Friday, April 24, 2015

Disney Invented a Way To Control Your Phone Using the Sounds It Emits

Disney Invented a Way To Control Your Phone Using the Sounds It Emits
In an effort to bring more functionality and interactivity to a device that is often just a large monolothic touchscreen, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research have come up with a series of accessories that manipulate sound coming from a smartphone’s speaker to serve as an external controller.
Called Acoustruments, the cheap plastic accessories direct an ultrasonic sound from a smartphone’s speaker back to its own microphone. But in-between the speaker and mic are obstacles that change or vary the pitch and intensity of the sound—similar to how moving the slide on a slide whistle can change the sound it produces.

An accompanying app knows exactly what sound is being produced, and by comparing that to what the microphone ends up hearing, the Acoustrement can determine how a user is interacting with the device. The accessory could be as simple as a button that serves as a snooze button, or a wheel that changes settings like a dial, or a full-on smartphone case that knows when the device is sitting on a table, being held, or even squeezed like a camera.
And because it doesn’t actually draw any power from the device (besides the constant ultrasonic tone being produced) this added functionality doesn’t hinder a smartphone’s already limited battery life. So eventually it could be implemented directly into a device’s housing, adding more buttons or ways to interact with a smartphone, without any negative consequences. [Disney Research]

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How electrifying the brain wards off Parkinson's disease

Implanting electrodes in the brain and zapping it helps patients with Parkinson's and otherdisorders, but doctors have never been sure why, exactly. Now, researchers from UC San Francisco think that the therapy (called deep-brain stimulation, or DBS) works by altering neural timings, in much the same way a defibrillator resets heart rhythms. In a healthy brain, neuron firing is controlled by low frequency rhythms that sync up movement, memory and other functions. But the UC team found that the synchronization is too strong in Parkinson's patients, making it harder for them to move voluntarily.
The brain needs a balance between autonomy and rhythm, which is where DBS comes in. The implants appear to lower the overly lock-step synchronization, improving patient coordination and other symptoms. But the invasive, six-hour-long surgery requires implanting probes into deep brain structures and the patient must be awakened mid-surgery to test it out -- so anything that can make it more effective is helpful. According to the researchers, "we can (now) begin to think of new ways for stimulators to be automatically controlled by brain activity, which is the next innovation in treatment for movement disorders."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Netflix gives blind fans of Daredevil the audio descriptions they asked for

Audio descriptions are coming soon to Netflix's other original shows

Netflix is doing more to make its service accessible to blind customers and those who are visually impaired. Today, the company announced that it's rolling out audio descriptions, which are narration tracks that describe "what is happening on-screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings and scene changes." The first series to get audio descriptions is Netflix's newest (and very good) original series Daredevil, and it's something comic book fans have been asking for. To feature an original series starring a blind protagonist — while not doing all it could to accommodate blind customers — has recently put Netflix's lacking accessibility options through fresh scrutiny.
But the company says audio descriptions will quickly be expanded beyond just Daredevil to include House of CardsOrange is the New BlackUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Marco Polo. Narration tracks for those shows will be added in the "coming weeks," and Netflix says customers can access them like any other alternate audio track. Netflix isn't stopping with its own original programming though, pledging that it's "actively committed to increasing the number of audio-visual translations for movies and shows" in a blog post today. Discussions with studios and content owners to move that effort along are ongoing, and Netflix is "also exploring adding audio description into other languages in the future."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Microsoft Debuts Office Lens, A Document-Scanning App For iOS And Android

Microsoft today launched Office Lens, a mobile document scanner app that works with OneNote, for iOS and Android smartphones. The app, which allows users to snap photos of paper documents, receipts, business cards, menus, whiteboards, sticky notes and more, was first launched a year ago as an application designed only for Windows Phone devices.
But in conjunction with the company’s newer strategy to embrace other platforms outside its own, the app has now arrived on Apple’s App Store and on Android phones, where it will sit alongside dozens of other Microsoft applications, including Office and Outlook.
Office Lens’ core functionality itself is not all that different from a number of document-scanning applications on the mobile app stores today, like Scanner Pro, TinyScan Pro, Scanbot and more. And much like Evernote’s Scannable app, for example, it exists more as an add-on or complement to a larger, more prominent product – in Microsoft’s case, OneNote.
Like most scanner apps, Office Lens identifies the text on the images it captures using optical character recognition (OCR), which allows you to later locate the file in question using keyword search in OneNote or in Microsoft’s cloud storage site, OneDrive. You can also convert the images you scan of paper files and whiteboards into Microsoft Office formats and more, including Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and even PDFs and JPGs. These can be inserted into OneNote as images, the company says.
Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 1.15.24 PM
In addition, Microsoft says that Office Lens offers a business-card scanning function that lets you turn cards into contacts you can add to your smartphone’s address book. That initially sounds similar to the functionality that Evernote Scannable offers, you’ll think. However Evernote also pulls in LinkedIn details, which is handy as it allows you to grow your network. (LinkedIn used to offer its own card-scanning app, but later shut it down and pointed people to Evernote instead.)
But with Office Lens, the process of turning cards into contacts is more involved than with Scannable. As a previous Microsoft blog post explained, it still involves the use of OneNote. That is, OneNote is able to recognize the contact information on the card, then you can open the attached VCF file from the OneNote app to save the contact details to Outlook or your phone’s contact list.
In Scannable, by way of comparison, you simply tap one button to save the scanned card to your phone’s contacts. That makes Scannable the better option for those looking mainly for a business card scanner, while Office Lens is really about catering to the heavy OneNote-using crowd instead.
Also like Evernote Scannable, Microsoft’s app also offers the ability to create an online archive of your scans in its own OneDrive service.
The new Office Lens app is available on the iTunes App Store for iOS users, while Android users are being asked to join the “preview” for the product via Google+. From here, they’ll be able to test the version ahead of its public debut.
The release comes at a time when Microsoft, a historically more closed company that tried to keep customers in its own ecosystem, has been expanding to other platforms besides its own.
Today, the company has extended some of its most popular products and services to competing mobile platforms like iOS and Android, including by launching Office for iOS late last year, as well as Outlook for iOS and Androidvarious MSN properties, OneDrive and more. In fact, the company now has over 100 iOS and Android applications in total.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

This mechanical exoskeleton makes walking more efficient

For the first time, researchers can improve the way humans walk without using an external power source, according to a studypublished in Nature today. A boot-like exoskeleton that fits into a regular running shoe reduces the energetic costs of walking by about 7 percent. In short, it makes walking less tiring without resorting to a battery pack or a motor  — something that could really come in handy for people who have trouble walking, or military personnel in remote areas.
"Our study shows that walking, a highly evolved human task, can be improved by manmade technology and engineering," says Gregory Sawicki, a co-author of the study and a physiologist at North Carolina State University. "That’s what’s so exciting for us."
A 7 percent reduction in the energy cost of walking isn’t entirely new: researchers have achieved similar gains in the past. In 2013, a group of researchers achieved a 6 percent reduction in energy costs thanks to an air compression system. Others have worked on exoskeletons that are powered by motors and battery packs. But the device that Sawicki and his team came up with doesn’t need any of that; it's unpowered. It makes walking less tiring by rerouting the energy that normally goes through your calf muscles and tendons into carbon fibre, metal — and a very basic spring.
"It’s sort of been a grand challenge in the field," Sawicki says. "All the way back to graduate school, we had our eyes on this — and whether or not this was even possible."
Unlike most muscles, the calf muscle doesn’t "turn on" by shortening itself and contracting. Instead, is provides a rigid link upon which the Achilles tendon can stretch and recoil. This is what the exoskeleton is replicating thanks to a system of springs and clutches. When the heel strikes the ground — a time when the Achilles tendon would normally hold onto the calf muscle with a high force — the clutch holds on to the spring of the exoskeleton. "From that point on, the forward momentum of your body is exchanged with the stretch of the spring; the spring kind of catches your forward movements," Sawicki says. This means that when the spring stretches some of the energy of the human body is transferred into it.
Collins, et al (2015)
The device is also super light weight. That means that the there’s no significant mass penalty that needs to be factored into the energy gains you get from wearing the exoskeleton on both legs. "The device weighs between 300 and 500 grams, which is a little heavier than your really lightweight running shoes," Sawicki says. "It’s about the weight of a normal dress loafer."
"The reported savings are impressive," says Heike Vallerya biomechanical engineer at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who didn't take part in the study. Art Kuo, a University of Michigan biomechanial engineer, also thinks that the findings are sound, but cautions that this is only a first step — medical applications are still far away, he says.
Others wonder how the device will fair with everyday use. "It isn't clear how the device would respond to non-rhythmical cyclic tasks," says Daniel Ferris, a biomedical engineer, also at the University of Michigan. Energy savings might not occur during tasks like standing, turning maneuvers, sit-to-stand and stand-to-sit motions. Still, Ferris thinks that the exoskeleton could prove useful for people who have reduced ankle strength — people with incomplete spinal cord injuries, the elderly, and people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, for instance.
Using the boot isn’t very hard, Sawicki says. "After 20 minutes or so, most people aren’t conscious of it;  it gets integrated into their being." The only time users notice it is when they take it off. "There’s this heavy leg feeling after, that lasts for up to five minutes for some people," he says. "You feel like your leg is collapsing under you."
This hints at something that researchers will undoubtedly have to investigate: what are the effects of wearing the exoskeleton for long periods of time, on a regular basis? Given what happens when people spend a lot of time in wheelchairs, it’s possible that a user's leg muscles would become weak with extended use. "My instinct is to say that if you wore it all the time, the body would recognize the parallel pathway, and the morphology of your leg would change," Sawicki says. But "we just don’t know yet."
It took over five years to come up with this design. And the fact that they were able to do this at all has a lot to do with advancements in medical imaging techniques. "That whole 'clutch-holding and Achilles-stretching' thing — we didn’t know about that until the late 2000s, when people were started using ultrasound imaging to look at what muscles were doing," Sawicki says. Thanks these techniques, researchers were able to see that the calf muscle and the Achilles tendon were acting like the clutch and spring in the exoskeleton. "It changed the way we look at exoskeletons."
There’s a lot that the exoskeleton can’t do right now; it really only works at certain speeds. "The device in the paper will break during running," Sawicki says. The researchers still have to find a way to make a sturdier (and bulkier device) that can withstand harder impacts. Different materials, like electroactive polymers, might help them do that. "We need to build a device that can do it all."
Still, if all you want to do is go for a walk, the exoskeleton can help. People who like to go hiking might want to wear it, Sawicki says. The exoskeleton might also prove useful for military personnel. But what the team is really interested in are the medical applications. "It could be a mobility aid for people who have had a stroke," Sawicki says. Given the regulations surrounding medical devices, the exoskeleton might end up making it to market as a recreational device first, however. Sawicki thinks that the final product would cost a little under $1,000.

    But before the researchers can think of marketing the exoskeleton to hikers, Sawicki and his team will have to come up with a name. They’re open to suggestions, he told The Verge. You might want to stay away from superhero references, however. "I love science fiction and stuff — I think it has provided a lot of motivation for our field — but it’s so far removed from where we are in the field in terms of capability," Sawicki says. Moreover, making a superhero suit doesn't align very well with what the researchers are trying to achieve. "Even if we could build Ironman, how practical would it be for regular use? People wouldn’t be able to afford it. We want to make things that are simple and accessible to a large amount of people."

    7-year-old girl gets 3D printed 'robohand'

    When Faith Lennox was nine months old, she lost her left hand. Now at age seven, she's getting one custom made by a 3D printer. It's called a 'robohand'. She got to pick the colors and watch the printing process firsthand at Build It Workspace, a 3D printer studio in California.
    Build It's Mark Lengsfeld thinks the technology will revolutionize prosthetics, especially in children who outgrow prosthetic limbs or have trouble using them due to size and weight.