the-art designs measure now, but instead atoms that have been quantumly entangled. Their findings would lead to clocks being less than 100 milliseconds off. To keep perfect time, clocks would ideally track the oscillations of a single atom, but they are subject to the Standard Quantum Limit that introduces an uncertainty when measuring at such small scales.

The solution would be quantum entanglement which describes a nonclassical physical state, in which atoms in a group show correlated measurement results, even though each individual atom behaves like the random toss of a coin. The team reasoned that if atoms are entangled, their individual oscillations would tighten up around a common frequency, with less deviation than if they were not entangled. In this way, the researchers quantumly entangle the atoms, and then use another laser, similar to existing atomic clocks, to measure their average frequency. When the team ran a similar experiment without entangling atoms, they found that the atomic clock with entangled atoms reached a desired precision four times faster.  

This version was adapted and abridged from the original MIT article (New type of atomic clock keeps time even more precisely, MIT, 16.12.2020)

Original paper: Pedrozo-Peñafiel, E., Colombo, S., Shu, C., Adiyatullin, A.F., Li, Z., Mendez, E., Braverman, B., Kawasaki, A., Akamatsu, D., Xiao, Y. and Vuletić, V., 2020. Entanglement on an optical atomic-clock transition. Nature588(7838), pp.414-418. Online

Voxon Photonics

Earlier this week, Voxon showcased a real-time use case scenario of their innovative photometric display which is capable of displaying data in real time from Blender.

Interactive 3D images that appear to float in the air, above a table that a group of people can stand around without needing any special headsets or glasses: that’s what South Australian company Voxon Photonics has built with its US$10,000 VX1 table. Such things have been a long time coming to the real world. VR and AR can both somewhat replicate the experience, but they require headsets. In the best case, these are a bit antisocial, stopping you from looking others in the eye. In the worst case, they completely remove the wearer from the real world to immerse them in virtual space. The VX1 table from Voxon Photonics, on the other hand, requires no headset or eyewear. It operates more or less exactly like the hologram table in Star Wars, albeit usually with a glass dome over the top of it, and can display an 18x18x8 centimeter holographic image, video, game or interactive data visualization.

The VX1 table can best be described as 3D printing its image in the air. It breaks a 3D form up into horizontal layer slices, then achieves the mind-bending trick of projecting these slices onto a single piece of rear projection glass that’s being flung back and forth in the air at 15 cycles per second on a set of harmonic resonance springs. The system tracks the location of the glass and synchronizes it perfectly with a 4,000 frames per second projector, so that each slice is projected at exactly the right height. The slices are stacked and re-stacked so fast that your eyes can’t track the motion, and an object appears to float in the air. Since it’s being re-drawn both on the up and down swing of the glass, you get a hologram video refresh rate of 30 frames per second, and the illusion is terrific.

Voxon’s glass shaker might not scale up well – bigger versions are much harder to shake back and forth at a rate that gives you a satisfying video frame rate – but the company has another trick or two up its sleeve. Using a rotating screen that looks something like a drill bit, with ramps and drop-offs, it’s possible to make a much larger volumetric display that relies on projectors coming down from above.

Source (Voxon’s US$10,000 hologram table – no glasses required, New Atlas, 28.11.2019)

New class of cobalt-free cathodes could enhance energy density of next-gen lithium-ion batteries

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers have developed a new family of cathodes with the potential to replace the costly cobalt-based cathodes typically found in today’s lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and consumer electronics. The new class called NFA, which stands for nickel-, iron- and aluminum-based cathode, is a derivative of lithium nickelate and can be used to make the positive electrode of a lithium-ion battery. These novel cathodes are designed to be fast charging, energy dense, cost effective, and longer lasting.

With the rise in the production of portable electronics and electric vehicles throughout the world, lithium-ion batteries are in high demand. According to Ilias Belharouak, ORNL’s scientist leading the NFA research and development, more than 100 million electric vehicles are anticipated to be on the road by 2030. Cobalt is a metal currently needed for the cathode which makes up the significant portion of a lithium-ion battery’s cost. Cobalt is rare and largely mined overseas, making it difficult to acquire and produce cathodes. As a result, finding an alternative material to cobalt that can be manufactured cost effectively has become a lithium-ion battery research priority.

“Lithium nickelate has long been researched as the material of choice for making cathodes, but it suffers from intrinsic structural and electrochemical instabilities,” Belharouak said. “In our research, we replaced some of the nickel with iron and aluminum to enhance the cathode’s stability. Iron and aluminum are cost-effective, sustainable and environmentally friendly materials.” Future research and development on the NFA class will include testing the materials in large-format cells to validate the lab-scale results and further explore the suitability of these cathodes for use in electric vehicles.

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “New class of cobalt-free cathodes could enhance energy density of next-gen lithium-ion batteries.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 December 2020.).

Muralidharan, N., Essehli, R., Hermann, R.P., Parejiya, A., Amin, R., Bai, Y., Du, Z. and Belharouak, I., 2020. LiNixFeyAlzO2, a new cobalt-free layered cathode material for advanced Li-ion batteries. Journal of Power Sources471, p.228389.

Romanian designer wins MIT prize for high-tech face mask prototype

A face mask equipped with a sensor that detects Covid-19 particles in the surroundings, designed by a Romanian engineer, has scooped the top prize at a contest from MIT Media Lab.

Burzo Ciprian’s award-winning design, “social mask”, is a minimalist, transparent mask featuring a biosensor that can connect to a smartphone. Via an app, users would be able to track the number of surrounding air-borne pathogens, collecting data that also maps other users around you and calculates the risk of infection with Covid-19.

The design, which is still a prototype under development, won a competition by MIT’s pandemic response lab that asked engineers and designers to come up with creative responses that reimagine face coverings and personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Connecting the mask with our smartphone is a real option for the future,” says Ciprian. “We should know who is infected in our area, and get informed on our smartphone about what the biosensor has detected based on surrounding particles. These are just a few of the options that will surely feature in the mask of the future.”

Source (Romanian designer wins MIT prize for high-tech face mask prototype, The Calvert Journal, 27.11.2020)

Tree rings may hold clues to impacts of distant supernovas on Earth

Massive explosions of energy happening thousands of light-years from Earth may have left traces in our planet’s biology and geology, according to new research by University of Colorado Boulder geoscientist Robert Brakenridge. The study, published this month in the International Journal of Astrobiology, probes the impacts of supernovas, some of the most violent events in the known universe. In the span of just a few months, a single one of these eruptions can release as much energy as the sun will during its entire lifetime. They’re also bright — really bright.

Tree trunk, cross section showing annual growth rings, full frame (Source)

To study those possible impacts, Brakenridge searched through the planet’s tree ring records for the fingerprints of these distant, cosmic explosions. His findings suggest that relatively close supernovas could theoretically have triggered at least four disruptions to Earth’s climate over the last 40,000 years. Scientists have recorded supernovas in other galaxies that have produced a stupendous amount of gamma radiation — the same kind of radiation that can trigger the formation of radiocarbon atoms on Earth. While these isotopes aren’t dangerous on their own, a spike in their levels could indicate that energy from a distant supernova has traveled hundreds to thousands of light-years to our planet.

To test the hypothesis, Brakenridge turned to the past. He assembled a list of supernovas that occurred relatively close to Earth over the last 40,000 years. Scientists can study these events by observing the nebulas they left behind. He then compared the estimated ages of those galactic fireworks to the tree ring record on the ground. He found that of the eight closest supernovas studied, all seemed to be associated with unexplained spikes in the radiocarbon record on Earth. He considers four of these to be especially promising candidates. Take the case of a former star in the Vela constellation. This celestial body, which once sat about 815 lightyears from Earth, went supernova roughly 13,000 years ago. Not long after that, radiocarbon levels jumped up by nearly 3% on Earth — a staggering increase.

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source University of Colorado at Boulder. “Tree rings may hold clues to impacts of distant supernovas on Earth.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2020.).

Brakenridge, G.R., Solar system exposure to supernova γ radiation. International Journal of Astrobiology, pp.1-14.

Understanding climate change through forest simulators

The effects of climate change are sometimes difficult to grasp, but now a virtual reality forest, created by geographers, can let people walk through a simulated forest of today and see what various futures may hold for the trees. The researchers combined information on forest composition with information on forest ecology to create a forest similar to those found in Wisconsin. “As part of an NSF-funded CNH program grant with Erica Smithwick (E. Willard and Ruby S. Miller Professor of Geography at Penn State) we are working with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin,” said Klippel, who also is director of Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experience. “Inspired by the Menominee’s deeper connection to the environment we believe that experiencing the future is essential for all environmental decision making.”

The first step, of course, was to create a forest of today. Using data on a typical Wisconsin forest, the researchers could have used strict or deterministic rules and placed trees in the forest. However, they chose to use a procedural method that would populate the forest using a set of ecological rules, creating a more organic, natural feel. “Orientation and small details of the trees are also randomized in the approach so that the trees don’t look exactly the same,” said Jiawei Huang, graduate student in geography, Penn State.

A virtual walk through this Wisconsin forest shows tall trees and understory. Strollers, using VR headsets and controllers, can reveal the types of trees in the forest, change elevations from forest floor to birds-eye view and in-between, and more closely examine the forest composition. The researchers chose two future scenarios, a base scenario and a hot and dry scenario. Using VR, visitors to the forest can see the changes in tree types and abundance and compare the base scenario to the hot and dry scenario.

The simulator scored high on heuristic evaluation criteria like natural engagement, compatibility with the user’s task and domain, natural expression of action, coordination and realistic feedback, navigation and orientation support, and sense of presence. The virtual environment is composed of realistic aesthetics, color schemes, illumination conditions, 3D models, and textures. The interactions with the menu, the environment, and the virtual objects are intuitive and compatible with user’s expectations.

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source Penn State. “Virtual reality forests could help understanding of climate change.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2020.).

Huang, J., Lucash, M.S., Scheller, R.M. and Klippel, A., 2020. Walking through the forests of the future: using data-driven virtual reality to visualize forests under climate change. International Journal of Geographical Information Science, pp.1-24.

Landing a job isn’t always the right goal

Algorithms that assess the risk of citizens becoming unemployed are currently being tested in a number of Danish municipalities. But according to a new study, gaining employment is not the only relevant goal for those out of work — nor should it be for an algorithm.

Fieldwork and workshop progression in the study Source

Together with two colleagues from the Computer Science department at the University of Copenhagen, Professor Thomas Hildebrandt and Professor Irina Shklovski, Naja Holten Møller has explored possible alternatives to using algorithms that predict job readiness for unemployed individuals as well as the ethical aspects that may arise.

An employment framework is able to output assessments made by an algorithm that, via data on the citizen’s gender, age, residence, education, income, ethnicity, history of illness, etc., spits out an estimate of how long the person — compared to other people from similar backgrounds — is expected to remain in the system and receive benefits. The researchers aim to challenge the misconceptions related to unemployment that raise ethical concerns.

One important finding from the paper tells us that “not all struggles come from personal failings and that the structures within which we operate are often just as implicated. Caseworkers clearly recognized their own limitations and that they sometimes might act from a place of bias or carelessness in their work, but there was no clear route for an algorithmic system to mitigate these issues. Instead, caseworkers pointed to the unnecessary problems that the institution of job placement itself created.”

You can read more in the original paper (this version is adapted and abridged from Source University of Copenhagen. “Researchers take a stand on algorithm design for job centers: Landing a job isn’t always the right goal.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 October 2020.).

Holten Møller, N., Shklovski, I. and Hildebrandt, T.T., 2020, October. Shifting concepts of value: Designing algorithmic decision-support systems for public services. In Proceedings of the 11th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Shaping Experiences, Shaping Society (pp. 1-12).

Departure Songs

A different kind of history lesson today, coming from an album by the band We Lost The Sea.

Aiden McCarthy did research work and shared the meaning behind each song in a few words:

“A Gallant Gentleman, the first song on the album, is about british army officer Lawrence Oates on the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. His team was to attempt to be the first there, but they discovered evidence that another team had achieved this 35 days prior, and were forced to head back. Oates became a burden to his team after developing frostbite and gangrene; he was causing the team to slow behind schedule and they wouldn’t be able to reach the next supply cache. In a brave act of self-sacrifice he left his tent saying “I am just going outside. I may be some time”, sacrificing himself to help his team survive. His entire team perished in the cold shortly after, and the cairn erected in the area Oates had left in (his body was never found) begins “Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman…”.

The second track, Bogatyri, is about the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a test gone awry caused two explosions that took out Chernobyl’s Unit 4. In May, Unit 4’s reactor was still melting down. Under the reactor a huge pool of water was used as coolant for the reactor, and with the continued meltdown, the smoldering flow of molten radioactive material would soon reach the water and cause a second steam explosion that would have destroyed all three other reactors and was expected to wipe out half of Europe with the spread radiation. In order to stop this, the pool would need to be drained, but the basement (where the valves were kept) was flooded; the only chance was to dive, ensuring a painful and slow death for any diver. Three men volunteered and were able to dive into the basement. They lost their light, as represented in album art, and had to find the valve in the darkness. They saved the lives of millions. The track, and the story of these brave men, is called Bogatyri, after Ukrainian folklore of three brave knights.

The Last Dive of David Shaw is about, well, the last dive of diver David Shaw. Shaw, while setting a world record for diving depth in submerged caves, found the body of a young diver that died there ten years before. He vowed to return the young man’s corpse to his family. Everything from a specially designed body bag to teams of medical advisors were prepared for days before the dive. Every second was crucial, with divers meeting at upper levels to keep him alive. Halfway through the 12 hour dive, a written message is acquired by one of the support divers. It tells the other divers to look out for themselves first, and it was clear David wasn’t coming back. Days later, the dropline was pulled up with the David and the young diver hanging 20 meters below, tangled together with David. A camera had been recording the entire time, and the footage was all recovered. The audio of Shaw’s breathing is used in the intro to the song.

Challenger 1 – Flight is about the tragic explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and subsequent death of 6 astronauts and 1 accompanying teacher on January 28th, 1986. The intro plays William S. Burroughs speech “on Dreams”. 73 seconds into the flight the shuttle experienced structural failure causing the shuttle to explode. After the crew cabin was discovered on the ocean floor, divers confirmed the remains of all crew members were inside. It is almost certain that all of the crew members survived the initial explosion and were either killed by the g-forces of the fall or the impact on the ocean’s surface. The song ends with sounds of the horrified crowd.

Challenger 2 – A Swan Song is a beautiful end to a tragic album. It is no longer so devastating, so heart wrenching. It is the final eulogy of these brave souls.”

The 1% Rule

The following image showcases a powerful concept that states that if you strive to improve your work with only 1% every day, you will make considerable improvements in a year, as compared to staying the same – which doesn’t change anything, or in a more pessimist scenario, performing worse each day.

If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Source

This is the concept of continuous improvement – dedication to making small changes and improvements every day, with the expectation that those small improvements will add up to something significant. Focusing on taking little steps towards your goal in a consistent fashion is the most efficient way of getting good at something. It also has the advantage of removing burnout, frustration, and failure.

Some steps that can aid in the process are:

  1. Do more of what already works. Start with what you have, and identify one area that you can work on to improve. For example, let’s suppose that you wanted to read a certain book, but never found time. Start small, try reading one page. Tomorrow maybe try two pages. And so on, until you find a comfortable reading and understanding pace that you can keep up with.
  2. Avoid tiny losses. Eliminate mistakes, reduce complexity, and stripe away the inessential. For example, if your goal is to improve your mathematical skills, pay attention to the theory, practice with more examples, and repeat the concepts over time.
  3. Measure backward. While being focused on future goals, we often forget to take a look back on the progress that we just made. Therefore you should keep a log or a journal tracking your steps. For example, while working out, you can see that if last week you were able to easily squat with 17.5kg, this week you can push for 20kg. Or if your goal is to lose weight, from your calorie tracker you can see that you ate 2,400 calories on average last week, therefore this week strive for 2,300 calories.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best for your goals. After overcoming the mental barrier and making this a habit, you can start being more creative and having fun with the process.

Source – abridged and adapted (Continuous Improvement: How It Works and How to Master It, James Clear)