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New "Look And Link" Wireless Technology Enables Device-to-Device Links By Pointing

Researchers from South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute demoed a new wireless technology this week that could enable better device-to-device (D2D) communications, allowing smart gadgets such as phones to link to one another without going through a base station. Many researchers believe that D2D capability will be a key feature in the next generation of wireless networks after 4G LTE and LTE-Advanced. It could help decongest overloaded base stations and usher in new applications, such as screening a video clip on a big screen while it's actually stored on your phone, or downloading the service manual directly from your smart car.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Don’t D2D technologies already exist? Sure they do. You may be scrolling through this story using a Bluetooth-connected mouse. Perhaps you bought a cup of coffee this morning by tapping your smartphone to a near field communication (NFC)-enabled cash register. Other D2D standards already available or in the works include Wi-Fi Direct, LTE Direct, and Peer Awareness Communications.

But these technologies have yet to catch on in a big way. And maybe for good reason. Surveys show that users don’t particularly like touching their phones to things or scanning a list of available devices to connect with the one they want, which Wi-Fi Direct and most other D2D technologies require. Most people find all that tapping, scrolling, and clicking to be physically demanding, annoying, or just plain awkward. Given the choice, we would much rather engage with smart objects simply by pointing our smartphones or tablets at them—or better yet, by looking at them, such as with smart glasses.

But here’s the problem: In order to connect with, say, a smart poster or with your friend’s television, your phone must know its ID, such as an IP address or a given nickname. Without knowing this information or making you select it from a list, how would your phone identify the device you’re pointing it at?

The South Korean team, led by Young-Hoon Kim, devised a solution using a novel beamforming technique. Dubbed “Look And Link,” it uses an array of antennas to direct a phone’s transmissions toward the correct receiving device. The demo took place on Wednesday at an IEEE wireless standards meeting in Los Angeles.

So how does Look And Link work? Imagine, for instance, that you are strolling down the street, and you see a restaurant that you think you might want to try. But this is the future, so rather than walk in and ask for a menu, you simply stare through your smart glasses at the smart sign in the window. Using a built-in antenna array, your smart glasses form a directional beam to transmit a query toward the smart sign, thus avoiding querying other nearby devices.

But not just any beam pattern will do the trick. Conventional techniques, for instance, would create a beamform that, while concentrating most of its gain toward the smart sign, would also radiate in unintended directions. So devices that you’re not looking at, but that are close to you, might receive a signal that’s just as strong—or stronger—than the signal received by the smart sign. In the below figure, for example, both the device you’re pointing at (Device A) and a nearby device (Device B) will receive your query quite strongly.

Kim and his team solved this problem by randomly varying the shape of the beam over short time intervals—a technique they call jittering. Only the gain in the direction of the target device stays the same. The effect is that while the smart sign receives a signal of consistently high strength, other nearby devices see huge gain changes. The researchers illustrate the concept nicely in the figures below:


So now, when your smart glasses send out a query to the smart sign, nearby devices know not to answer. Meanwhile, the smart sign transmits back its ID, allowing your glasses to connect with it using some other wireless standard, such as LTE Direct. Then you can download information from the sign, such as menus and operating hours. Maybe you even decide to make a reservation for later that evening.

Kim points out that another advantage of Look And Link, besides enabling device identification through pointing, is that it allows devices to link with one another quickly. Using Look And Link, he says, two devices can connect in a just a few seconds, compared to almost a minute using Bluetooth.

At Wednesday’s demo, the researchers used a prototype transmitter with four antennas, according to Byung-Jae Kwak, one of the team members. He concedes that four or more antennas may not fit into today’s smartphones, which currently have no more than two. But, he says, cellular carriers as well as unlicensed device makers are beginning to look toward higher frequencies, which require smaller antennas. The South Korean team demoed Look And Link, for instance, using 5 GHz spectrum. “We are also interested in using 60 GHz,” Kwak said in an e-mail. “In that case, we can easily put eight antennas in the space of a finger nail.”

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Tiny "bio-bots" inspired by sperm could swim inside the human body to deliver drugs or target cancer someday. The swimming bio-hybrid machines move by combining live heart cells with the flexible body of a synthetic polymer.

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Tidal Energy Could Supply Half of Scotland's Power

Some of the fastest-moving tidal currents in the world could meet half of Scotland's power needs. A new study finds that an island channel called the Pentland Firth has the potential to realistically generate 1.9 gigawatts of power—nearly double the amount noted in previous estimates.

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Why the NSA’s Spying on Offline Computers Is Less Scary Than Mass Surveillance

The U.S. National Security Agency's ability spy on computers not connected to the Internet became more widely known following the publication of a New York Times story last week. Such news followed up on earlier investigations by Der Spiegel that detailed an internal NSA catalog of spy tools, including some radio frequency technologies capable of helping agents spy on offline computers.

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Google Working on Smart Contact Lens to Monitor Diabetes

If Google’s latest project is successful, the finger prick test for blood sugar levels could eventually become a thing of the past for diabetics. 

Google X lab is developing a smart contact lens that can measure glucose levels in tears using a small wireless chip and a miniaturized glucose sensor, according to the company’s blog. One in 10 people in the world are expected to have diabetes by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

The chip and sensors, shrunken to the size of flecks of glitter, are embedded between two layers of soft contacts. The prototypes can generate one reading per second, and the developers are working on integrating miniature LED lights that could tell the wearer if glucose levels have gone above or below a set threshold.

“It’s still early days for this technology,” wrote the project co-founders, Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, “but we’ve completed multiple clinical research studies which are helping to refine our prototype.”

Before joining Google, Parviz was working at the University of Washington in Seattle on contact lenses that could be used for noninvasive monitoring and visual enhancement. He knew the market could evolve substantially in just a few years.

“The glucose detectors we’re evaluating now are a mere glimmer of what will be possible in the next 5 to 10 years,” he wrote in IEEE Spectrum in 2009. Some of the challenges he noted then have already been overcome, such as integrating the monitoring components onto the soft contact lens.

Five years ago, Parviz noted that another challenge was integrating LEDs onto contact lenses, because some are made with toxic materials such as arsenic. Google is still “exploring” adding tiny LEDs to the lenses.

Google is hardly alone in developing contact lenses for novel medical purposes. A Swiss company Sensimed has a soft contact lens with micro-sensors that monitor eye pressure for glaucoma patients. It is being used in Europe but is not yet for sale in the United States.

The market for all wearable technology is expected to be at least US $6 billion by 2016, according to IMS Research. Health and medical applications will lead, with fitness and wellness and infotainment not far behind.

As Google Glass has shown, there is a huge interest in the mass market for glasses or contact lenses that can provide augmented reality. But Google is just one player. Major companies, such as Medtronic, Nike, Adidas, Sony, and Garmin International are all developing wearable tech for different applications.

At CES this year, iOptik showed off its high resolution augmented reality display prototypes that rely on a contact lens as well as a wearable display. Without the glasses, the contact lenses allow the user to see the world as he usually would. Throw on the glasses, however, and the wearer sees a screen with a 60-degree field of view. Currently, Google Glass has a field of view of about 13 degrees.

Infotainment wearable tech still has a long way to go, but it has one less hurdle than medical devices in the United States: they need not seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. “We’re in discussions with the FDA, but there’s still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use,” Otis and Parviz wrote of their research, adding that it cannot just be an in-house effort. “We’re not going to do this alone: we plan to look for partners who are experts in bringing products like this to market.”

CES 2014 Trends: New Remotes and Interfaces to Make Smart TVs Actually Usable

Just about any TV you buy today, except the lowest of the low end, is going to be smart and connected. In other words, besides tuning in regular television broadcasts via cable, satellite, or over-the-air, it will allow you to connect to subscription on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon, and pull in programming from websites such as YouTube and Hulu. It will also likely have a standard Web browser for more general Internet use, and might even connect to your computer or home server to let you browse home videos or downloaded movies.

None of this is particularly new; it started out in the highest end TV models and has been trickling down.

It seems, however, that the TV manufacturers have realized that although they put all this capability in their televisions, too many people were ignoring it. The reason: The user interface, to put it mildly, was dismal. “Smart TV has a high adoption because we put it into TVs, but people aren’t getting most out of it," Tim Alessi, director of new product development for LG,said during a panel session at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas last week. "Yet we keep putting in new features. Making it more user friendly is one of the things we need to do.”

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Batteries Aboard Boeing Dreamliner Go Blooey Again

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Last year's problems also involved a JAL airliner, which was in Boston's Logan Airport at the time. A Nippon Air 787 was similarly affected two weeks later.

What happened this time around is still unclear.

Last year, though, the culprit was thermal runaway—a self-accelerating reaction that causes a battery to release energy all too quickly. Some critics blamed the choice of lithium-ion battery technology, which saves an insignificant amount of weight in the plane's design and is only a bit more convenient than the old metal-hydride batteries were. Others cast aspersions just on the particular anode chemistry that Boeing had chosen for the battery—a chemistry that was efficient but relatively volatile. A different criticism was offered by Elon Musk, who pioneered the use of lithium-ion batteries in his Tesla car. He said that Boeing should have used a larger number of smaller cells and insulated the cells more effectively from one another.

In the end, Boeing got the 787s back in the air with a workaround involving a thicker containment vessel that included heat sensors and a venting system. Whether that system worked yesterday in Narita is not yet known.

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Tech Could Treat Behavior That Leads to Obesity, Eating Disorders

Scientists and engineers in Europe are embarking on a quest to see if they can change the way young people at risk for becoming obese eat. Key to this will be developing unobtrusive technology that monitors how quickly or slowly a person is eating and guides them toward a healthier pace.

“It’s a behavioral issue,” explains Anastasios Delopoulos, the project leader and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in Greece. When a person begins to eat they typically begin at a high rate and slow down until they feel full. “It’s similar to the voltage of a capacitor as more and more electrons accumulate in it,” he says.

However, obese people or people at risk for the condition have difficulty feeling full, and so they tend to eat a constant, high rate. Some people at risk for eating disorders, such as anorexia, have a similar problem. But for them, the rate is unusually low. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” says Delopoulos.

Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have already measured these rates in patients using a device called a mandometer, which was developed by AB Mando Group. The mandometer is essentially a scale that sits beneath a patient’s plate and records how quickly it lightens as the patient eats. Scientists have found that by making patients mimic a normal eating curve, they can train them to have a more normal sense of satiety—thereby treating the obesity or the eating disorder.

The challenge for the new, three-year European Union-funded project, called Splendid, is to bring that monitoring and treatment out of the clinic and into the real world. “Now we want to move toward prevention,” says Delopoulos. “We want to target some students who are not obese and identify who [among them] are at risk of becoming obese.”

For that they’ll need to develop less-obtrusive monitoring and behavioral modification technology, and the software to run it. On the hardware side of things, the Splendid researchers are working on developing wearable tech that would be able to understand and monitor chewing. The first option is to use a well-placed microphone. The idea is that the sensor would capture chewing noises and be able to interpret the rate of chewing and some information about the texture of the food. They won’t be able to tell Coca-Cola from Pepsi, jokes Delopoulos, but they should be able to tell chewy things from crispy ones or liquids.

Indeed, ear-based systems have already shown promise: Engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute of Photonic Microsystems, in Dresden, tested eight chew-detection algorithms using an in-ear microphone and recently reported 80 percent accuracy for most of them.

The other option is to adapt a photoplethysmogram—a device that detects a change in the volume of tissue by monitoring the way light is absorbed or reflected. The idea here is seeing if there is an unobtrusive spot on the body where the act of chewing produces a readable signal. The Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), a Zurich-based partner in Splendid, is in charge of that aspect of the research.

Where on the body these sensors will go depends on the quality of the signals they achieve, says Delopoulos. “We want to be as invisible as possible,” he says. So they are investigating sensor designs that would go in the ear, sit behind the ear, or hang from a necklace, among others.

The project will also include activity monitoring. As the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) indicated, there’s already a lot of commercially available activity trackers out there.

Delopoulos’ lab itself will be in charge of “signal understanding”—figuring out things like chew rate, meal duration, and other parameters from the signals they can extract from the new wearable sensors. Once they have those signals, they’ll develop the algorithms needed to tell whether a person is at risk for becoming obese, and if they’ve already been asked to modify their behavior, how well they are doing it.

Getting all that into an unobtrusive wearable device wouldn’t have been easy five years ago, say Delopoulos. Android smartphones are now powerful enough to run the needed statistical learning algorithms. And those algorithms themselves are “much more mature now,” he says. “That’s due to research carried out in multimedia indexing and retrieval.”

They’ve got about a year and half to figure out the complete system, then it will be tested on high school kids at an international school in Sweden and young adults in The Netherlands.

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