Hands-on: Microsoft’s HoloLens is flat-out magical
2015: The year that sci-fi becomes real
by Peter Bright - Jan 22 2015, 12:40am EST
For the second time in as many months, I feel like I've taken a step into the world of science fiction—and for the second time in as many months, it's Microsoft who put me there.
After locking away all my recording instruments and switching to the almost prehistoric pen and paper, I had a tantalizingly brief experience of Microsoft's HoloLens system, a headset that creates a fusion of virtual images and the real world. While production HoloLens systems will be self-contained and cord-free, the developer units we used had a large compute unit worn on a neck strap and an umbilical cord for power. Production hardware will automatically measure the interpupillary distance and calibrate itself accordingly; the dev kits need this to be measured manually and punched in. The dev kits were also heavy, unwieldy, fragile, and didn't really fit on or around my glasses, making them uncomfortable to boot.
But even with this clumsy hardware, the experience was nothing short of magical.
Microsoft calls it holography. I'm not sure if it really is (Wired describes HoloLens' "light engine" as having a "grating," so perhaps it really is using interference patterns to reconstruct light fields rather than providing the same simple stereoscopic 3D found in VR systems), but this is a detail that only pedants will care about. (Though if it is true holography, it should solve the focus issue that many people find with existing 3D systems.)
However it works, HoloLens is an engaging and effective augmented reality system. With HoloLens I saw virtual objects—Minecraft castles, Skype windows, even the surface of Mars—presented over, and spatially integrated with, the real world.
It looked for every bit like the holographic projection we saw depicted in Star Wars and Total Recall. Except that's shortchanging Microsoft's work, because these virtual objects were in fact far more convincing than the washed out, translucent message R2D2 projected, and much better than Sharon Stone's virtual tennis coach. The images were bright, saturated, and reasonably opaque, giving the virtual objects a real feeling of solidity.
Minecraft comes alive
We ran through three interactive demos and watched a fourth. My favorite was Minecraft. I was in a room with a couple of tables and a picture on the wall. After putting on the headset and looking around the room so that the HoloLens could figure out where everything was, the world around me suddenly transformed. The table was no longer just a table. It had a big castle on it, with a river flowing beneath. The middle of the table was no longer there; I could peer through the hole to see the river below. As I moved around the room, I could examine the castle from all angles.
My attention was then turned to a second table which had something of a zombie infestation. Fortunately, the foolish zombies were clustered around a block of TNT. Detonating the TNT blasted through the table, revealing a lava pit below. The zombies toppled through the hole and fell to their deaths.
The picture frame on the wall now housed more TNT. Triggering it revealed a large cavern beyond—and out flew a bunch of blocky bats.
Through it all, the 3D effect was thoroughly convincing. The system felt very low latency; as I moved my head and walked around, the objects retained their positioning in the real world, with the castle, for example, never becoming detached from or wobbling around on the table. While Minecraft of course falls some way short of having photorealistic graphics, the melding of real and physical nonetheless felt convincing.
If Microsoft can get the price of HoloLens right, it could become the must-have Minecraft accessory at Christmastime. Microsoft's decision to buy Minecraft's developer all of a sudden makes sense.
A Skype demo was intriguing. I, with the headset, was talking to a person using regular Skype on a Surface Pro 3. The person was helping me wire up a light switch (and it seems that, yes, it was a real light switch with real electricity running through it). My assistant saw the world through my eyes; I saw him on a floating Skype pane that I could pin in place, where his head would remain. Using his Surface Pro 3 pen, the assistant drew diagrams showing me how to wire the switch up, pointing out which tool I should use for each task.
While I'm not so sure about the specific situation of using Skype to perform simple home repairs, the ability to overlay directions and guidance onto the real world feels like something that could be valuable in all manner of technical fields. The ability to see things through someone else's eyes is also intriguing. It almost brings to mind the film Strange Days, and I'm sure we can all remember what the S.Q.U.I.D.s were used for there; I imagine that HoloLens will find similar use cases.
Mission to Mars
Our third and final demo took me to the surface of Mars. I walked around a 3D world constructed from data captured by the Curiosity rover. (NASA intends to use HoloLens to explore data from Curiosity and collaboratively make decisions on how the rover should spend its time.) The experience reinforced just how immersive this kind of augmented reality can be; the Martian imagery obliterated most of the room I was in, except for a computer workstation. I joked that I was surprised to see a computer desk on the Martian surface, because that's what I was seeing.
The Mars demo extended the HoloLens experience in a few ways. In Minecraft and Skype, the interactivity was provided by a mix of voice command and hand gesture—a sort of finger wag serving as a mouse click—with the cursor driven by the direction I was looking. On Mars, I could use a mouse cursor to perform finer manipulations.
On Mars I was also joined by a second person, who appeared before me as a sort of golden apparition. This other person was using HoloLens, too, and so I could see a gaze line emanating from the face, showing me exactly what was being looked at. The apparition talked to me about some of the rocks and how they indicated that we were likely standing in what was once a lake bed.
Finally, the one non-interactive demo showed off HoloStudio, Microsoft's 3D modeling application for HoloLens. We saw a koala in a space suit and a monster truck assembled in front of us, again using a mix of voice and gesture control. Microsoft described this as "print preview for 3D printing;" by projecting the objects in 3D space and integrating them with the real world, artists and designers can get a sense of just how their objects will look before sending them to the 3D printer.
Is this the future? In a few years' time will we do away with computer screens and walk around with magical 3D glasses? I don't know about that. Traditional screens are better for shared viewing, don't have battery life concerns, don't require headgear, and so on and so forth.
But HoloLens certainly felt like part of the future. It excites me. I imagine a world of gaming that interacts with the environment around me. A world where designers and engineers can manipulate virtual 3D objects JARVIS-style, simply by using their hands. A world where I can sit at my desktop PC and have a monitor that's near infinitely large and totally private. I don't know exactly what people will use HoloLens for, but it feels very much like the killer app is out there, just waiting for someone to develop.
I felt it to be a much more compelling future than VR, too. The VR systems I've tried make me feel too detached from the outside world, to a degree that I find disorienting. Also unlike VR systems, HoloLens didn't make me want to instantly vomit. It felt very natural.
I would like to know why Microsoft didn't go this route (as others are doing) and wonder if it would be easy to offer a blackout mode that did obscure the view of the outside world for a VR experience—such a thing may not be to my tastes, but others seem to enjoy them.
I also find myself anticipating future iterations of the technology; I can imagine a HoloLens with pupil tracking, for example, so the cursor could follow my eye movements rather than my head movements.
Microsoft wowed me with HoloLens. I'm already impatient for production hardware, and I can't wait to see what people do with this.
Telomere-lengthening procedure turns clock back years in human cells wrote:Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a new procedure to increase the length of human telomeres.
This increases the number of times cells are able to divide, essentially making the cells many years younger. This not only has useful applications for laboratory work, but may point the way to treating various age-related disorders – or even muscular dystrophy.
Telomeres are the caps at the ends of our chromosomes that protect the DNA code of the genome. Linked to aging and disease, they are 8,000 to 10,000 nucleotides long in young people, but this decreases as we age (a nucleotide is an organic molecule that is a subunit of nucleic acids DNA and RNA). The researchers have found a way to lengthen a telomere by 1,000 nucleotides, which Dr. Helen Brau, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford, says is the equivalent of "many years of human life."
Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides and at a certain point, when they reach a critical length, the cell can no longer divide and will die. Their limited lifespan means that growing cells in laboratories can be tricky, given there can only be so many cell doublings before they give up the ghost. Telomere function in humans has been linked to many diseases and they have been studied for decades, often in the hope of better understanding or delaying the aging process.
Cells treated with Stanford’s procedure multiply in a similar way to much younger cells, compared with untreated cells of the same age. According to the researchers, skin cells with telomeres lengthened by the procedure were able to divide around 28 more times than untreated cells, while muscle cells divided about three more times. With this new procedure, which uses modified RNA, many more cells can be easily generated for study and drug development or disease modeling.
The “modified messenger” RNA contains the coding sequence for the active component of telomerase, called TERT. Telomerase is the enzyme that rebuilds telomeres and stem cells, including those that give rise eggs and sperm, express the enzyme at a much higher rate than other kinds of cells. Essentially, the RNA is a kind of genetic carrier pigeon in that it carries instructions from the DNA’s genes to the cell’s protein-making areas. Interestingly, in previous work Dr Blau found that the muscle stem cells of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy had far shorter telomeres than those not suffering from the disease.
Although application of this RNA initially causes telomeres to lengthen, within 48 hours they once again begin to shorten as cells divide. This is a good thing, however, as cells that divide endlessly could pose a increased cancer risk if used in humans.
Just three applications of the modified RNA over a short space of days can increase telomere length in muscle and skin cells.
"Our technique is nonimmunogenic," said postdoctoral scholar John Ramunas. "Existing transient methods of extending telomeres act slowly, whereas our method acts over just a few days to reverse telomere shortening that occurs over more than a decade of normal aging. This suggests that a treatment using our method could be brief and infrequent."
Researchers are now testing the technique on other types cells and may try to treat accelerated aging disorders or target types of muscle cells in cases of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or even heart disease.
Magnetic sense for humans? Electronic skin with magneto-sensory system enables 'sixth sense'
February 3, 2015
Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden
Scientists from Germany and Japan have developed a new magnetic sensor, which is thin, robust and pliable enough to be smoothly adapted to human skin, even to the most flexible part of the human palm. The achievement suggests it may be possible to equip humans with magnetic sense.
The new magnetic sensors are light enough (three gram per square meter) to float on a soap bubble.
Credit: IFW Dresden
Scientists from Germany and Japan have developed a new magnetic sensor, which is thin, robust and pliable enough to be smoothly adapted to human skin, even to the most flexible part of the human palm. The achievement suggests it may be possible to equip humans with magnetic sense.
Magnetoception is a sense which allows bacteria, insects and even vertebrates like birds and sharks to detect magnetic fields for orientation and navigation. Humans are however unable to perceive magnetic fields naturally. Dr. Denys Makarov and his team have developed an electronic skin with a magneto-sensory system that equips the recipient with a "sixth sense" able to perceive the presence of static or dynamic magnetic fields. These novel magneto-electronics are less than two micrometers thick and weights only three gram per square meter; they can even float on a soap bubble.
The new magnetic sensors withstand extreme bending with radii of less than three micrometer, and survive crumpling like a piece of paper without sacrificing the sensor performance. On elastic supports like a rubber band, they can be stretched to more than 270 percent and for over 1,000 cycles without fatigue. These versatile features are imparted to the magnetoelectronic elements by their ultra-thin and -flexible, yet robust polymeric support.
"We have demonstrated an on-skin touch-less human-machine interaction platform, motion and displacement sensorics applicable for soft robots or functional medical implants as well as magnetic functionalities for electronics on the skin," says Michael Melzer, the PhD student of the ERC group led by Denys Makarov concentrating on the realization of flexible and stretchable magnetoelectronics. "These ultrathin magnetic sensors with extraordinary mechanical robustness are ideally suited to be wearable, yet unobtrusive and imperceptible for orientation and manipulation aids," adds Prof. Oliver G. Schmidt, who is the director of the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at the IFW Dresden.
This work was carried out at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research (IFW Dresden) and the TU Chemnitz in close collaboration with partners at the University of Tokyo and Osaka University in Japan.
The above story is based on materials provided by Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
Michael Melzer, Martin Kaltenbrunner, Denys Makarov, Dmitriy Karnaushenko, Daniil Karnaushenko, Tsuyoshi Sekitani, Takao Someya, Oliver G. Schmidt. Imperceptible magnetoelectronics. Nature Communications, 2015; 6: 6080 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7080
Auckland-based Rocket Lab has unveiled what it says is the world's first battery-powered rocket engine.
The engine on its Electron rocket will do away with expensive and complex gas generators and instead use small high-performance electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps. The engine will also incorporate parts made by 3D printers to cut costs and speed up the manufacturing process.
The 18m tall Electron is about a third the size of average rockets it will compete with to take satellites into space and is designed to slash the cost of launches.
Rocket Lab unveiled its turbo pump system overnight at the United States Space Symposium, a gathering of more than 10,000 involved in space technology in Colorado.
The company's chief executive, Peter Beck, said the new electric propulsion cycle could generate 4600lb of thrust.Electron will take satellites - up to the size of small fridges - to a range of 500km above the earth. Beck said the company was on track for its first test launch by the end of the year from a site in New Zealand that would be announced soon.The carbon-composite Electron would launch satellites for about $6.6 million. To get satellites into space with other companies can cost more than $100 million, Beck said.
The company also says its engine will be the first to use 3D printed parts for all its primary components including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves.
Beck said materials such as titanium and other alloys go through printers to create complex, lightweight structures, reducing the build time from months to days and increasing affordability.
While 3D printing is used by other aerospace firms - including Airbus which uses the parts on its A350 aircraft - Beck said this was the first time they had been used so extensively for a space vehicle.
justdrew » Sat Feb 21, 2015 10:02 pm wrote:http://phys.org/news/2015-02-oregon-pipeline-electricity.html
"It's pretty rare to find a new source of energy where there's no environmental impact"
Drug perks up old muscles and aging brains
Whether you're brainy, brawny or both, you may someday benefit from a drug found to rejuvenate aging brain and muscle tissue.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that a small-molecule drug simultaneously perks up old stem cells in the brains and muscles of mice, a finding that could lead to drug interventions for humans that would make aging tissues throughout the body act young again.
"We established that you can use a single small molecule to rescue essential function in not only aged brain tissue but aged muscle," said co-author David Schaffer, director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "That is good news, because if every tissue had a different molecular mechanism for aging, we wouldn't be able to have a single intervention that rescues the function of multiple tissues."
The drug interferes with the activity of a growth factor, transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-beta1), that Schaffer's UC Berkeley colleague Irina Conboy showed over the past 10 years depresses the ability of various types of stem cells to renew tissue.
"Based on our earlier papers, the TGF-beta1 pathway seemed to be one of the main culprits in multi-tissue aging," said Conboy, an associate professor of bioengineering. "That one protein, when upregulated, ages multiple stem cells in distinct organs, such as the brain, pancreas, heart and muscle. This is really the first demonstration that we can find a drug that makes the key TGF-beta1 pathway, which is elevated by aging, behave younger, thereby rejuvenating multiple organ systems."
The UC Berkeley team reported its results in the current issue of the journal Oncotarget. Conboy and Schaffer are members of a consortium of faculty who study aging within the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).
Depressed stem cells lead to aging
Aging is ascribed, in part, to the failure of adult stem cells to generate replacements for damaged cells and thus repair the body's tissues. Researchers have shown that this decreased stem cell activity is largely a result of inhibitory chemicals in the environment around the stem cell, some of them dumped there by the immune system as a result of chronic, low-level inflammation that is also a hallmark of aging.
In 2005, Conboy and her colleagues infused old mice with blood from young mice - a process called parabiosis - reinvigorating stem cells in the muscle, liver and brain/hippocampus and showing that the chemicals in young blood can actually rejuvenate the chemical environment of aging stem cells. Last year, doctors began a small trial to determine whether blood plasma from young people can help reverse brain damage in elderly Alzheimer's patients.
Such therapies are impractical if not dangerous, however, so Conboy, Schaffer and others are trying to track down the specific chemicals that can be used safely and sustainably for maintaining the youthful environment for stem cells in many organs. One key chemical target for the multi-tissue rejuvenation is TGF-beta1, which tends to increase with age in all tissues of the body and which Conboy showed depresses stem cell activity when present at high levels.
Five years ago, Schaffer, who studies neural stem cells in the brain, teamed up with Conboy to look at TGF-beta1 activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important in memory and learning. Among the hallmarks of aging are a decline in learning, cognition and memory. In the new study, they showed that in old mice, the hippocampus has increased levels of TGF-beta1 similar to the levels in the bloodstream and other old tissue.
Using a viral vector that Schaffer developed for gene therapy, the team inserted genetic blockers into the brains of old mice to knock down TGF-beta1 activity, and found that hippocampal stem cells began to act more youthful, generating new nerve cells.
Drug makes old tissue cleverer
The team then injected into the blood a chemical known to block the TGF-beta1 receptor and thus reduce the effect of TGF-beta1. This small molecule, an Alk5 kinase inhibitor already undergoing trials as an anticancer agent, successfully renewed stem cell function in both brain and muscle tissue of the same old animal, potentially making it stronger and more clever, Conboy said.
"The key TGF-beta1 regulatory pathway became reset to its young signaling levels, which also reduced tissue inflammation, hence promoting a more favorable environment for stem cell signaling," she said. "You can simultaneously improve tissue repair and maintenance repair in completely different organs, muscle and brain."
The researchers noted that this is only a first step toward a therapy, since other biochemical cues also regulate adult stem cell activity. Schaffer and Conboy's research groups are now collaborating on a multi-pronged approach in which modulation of two key biochemical regulators might lead to safe restoration of stem cell responses in multiple aged and pathological tissues.
"The challenge ahead is to carefully retune the various signaling pathways in the stem cell environment, using a small number of chemicals, so that we end up recalibrating the environment to be youth-like," Conboy said. "Dosage is going to be the key to rejuvenating the stem cell environment."
Plasma tubes in Earth's magnetosphere seen for the first time
By Jayalakshmi K
June 2, 2015 05:43 BST
Plasma tubes of ions stretching from the Earth's ionosphere to the plasmasphere have been detected by a radio telescope array situated in Australia.
This is the first observational evidence of the structures predicted decades ago.
Discovered by an undergraduate student of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, the alternating tubes of high and low density plasma were seen as they drifted slowly and aligned with the Earth's magnetic field.
A creative use of the Murchison Widefield Array helped create a 3D picture of the moving plasma tubes in the inner layers of the magnetosphere.
"The discovery of the structures is important because they cause unwanted signal distortions that could, as one example, affect our civilian and military satellite-based navigation systems. So we need to understand them," said lead author of the study, Cleo Loi of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and School of Physics at the University of Sydney in Australia.
The award-winning undergraduate thesis was published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The magnetosphere occupied by the Earth's magnetic field is filled with plasma that is created by particles in the atmosphere being ionised by sunlight.
The innermost layer is the ionosphere, and above that is the plasmasphere.
The two layers are believed to be embedded with a variety of strangely shaped plasma structures.
The latest study confirms this by providing the first images.
"We measured their position to be about 600 kilometres above the ground, in the upper ionosphere, and they appear to be continuing upwards into the plasmasphere. This is around where the neutral atmosphere ends, and we are transitioning to the plasma of outer space," explained Loi.
Using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a radio telescope located in the Western Australian desert, Ms Loi mapped large patches of the sky and used the MWA's rapid snapshot capabilities to create a real-time visual of the plasma.
The pattern revealed stripes of high-density plasma neatly alternated with stripes of low-density plasma. This pattern drifted slowly and aligned beautifully with the Earth's magnetic field lines, like aurorae.
The MWA consists of 128 antenna "tiles" spread over an area roughly three by three kilometres. By separating the signals from tiles in the east from the ones in the west, the astronomers gave the MWA a 3D capability.
"We were able to measure the spacing between them (tubes), their height above the ground and their steep inclination. This has never been possible before and is a very exciting new technique," said Loi.
"It is to Cleo's great credit that she not only discovered this but also convinced the rest of the scientific community. As an undergraduate student with no prior background in this, that is an impressive achievement," said Loi's supervisor Dr Tara Murphy, also of CAASTRO and the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.
GRAPHENE to the stars. The material with amazing properties has just had another added to the list. It seems these sheets of carbon one atom thick can turn light into action, maybe forming the basis of a fuel-free spacecraft.
While cutting graphene sponge with a laser, they noticed the light propelled the material forwards. That was odd, because while lasers have been used to shove single molecules aroundMovie Camera, the sponge was a few centimetres across so should be too large to move.
The team placed pieces of graphene sponge in a vacuum and shot them with lasers of different wavelength and intensity. They were able to push sponge pieces upwards by as much as 40 centimetres. They even got the graphene to move by focusing ordinary sunlight on it with a lens.
But how was this movement happening? One explanation is that the material acts like a solar sail. Photons can transfer momentum to an object and propel it forwards, and in the vacuum of space this tiny effect can build up enough thrust to move a spacecraft. Just last week, the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, launched a small solar sail to test the technology. But the forces the team saw were too large to come from photons alone.
The team also ruled out the idea that the laser vaporises some of the graphene and makes it spit out carbon atoms.
Instead, they think the graphene absorbs laser energy and builds up a charge of electrons. Eventually it can't hold any more, and extra electrons are released, pushing the sponge in the opposite direction. Although it's not clear why the electrons don't fly off randomly, the team was able to confirm a current flowing away from the graphene as it was exposed to a laser, suggesting this hypothesis is correct (arxiv.org/abs/1505.04254).
Graphene sponge could be used to make a light-powered propulsion system for spacecraft that would beat solar sails. "While the propulsion force is still smaller than conventional chemical rockets, it is already several orders larger than that from light pressure," they write.
...anything that emits electrons will itself develop an ever higher positive charge. Its the nature of “emitting”: like the mechanical forces of physics that have that old “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” business, same goes for charges. Emit 10 electrons (→ -10e), and a the thing in a vacuum will now have a charge of +10e. Guess what that charge does? Oh… it just sits there, attracting the emitted electrons “back to mammy”, with force that increases as more electrons are emitted.
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