Study: At-home 3-D printing could save consumers 'thousands'
July 31st, 2013
12:06 PM ET

Study: At-home 3-D printing could save consumers 'thousands'

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Personal 3-D printers may sound like a pricey luxury or a niche product for geeks, but soon they could become a household appliance that saves people thousands of dollars a year.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University conducted a study to find out how much a family might save by printing common objects, such as simple replacement parts or toys, at home instead of buying them in stores or online.

"It was relatively shocking what the return on investment was," said associate professor Joshua Pearce, who led the study. "Realistically, it's in the thousands."

Much of the recent 3-D printer hype has focused on how the technology is going to revolutionize the manufacturing industry or what cool things it can create - human organs, duck feet, see-through hermit crab shells shaped like cities. But it's the small, mundane objects that could have the most immediate impact on wallets. (Especially if you print your own wallet.) FULL POST

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Robots: The future of elder care?
July 19th, 2013
03:42 PM ET

Robots: The future of elder care?

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Would you let a robot take over as a live-in nurse for your aging parent or grandparent?

In 2050, the elderly will account for 16 percent of the global population. That's 1.5 billion people over the age of 65, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Caring for those seniors - physically, emotionally and mentally - will be an enormous undertaking, and experts say there will be a shortage of professionals trained and willing to take on the job.

"We have to find more resources and have to get new ways of delivering those resources and delivering the quality of care," says Antonio Espingardeiro, an expert in robotics and automation at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, and a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

Enter the elder-care robot.

Robots have the potential to meet many of the needs of an aging population, according to Espingardeiro. A software engineer, Espingardeiro is finishing his PhD on new types of human and robotic interaction. He has developed a model of elder-care robot, P37 S65, which can monitor senior patients and communicate with doctors while providing basic care and companionship. FULL POST

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Meet DARPA's 6'2" disaster-response robot
July 16th, 2013
10:18 AM ET

Meet DARPA's 6'2" disaster-response robot

By Heather Kelly, CNN

At six-foot-two and 330 pounds, this hulking first responder has all the qualities you'd want in the field after a disaster:  strength, endurance and calm under pressure. Better yet, it has two sets of hands, 28 hydraulic joints, stereo cameras in its head and an onboard computer.

The ATLAS humanoid robot, which looks vaguely like something from the "Terminator" movies, was created by Boston Dynamics for DARPA, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. It will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a competition that invites engineers to create a remotely controlled robot that can respond to natural or man-made disasters.

The winning robot could be used in situations deemed too dangerous for humans, like the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The DRC is broken up into three challenges. The first was the Virtual Robotics Challenge, in which 26 teams controlled simulated, 3-D robots. Only seven of those teams - including participants from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory - were chosen to go on to the next stage. They will each get their very own ATLAS for the Robotics Challenge Trials, a real-life obstacle course competition between robots that will take place this December in Florida.

As part of the challenge, the teams will program their humanoid robot to accomplish a range of tasks. ATLAS will need to drive a car, navigate complicated terrain on foot and move rubble in order to enter a building. It will also have to climb stairs and use various tools to do things like turn off valves or break through concrete walls.

ATLAS has modular wrists so that it can swap out hands and attach third-party mitts to better handle specific tasks. The robot's head also has LIDAR to better gather information about the surrounding area.

The robots will need to be able to complete tasks on their own without constant human control, which will be a key feature if they are in situations where communications are spotty. DARPA also wants the final robots to be easily controlled by people who have had minimal amounts of training, so that the technology is accessible to more people on short notice.

The teams whose robots perform the best at the trials later this year will continue to receive funding and compete in the competition's final stage in December 2014. The Robotics Challenge Finals will put the robots through a full disaster scenario that will include eight tasks each robot must complete.

In addition to improving future disaster response, winners of the 27-month competition will receive a $2 million prize.

The ATLAS robots are the result of a $10 million contract with Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts engineering and robotics-design company.  That amount covers eight robots, in-field support and any necessary maintenance.

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Controlling flying robots with your mind
June 6th, 2013
03:43 PM ET

Controlling flying robots with your mind

By Heather Kelly, CNN

A graduate student wearing a skull cap covered in wires sits perfectly still and thinks about making a fist with his right hand.

Nearby, a small quadcopter - a flying drone with four rotors - turns right. He imagines making a fist with his left hand and the robotic flying copter goes left. After a thought about clenching both hands, it lifts higher into the air.

He is controlling the device with his mind.

The system is part of a new research project that reads the brain's electrical activity and translates certain thoughts into commands for the unmanned aerial vehicle. It's called a brain-computer interface, and someday it could have important uses for people who are paralyzed.

"We envision that they’ll use this technology to control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices," said University of Minnesota engineering professor Bin He in a post announcing the project.

This graduate student wears a special skull cap that allows him to manipulate the flying robot with his mind.

Here's how it works: Imagining specific movements without actually doing them produces electric currents in the motor cortex. The interface itself isn't new, but the researchers used brain imaging scans to find out exactly which imagined movements activated which neurons.

Once they mapped out the various thoughts and associated signals, they used them to control a helicopter simulation on a computer. Next, they moved on to real flying devices.

There are no implants or invasive brain tweaks needed for subject to control the copter with their brain. The technology is called electroencephalography (EEG). The skull cap uses 64 electrodes to detect these currents from a subject's brain as they think about associated actions, then translates that data into instructions and transmits them to the quadcopter over Wi-Fi.

In the test, pilots weren't allowed to look at the quadcopter while they controlled it, only a screen showing the view from a small camera mounted on the front of the flying vehicle. After a few hours of training, the subjects could move the quadcopters with precision, even  guiding them through hoops suspended from the ceiling.

Flying is just the start for this technology, He said.

"It may even help patients with conditions like autism or Alzheimer’s disease or help stroke victims recover," he said. "We’re now studying some stroke patients to see if it’ll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas."

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Drones: The future of disaster response
Fireflight's Scout is a light, portable unmanned aerial vehicle that its maker says is easy to launch and recover.
May 23rd, 2013
01:29 PM ET

Drones: The future of disaster response

By Heather Kelly, CNN

First responders to Monday's massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, were greeted with a blighted expanse of destroyed homes, blocked roads, downed power lines and a limited window of time to unearth survivors before the sun set.

Navigating the area on foot or by car was a challenge because of the debris. News and law-enforcement helicopters filled the air above, but while they gathered useful information for rescue crews, the noise they created was drowning out cries for help from trapped survivors.

The entire area was declared a no-fly zone.

But one airborne technology will soon make responding to these kinds disasters easier: unmanned automated vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called drones. These portable, affordable aircraft can launch quickly in dangerous situations, locate survivors and send data about their whereabouts to responders on the ground. FULL POST

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Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms
May 8th, 2013
05:28 PM ET

Testing touchscreen tables in classrooms

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Forget tiny iPads - the classrooms of the future might turn entire tables into interactive touchscreens.

Given that many children can sit rapturously before a glowing touchscreen for hours, such gadgets seem like a natural for the classroom. But as with any new teaching technology, it's important to make sure it actually helps students learn and teachers teach before getting caught up in its "cool" factor.

A recent study by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK took touchscreen tables into the classroom for some hands-on tests and found the technology (and training) still have to improve before they are fully effective. The researchers say theirs is one of the first studies of this type of technology in actual classrooms, instead of lab situations.

The tables were used in real classrooms over the course of six weeks for lessons in geography, English and history.  The five teachers involved in the study prepared the projects based on what the kids were currently learning in class. Each table was used by two to four students at a time, though the table's creators say it can hold up to six students. On the screen were a collaborative writing program and an app called Digital Mysteries, which were designed specifically for large tabletop PCs.

These types of tables are already commercially available and can be seen in the wild in locations like museums. SMART Technologies, for example, makes a table with a 42-inch, 1080p display for $7,749. The prices for these interactive tables will likely come down in the future, but they will still remain a big investment for any school district.

And before schools invest heavily in these kinds of tools, the study's authors say that more in-class research and tweaks to the software should be done.

Read CNN's education blog: Schools of Thought

A few of the issues raised were the same that come up in most group work. Some students would complete tasks faster than others, while others would lose focus and fall behind. Teachers in the study found they couldn't always tell when students were working versus just pretending to work and moving items around the screen.

Suggested improvements to the tools included more detailed progress indicators for the individual students. Researchers also recommend that the apps add more flexibility so that teachers can control, change and pause the lessons. In an old-school twist, researchers also recommended that the programs include an option for exporting kids' progress so they can print it out.

Researchers also emphasized the need for more teacher-friendly features and control over the apps, plus proper training for any educator who plans on integrating these types of tables with their regular classroom curriculum.

"To make the most use of them teachers have to make them part of the classroom activity they have planned – not make it the lesson activity,” said Dr Ahmed Kharrufa in a statement.

In other words, even the most advanced technology won't be able to replace good teachers.

[Via PhysOrg]

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3-D photo booth makes a miniature you
November 15th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

3-D photo booth makes a miniature you

By Heather Kelly, CNN

If you've always wanted a smaller replica of yourself, but are hesitant to commit to the cost and stress of parenthood, there is now an alternative. If you're in Tokyo, you can sit for a 3-D portrait.

Omote 3D Shashin Kan is a pop-up portrait studio that uses a handheld scanner to create a three-dimensional model of your entire body.  A 3-D printer then makes a small, intricately detailed plastic figurine. The final, full-color models look exactly like the larger you, down to the wrinkles on the clothes and part in the hair.

The 3D photo-booth project is part of a photography exhibition at the Eye of Gyre gallery in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood. It's the brainchild of PARTY, a young ad, branding and entertainment company based in New York and Tokyo. FULL POST

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