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Cheap Centimeter-Precision GPS For Cars, Drones, Virtual Reality

The GPS navigation system in your mobile phone can get you to the airport or the closest coffee shop. But it can’t pinpoint your exact location on a city sidewalk; that location can be off by 10 meters.

Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin have now made a small, cheap GPS system for mobile devices that gives centimeter-precision positioning accuracy. Such centimeter precision could let drones deliver packages to your porch, autonomous vehicles navigate safely, and be used in precision farming. It could also allow for some neat virtual reality tricks and games if coupled with a smartphone camera, says Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineering researcher at UT Austin. “People could have an engaging mind-blowing experience with physically immersive virtual reality,” he says.

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Computer Battles Top Human Poker Players

Computers have yet to fully master the popular version of poker known as no-limit Texas Hold ’em. That’s why humans still stand a chance in the world’s first serious tournament between some of the best professional poker players and a computer program developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Humans have the edge so far, but the competition remains tight going into the second and final week.

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Microwave Ovens Posing as Astronomical Objects

Once, during a visit to the Dutch Radio Telescope in Westerbork, the Netherlands, an astronomer told me that they had to shut down the recording of data because a Citroën Deux Cheveaux was standing, with its engine idling, on a small road nearby. The ignition system of the 2CV was pretty primitive; the spark plugs in its two-cylinder engine fired simultaneously, producing a lot of RF noise. Interference from terrestrial sources is a well understood problem for radio telescopes. The announcement of the discovery of pulsars in 1967 was made after all manmade RF signals, such as those emitted by satellites, were ruled out. Because of how vulnerable their tools are to interference, radio astronomers now staunchly defend the frequency bands allocated to them.

In 2007, astronomers at the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia reported in Science the discovery of a new object in space that caused a single, very intense gigahertz radio burst that lasted only a few milliseconds. The burst, first detected in August 2001, was recognized by scientists during the analysis of archived records. Although the pulse was very short, the higher frequencies arrived first, followed by lower frequencies, indicating that its origin had to be far outside of our Milky Way Galaxy. The astronomers, realizing that this event, called a fast radio burst (FRB), was extraordinary, set out to look for similar events, both in archived records and during new observations.  Astronomers identified about 40 FRBs with the Parkes Radio Telescope alone, and other radio astronomers reported similar events. 

However, about 25 FRBs detected mainly by the Parkes Radio Telescope and a few other observatories presented signatures that were very different.  Although they covered a wide frequency range just like the other FRBs, the frequency-time structures of many of these events defied any physical model, and they did not show differences in the arrival times between the higher frequencies and the lower frequencies of the burst.  Also, the location of these FRBs was difficult to pinpoint; the radiation seemed to come from all directions. The Parkes astronomers, mystified, dubbed these "abnormal" FRBs "perythons" after a mythical figure invented by the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. The perythons’ signatures caused astronomers to doubt the extragalactic origin of FRBs [PDF] althogether.  They might originate on or nearby Earth, the scientists began to believe, and some astronomers even suggested that these strange bursts might be produced by extraterrestrial civilizations.

Photo: Getty Images

Not long after focusing their attention on the perythons, the Parkes astronomers noticed that these FRBs seemed to take off during weekends. In 2014, they installed a radio frequency interference monitor at the observatory and decided that the culprits were probably some microwave ovens inside the observatory building. Tests with these microwave ovens yielded nothing—they emitted no radio pulses while they were running. The astronomers were flummoxed—that is, until one of the testers, during a third attempt, opened the door of a microwave oven before the magnetron was shut off by the timer. They found that although the door shuts the magnetron off, a whiff of gigahertz radiation could escape. Some of the microwaves were nearly three decades old, and the aged magnetrons were prone to sparking during start up and shut down. The researchers wrote in an arXiv paper that this discovery clears up the confusion. Because the perythons are not actually FRBs, but impostors, the previously-identified signatures, the astronomers concluded, are indeed the result of extragalactic events. How the real FRBs are produced still remains a mystery.  

Goldman Sachs Bets on Bitcoin

Circle, a Boston-based Bitcoin startup, announced last week that it had completed a US $50 million round of funding. Among the list of investors were two newcomers with somewhat conspicuous names—Goldman Sachs and IDG Capital Partners. While it is not know how much each of these companies invested, the involvement of Goldman Sachs marks the first time that a major U.S. bank has taken the plunge into the Bitcoin startup scene. 

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Amazon's Jeff Bezos Debuts Spacecraft in First Flight Test

The commercial spaceflight race continues to heat up as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his Blue Origin spaceflight company’s first flight test of a new space vehicle this week. The New Shepard space vehicle marks Blue Origin’s attempt to create a fully reusable rocket system capable of both vertical takeoff and landing.

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Five Things You Might Not Know About Moore’s Law

graphic link for Moore's Law special report

In the 50 years since Gordon Moore published his prediction about the future of the integrated circuit, the term “Moore’s Law” has become a household name. It’s constantly paraphrased, not always correctly. Sometimes it’s used to describe modern technological progress as a whole.

As IEEE Spectrum put together its special report celebrating the semicentennial, I started a list of key facts that are often overlooked when Moore’s Law is discussed and covered. Here they are (sans animated gifs):

1. Moore’s forecast changed over time. Gordon Moore originally predicted the complexity of integrated circuits—and so the number of components on them—would double every year. In 1975, he revised his prediction to a doubling every two years. 

2. It’s not just about smaller, faster transistors. At its core, Moore’s prediction was about the economics of chipmaking, building ever-more sophisticated chips while driving down the manufacturing cost per transistor. Miniaturization has played a big role in this, but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean less expensive—an issue we’re beginning to run into now. 

3. At first, it wasn’t just about transistors. Moore’s 1965 paper discussed components, a category that includes not just transistors, but other electronic components, such as resistors, capacitors, and diodes. As lithographer Chris Mack notes, some early circuits had more resistors than transistors.

4. The origin of the term “Moore’s Law” is a bit murky. Carver Mead is widely credited with coining the term “Moore’s Law”, but it’s unclear where it came from and when it was first used. 

5. Moore’s Law made Moore’s Law. Silicon is a pretty unique material, but maintaining Moore’s Law for decades was hard work and it’s getting harder. As historian Cyrus Mody argues, the idea of Moore’s Law kept Moore’s Law going: it has long been a coordinating concept and common goal for the widely-distributed efforts of the semiconductor industry.

Virtual Reality Pioneer Looks Beyond Entertainment

Anyone who wants to learn how to use virtual reality to hack the human brain usually ends up visiting Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University

Bailenson has received visits from heads of state, the U.S. military and NASA during a career that spans almost two decades. But Bailenson recently observed that his VR lab’s technological capabilities are rapidly becoming obsolete as leading technology companies such as Oculus VR, Samsung, Google, Valve, Sony and Microsoft compete to develop virtual reality headsets that can entertain the masses.

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DARPA's Self-Steering EXACTO Bullets Home in on Moving Targets

Bullets are dumb. Really dumb. This is a problem, because bullets spend a significant portion of their actively useful life in very rapid transit from one place to another without paying the least amount of attention to what’s going on around them while they do so. If you or I behaved in such an ignorant manner while traveling from place to place, we’d almost certainly get run over by a bus.

In order to not get run over by a bus, those of us who are cleverer than bullets do our best to be aware of our surroundings while we travel, compensating for changes in both our environment and our destination. DARPA has managed to imbue bullets with a similar level of intelligence, allowing them to steer themselves to a moving target while dynamically adjusting for whatever sorts of things might send them off-target, such as crosswinds or the lousy aim of whoever pulled the trigger.

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Now Any Team Can Buy the Performance Analysis Engine that Helped Germany Win World Cup

Performance analysis software that helped Germany win the 2014 soccer World Cup will soon be available to sports clubs all over the world.

On Monday, SAP unveiled its Sports One solution, at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. Sports One is a sports specific, cloud-based unified platform for managing things like business operations and fan engagement, both already used by Bayern, who won their twenty fifth Bundesliga title, last weekend.

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IBM Shows First Full Error Detection for Quantum Computers

Quantum computers must overcome the challenge of detecting and correcting quantum errors before they can fulfill their promise of sifting through millions of possible solutions much faster than classical computers. 

“With our recent four-qubit network, we built a system that allows us to detect both types of quantum errors,” says Jerry Chow, manager of experimental quantum computing at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Chow, who, along with his IBM colleagues detailed their experiments in the 29 April issue of the journal Nature Communications, says, “This is the first demonstration of a system that has the ability to detect both bit-flip errors and phase errors” that exist in quantum computing systems. 

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