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IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference Points Engineers at the World’s Problems

Last week, 250 engineers and technologists came from 31 countries to the third annual IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference held in Santa Clara, Calif. There were papers and posters, of course, covering such subjects as using cell phones to monitor the movements of Asian elephants, mining the web and social media to create maps of gas station closures after Hurricane Sandy, and using tweets to find trapped survivors in a disaster. But the real business of the conference was not happening in the session rooms, but in the lobby area, where engineers were connecting with each other and people who are already in the business of tackling tough humanitarian issues around the world and were looking for a few good engineers to help.

This is the third year of the conference. And this is the second year of the SIGHT program, IEEE’s Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology, an effort to bring together groups of people in a section or chapter to focus on humanitarian issues.

The mood in the room seemed similar to that in the early days of mobile devices, or in the early days of the web. At such nascent stages it wasn't really the particular projects or products being created that were important. Rather, it was about knowing that technology was about to take a huge leap into a new realm, that needs and ideas were about to be spring up everywhere, and that the people around you—and maybe you too—are going to be doing some amazing things.  Nobody was exactly sure what those things would be, and certainly there would be failures as well as success, but being at the beginning of a groundswell is a good place to be.

So I can’t report on this conference as I did DemoFall earlier this month, calling out the hits and misses and identifying a few trends. The main point for the attendees was simply to be there, to raise a flag and say, yes, I’m one of those engineers who think technology can save the world. Instead, I’ll just share a few of the more striking comments speakers made at the sessions I attended.

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Video: Augmented Reality for the Motorcycle Helmet

Skully Helmets, based in Redwood City, Calif., is hoping simplified GPS that reduces distractions and a 180-degree rear-view camera to eliminate blind spots will make life on the road safer for motorcyclists. The company, launching at DemoFall 2013 this month, expects the final product to retail well within the under-$1500 range of today’s high-end helmets. In the video, founder Marcus Weller explains his technology.

Trouble Hearing In A Noisy Room? There’s An App For That

Anyone parenting a member the iPod generation has lost track of the number of times she’s said “Take those earbuds out of your ears so you can hear me!” So how weird is it going to be if some years from now that same generation is saying to us, “Put those earbuds in your ears so you can hear me!”

Real Clarity, introduced by SoundFest, Franklin, Mass., at DemoFall 2013, is a brilliant concept. It’s the hearing aid for people who don’t really need a hearing aid. Yet. Or maybe they simply want to pretend they don’t need a hearing aid. Or don’t want the expense of a hearing aid. But they still need help hearing a conversation in a noisy room.

The app asks you to input your age then adjusts its algorithms to optimize its audio enhancements accordingly. People who have a more precise diagnosis of hearing deficiencies can set the app’s parameters manually. Then you put in your earbuds, set the mobile device down in front of you, and it will raise the volume on the conversation and lower the volume on the noise around you.

Cofounder Mark Eisner says that there are other apps that do amplification with some noise reduction, but because they are more generalized, they don’t compensate well for age-related hearing loss. The algorithms that detect and clarify the sounds of speech, he says, were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; SoundFest’s challenge was making them run fast enough so the delay introduced didn’t cause a perceptible echo. He says that the typical delay time in the Real Clarity app is 5 milliseconds.  The app will sell for about $30 when it is available towards the end of the year.

How well does it work? I’m not sure. The onstage demo, using generated background noise, seemed effective. When I tried it myself in the somewhat noisy demo hall, I didn’t see much of a difference. But the room wasn’t so noisy that I had any trouble following a normal-level conversation to begin with. But fortunately I’m not the target market, at least not quite yet.

Photo: iStockphoto

A Bouncing Ball To Make Danger Zones Safer

Some of the best gadgets seem obvious in retrospect. One of those may turn out to be the Explorer Ball from Bounce Imaging, in Boston.

The appeal of the Explorer Ball is simple. Firefighters, disaster rescue workers, SWAT teams, or military troops can find themselves needing to enter an environment about which they know nothing. And surprises, in a military or rescue situation, can be a really bad thing. So getting an instant, up-to-the minute, detailed panoramic view of the environment would be really helpful.

The technology is clearly available. After all, a smartphone can create a panoramic image in seconds, one that you can easily scan through or enlarge. But how do you get that kind of smartphone capability into a potentially dangerous place before going into the place itself?

The answer, it seems, is obvious. You throw it.

Getting from that obvious answer to a camera-toting, Wi-Fi connected, extremely durable, throwable object is the hard part. And Bounce Imaging, launching at DemoFall 2013 last week, admitted that it’s not quite there yet. But it’s close. The prototype Explorer Ball carries six cameras and a Wi-Fi transmitter; it sends the images to a mobile device, where an app stitches them together into a panorama. It includes the capability to add sensors, say, temperature or carbon monoxide. And it carries a microphone and can transmit audio. What it can’t do quite yet is survive a hard fall, but the company is working on that and expects to have durability testing finished this year, in time to start field testing in a few months.

Bounce Imaging is planning to sell an emergency responder version for about $1000, a military version for something under $3000.

Photos: Bounce Imaging

UK Police Claim To Have Seized Their First 3-D Printed Gun Parts

Police in Manchester, United Kingdom, yesterday seized a 3-D printer and what they said were 3-D printed gun components, which would be a first in the UK. They arrested a man involved on suspicion of making gun powder, who told the BBC: "It's nothing to do with a gun whatsoever."

Soon after the announcement, coder and writer Dj Walker-Morgan tweeted that the components in the police photographs were just parts of the printer. For a comparison of the parts, see this New Statesman post. Of course, the police might have just posted photos of the wrong parts.

But hours later, the police department released another statement: "We need to be absolutely clear that at that this stage, we cannot categorically say we have recovered the component parts for a 3D gun." It did not say whether the department had left parts out of its public photos. Instead, it called for "further forensic testing by national ballistics experts."

Perhaps the man was planning to re-enact the pivotal murder scene in the latest episode of "Elementary"? TV script writers, as usual, are ahead of the game. "CSI: New York" featured a 3-D printed gun earlier this year, too. As Jeremy Hsu pointed out earlier this year in IEEE Spectrum's Tech Talk, these guns are still only good for one shot at a time and are far less reliable than conventional guns. A potential murderer would need to be pretty sure of his or her abilities to rely on a printed gun.

For readers hungry for more, Vice sent someone to spend a week with the maker of a printed gun in Texas. A 24-minute video and report are here.

Google Glass Apps for Early EARLY Adopters

It’s early days for Google Glass. Google has this year been shipping limited quantities of the US $1500 Explorer version, intended for developers and extreme early adopters. But it hasn’t yet announced a release date or price for the consumer version (though it seems like all the cool geeks in Silicon Valley already own the gadget).

So it’s only the very bravest of companies that have started unveiling their Google Glass apps to the world. Three firms demonstrated apps at DemoFall 2013, held last week in Santa Clara, Calif. I’ll give all three credit for being out there on the bleeding edge. But I thought only one had an app that makes any kind of sense.

Pristine Eyesight, from Pristine in Austin, Texas, got it right. Pristine's Google Glass application is for use in hospitals: doctors and other health care professionals wear the glasses to securely stream video to remote experts. The experts might be in a different room in the same hospital but tied up with an important task, or they might be across the world. A surgeon in the thick of surgery, for example, could be consulting with another surgeon. For the surgeon wearing Google Glass, the device is just a camera; the application doesn’t risk distracting him with text in his field of vision because any guidance comes through audio. For the consulting doctor on the other end, being able to see what the active surgeon sees would be a huge help. The company also expects nurses wearing Google Glass to be able to more effectively and quickly consult with doctors. The app for nurses will let them see text when reviewing a checklist, for example. Company founder Kyle Samani says he expects that the system will eventually be used extensively for surgical training; either students could closely observe a surgery from a doctor’s perspective, or a doctor could better coach a student by seeing exactly what the student is seeing.

Pristine is currently testing its system at the University of California, Irvine’s Medical Center, where it is being used in operating rooms and in the emergency room. The company says it has other pilots lined up at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, CORE Institute, and Banner Health. Pristine expects to price its system on a subscription basis, per outfitted operating room or per bed. Right now, it’s estimating $7500 per month per operating room. Pristine says it will be ready to roll out as soon as Google Glass starts shipping in quantities.

Red Bottle Design from West Henrietta, N.Y., also launched a Google Glass app at DemoFall last week, but that one had me scratching my head. Red Bottle’s GlassPay app is intended for in-store shopping. Red Bottle envisions a customer walking around a store and upon seeing an item he or she wants to purchase,  telling the Glasses to buy it. The idea is that you don’t actually have to pick merchandise up off the shelf. The company thinks this would be particularly useful at stores like Ikea, where furniture is on display, but not actually available until you pass through a warehouse area. At the end of your shopping trip, you tell Google Glass to pay, and Google Glass completes the transaction in Bitcoins. (In fact, the system ONLY displays prices in Bitcoins. If, like most of us, you tend to think in your national currency, this does complicate your shopping experience.) Then you go have a cup of coffee or something, and come back half an hour later to pick up your order.

At the beginning of the presentation, I figured I was just seeing an overenthusiastic Google Glass owner who was so enamored with his glasses that he didn’t quite get that even if Ikea would be willing to have its staff run around and fill orders, the app he envisioned would be much happier living in a smartphone than in Google Glass. But when founder Guy Paddock got to the Bitcoin part of his presentation, it started to seem to me that he was just trying to glam up an old idea (the app is already available for Android) and really doesn’t much care about Google Glass or Bitcoin.

Another company developing for Google Glass, Pro Populi, describes its People+ application as LinkedIn meets Wikipedia. People+ lets you follow people or companies, and, when you are about to walk up to someone you perhaps haven’t seen in a while or don’t know that well, you can quickly review a profile (that focuses on business information, not what they had for breakfast, says company founder Peter Berger), and catch up on recent news about the person or company. Pro Populi is making its app available for smartphones and Google Glass, but Berger says its real focus right now is building its database. At least Pro Populi has the good sense to know that its Google Glass version isn’t going to set the world on fire.

Photo: The Pristine Eyesight app for Google Glass would let surgeons consult with experts outside of the operating room. Credit: The Demo Conference

Deep Brain Stimulation Improves Paralyzed Rat's Gait

Swiss researchers have enabled rats with severe spinal cord injuries to walk and swim by electrically stimulating a group of neurons located deep in the brain. The discovery may give researchers a new approach to treating severe spinal cord injury. The research, led by Lukas Bachmann at the Brain Research Institute at the University of Zurich, was published today in Science Translational Medicine.

In most spinal cord injuries, some nerve fibers connecting the brain to the spinal cord below the injury site remain intact, even in severe cases in which a person is paralyzed. Bachmann and his colleagues found that by stimulating a key region of the midbrain called the mesencephalic locomotor region, or MLR, the remaining intact nerve fibers could be recruited to improve walking and swimming movements in spinal-cord injured rats.

The scientists used a technique called deep brain stimulation. Electrodes implanted in the rats' midbrains sent 50 hertz cathodal pulses into their MLR regions. The extent to which the stimulation improved the rats' gait varied depending on the severity of the spinal cord injury. Rats who had lost 70 to 80 percent of their reticulospinal fibers were severely impaired, but not paralyzed—comparable to a human who can walk but has major deficits in strength and speed. Deep brain stimulation gave these rats a close-to-normal gait.

Rats that had lost more than 90 percent of their fibers were almost fully paralyzed in the hindlimbs—comparable to a human who is wheelchair-bound. Deep brain stimulation enabled these rats to move their hindlimbs while swimming.

It has been known for decades that the MLR orchestrates the parts of the brainstem that control walking. Recently scientists have used deep brain stimulation of this region to treat patients suffering from disorders such as Parkinson's disease. The new Swiss research suggests that this type of stimulation may also help people with spinal cord injuries. "I believe we have delivered the first promising indications that may help us in finding possible treatments for spinal cord injury," says Bachmann. "But much still remains to be investigated."

Bachmann says his research also provides the first indications of which parts of the brainstem may be responsible for conveying different components of walking during deep brain stimulation. "We think that areas closer to the midline in the brainstem do convey the rhythmic components of walking whereas areas more on the side convey the strength aspects of the MLR stimulation effect," Bachmann says.

Scientists have been experimenting with electrical stimulation of other parts of the central nervous system for many years in both animals and humans. In one recent and promising approach, researchers at the University of Louisville used epidural stimulation to enable a paralyzed man to stand on his own. The researchers used a 16-electrode array to stimulate the man's spinal cord below the site of his injury, essentially cutting the brain out of the equation. For more on that story, stay tuned for a feature we will post tomorrow. 

Fire-Spotting Satellite Designed to Help Snuff Out Wildfires

A fire-spotting satellite looking down on the Western United States could help firefighters stamp out small brushfires before they become deadly blazes that destroy hundreds of homes and can cost the U.S. government between US $1 billion and $2 billion each year in suppression costs alone. Such technology also aims to reduce the number of tragedies such as Yarnell, Arizona fire that killed a group of 19 firefighters this summer.

The FUEGO (Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit) satellite might pay for itself within just one firefighting season despite costing an estimated several hundred million dollars, said Carl Pennypacker, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley and scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a press release. Pennypacker recalled the deadly 1991 Oakland fire that destroyed more than 3000 homes in Berkeley and Oakland, killed 25 people, and resulted in $1.5 billion in economic damage.

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Hospital To Use Microfluid Prototype For Diagnosing Tumors

Chemist Emmanuel Delamarche held a thin slice of human thyroid tissue on a glass slide between his fingers. The tissue poses a mystery: does it contain a tumor or not? Delamarche, who works at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, turned the slide around in his hand as he explained that the normal method of diagnosing a tumor involves splashing a chemical reagent, some of which are expensive, onto the uneven surface of the tissue and watching for it to react with disease markers. A pathologist "looks at them under a microscope, and he's using his expertise, his judgment, and looks at what chemical he used, what type of color he can see and what part and he has to come up with a diagnosis," Delamarche says, "he has a very, very hard job, OK?"

IBM is already good at precise application of materials to flat surfaces such as computer chips. Human tissue, sliced thin enough, turns out to receptive to the company's bag of tricks too. Delamarche, turning to one of three machines on lab benches, explained that a few years ago his team began trying to deliver reagents with more precision. University Hospital Zurich will be testing the results over the next few months.

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Demo Fall, or Dave Eggers’ The Circle?

“Sharing needs to happen without thinking, we believe that thinking is overrated,” said Sachin Dev Duggal, cofounder of Shoto, a San Francisco company introducing a mobile sharing app at DemoFall 2013, held last week in Santa Clara, Calif.

“In a world where everything is connected, there is no downtime, we are always working,” said Erick Schonfeld, executive producer of the Demo conference.

“Not having to talk to people is huge,” said Josh Elman, a venture capitalist with Greylock partners and one of the judges of Demo, touting the convenience of some mobile apps over real-world interaction.

I hadn’t been at DemoFall for more than an hour, and I was feeling an odd sense of déjà vu—not that I’d seen these speakers before, but that I’d read their words—in excerpts from the hot Silicon Valley novel, The Circle. And this was a little disturbing.

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