E&T news weekly #77 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the year 2015

Friday January 15 2016

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Cheat-proof activity trackers expose couch potatoes

Couch potatoes, beware: your days of blissful procrastination are coming to an end. From now on, if you want to claim compensation for a sports injury, claiming it was inflicted, during a marathon run to join a Boxing Day sale queue at your nearest supermarket and not as the result of you stumbling over a bath mat while getting out of the shower, you will be exposed as a cheat by the all-seeing scientists from Northwestern University in Chicago and – like a blood-doping athlete – have to hand back your medal, sorry, premium. Far from a couch potato myself, I was nevertheless intrigued by one sentence from this truly couch-breaking news story: “The system can detect, for example, when the cheater simply shakes the phone or swings it in his hand, to pretend he or she is walking, while actually lying on a couch.” If I were that very scheming cheater, I would immediately try to patent that mysterious swinging phone which can create an illusion of a strenuous workout. The most worrying thing for me though is that “the system” can be covertly installed in one’s fitness wristband. I do use one – a simple, yet very reliable, heart-rate monitor – while running on a treadmill. During my last two workouts, however, it was severely malfunctioning, with my uncomplaining heart pulsing with the amplitude between 50 and 200 beats per minute! My initial thinking was that its battery could be running low and needed replacing. But now I suspect that – unbeknownst to me – it had been equipped with some miniature cheat-proof activity spying device! And although I am not planning to claim any compensation (apart perhaps for the time wasted worrying), I feel like redoubling my efforts while on the treadmill, just in case. I am also thinking of buying a dog. Not to help me keep fit by chasing it along the streets during its frantic morning walks; the reason is much more prosaic. If we believe the creators of the above device, one can easily cheat the cheat-spotting gadget itself by giving it to someone else or simply… wait for it … attaching it to a dog’s collar! So what’s all the fuss about? To cut a long story short, this is an ideal find for the ‘PT’ section of BTPT – my colleague Rebecca Northfield’s column on the E&T WordPress blog whose abbreviated title stands for ‘Bizarre Theories and Pointless Technologies’. I am going to recommend it to her unreservedly.

North Korea accused of faking missile test footage

“I will shed tears over a fabrication,” the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once wrote. I now know exactly what he meant, although my tears on hearing the news that North Korea’s much-publicised hydrogen bomb test was actually a fake (or a ‘fabrication’, if you wish) were of joy. This is a classic case where a fake is much, much better – and safer – than its highly destructive and, it appears, entirely mythical, original. Not only, it seems, are North Korea and its umpteenth ‘beloved leader’ technologically incapable of making and launching an H-bomb, they cannot even edit their deceptive video footage properly. But let’s not be cajoled by this particular folly, for Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s podgy enfant terrible, can still have lots of nasty surprises up the sleeve of his military-style jacket, bursting at its seams.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Blood test could soon detect symptomless early stage cancers

This is just too much for me. Detecting symptomless early stage cancers could soon be possible with a simple blood test, which, don’t get me wrong, is absolutely fantastic news, but it comes just a little too late. The cruel irony of this report is that it emerged just as the world received news of the death of David Bowie, who died from, you guessed it, a type of symptomless early stage cancer. Too soon! I can’t even cope right now. Excuse me while I go cry.

Moonwalking shoes take Indiegogo by storm

Moon shoes! This is the news that a New York-based start-up is developing electromagnetic shoes designed to stimulate the feeling of walking in reduced gravity. I know, right? Too cool. The ‘Moonwalker’ shoes are equipped with magnetic layers placed in the soles, with their north poles facing each other, which repel each other, pushing the layers of the sole apart and lifting the wearer into the air. This is so unbelievably cool! In fact, it’s the best news I’ve heard all week, and before you say it, I know what you’re all thinking, and you’re so right – we should invest in some of these and make a Space Oddity tribute video. Way ahead of you. I just have one minor setback – they won’t be available until August. Sigh. Until then, Major Tom!

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
First smart pill trials reveal what fibre does in gut

There’s nothing like a good medical story to grab the attention, and this one is no exception. Australian researchers are doing some serious science, studying where in the digestive system different gases are produced so they can get a better understanding of microbial activity – but to be honest I just wanted to reinforce my conviction that my morning bowl of muesli is good for me.

Tesla scaling back autopilot functionality

It turns out that Tesla’s high-end electric cars don’t just go too fast in the hands of speed-merchant owners; they’ve been doing it in self-driving mode, too. Now an over-the-air software update will rein in the autopilot’s lawless proclivities – though anyone trying to escape a speeding fine would never have got away with blaming their vehicle. The driver is still legally in charge, and it’s going to be a while before national laws change in that respect.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
Blood test could soon detect symptomless early stage cancer

A revolution in cancer diagnostics – that’s what a project by world-leading DNA sequencing firm Illumina could bring about. The firm wants to develop a blood test capable of detecting cancer genes released by tumours in the earliest stages of the disease when no symptoms have developed yet. The technology has a huge potential to save lives as all too many people die as their cancer only gets recognised too late. Now it would take just a drop of blood (or maybe several drops of blood) for the patient to get a preventive all-clear (or not all-clear). The technology would be able to differentiate between different types of tumours and the test could be available by 2020 for $500.

Cheat-proof activity trackers expose couch potatoes

Bad news for those thinking of using a fitness tracker to extract benefits from insurance companies or gain approval from their doctors for doing absolutely nothing. American researchers have developed an algorithm that enables the device to differentiate between genuine physical activity and faking – for example by shaking the device or swinging it in the hand. Unfortunately, the researchers admit, the system is not perfectly spoof-proof – just attach the tracker to your dog or your hyperactive child and you’ll pass the test either way.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Alton Towers launches space-themed VR rollercoaster

Having recently returned from the dazzling, dizzying tech-fest that was CES 2016, I am now fully up to speed on the nature of all things VR and its burgeoning popularity, as the technology rapidly approaches that crucial tipping point between intriguing gadget concept and widespread public adoption. So, it would appear, is Alton Towers. The theme park’s owners, Merlin Entertainment, has announced its plans to install a new rollercoaster – the Galactica – which will involve passengers wearing a virtual reality headset as part of the space-themed ride.

Moonwalking shoes take Indiegogo by storm

Sadly not, as I hoped, shoes to help you re-enact the famous Michael Jackson dance move of the same name. Rather, these electromagnetic moonwalking shoes are designed to simulate the effect of walking in reduced gravity, according to Moonshine Crea, the New York-based start-up company behind the shoes’ wildly successful Indiegogo campaign.

Jack Loughran  Jack Loughran, news reporter
Microsoft ends support for most Internet Explorer versions

Microsoft is finally ending support for its oldest, crappiest browsers. This is probably more significant than one might think as it will finally force companies to upgrade their employees to something that is at least serviceable in the modern age of internet browsing. It’s probably a savvy move by Microsoft too; Internet Explorer is now lumbered with a whole load of negative expectations by consumers that it is outdated and slow, and that Firefox and Chrome are superior in every way. Newer versions of the browser are apparently built for speed and perform faster than their now more popular counterparts but most people, myself included, never even bothered to see if these claims were true. With enterprises now being forced to upgrade, many will probably be forced to experience what IE is like in 2016, and if reports are true, some might like what they see.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Tesla scaling back autopilot functionality

Teslo CEO Elon Musk predicted this week that one day, in the not too distant future, owning a car you have to control yourself and will be like riding a horse; something you do “for sentimental reasons”. Reports that the company has had to place restrictions on the autopilot mode of one of its vehicles, which is already restricted to use on main roads at speeds over 18mph suggest the days when anyone actually holding the steering wheel of their car will be considered seriously retro are some way off. Being able to steer and change speed could be a selling point one day though. This week brought an email announcing one company’s plans to bring portable cassette and CD players back to UK stores, for those who want to let the world know how hip they are while listening to music on the move. The fact they’re clunky and inconvenient compared with even the most basic digital music player is apparently no deterrent to the ultra-stylish. Pass me that big pile of David Bowie CDs, I’m going for a long run through the streets of East London!

Alton Towers launches space-themed VR rollercoaster

The scariest theme park ride I’ve ever ‘enjoyed’ was one in Florida was built to recreate the experience of a real old-fashioned ride on a wooden switchback, complete with wobbles, judders and the persistent feeling that it could collapse at any moment. I think I can still feel the bruises. The best though was the Simpsons ride at Universal Studios Florida, where you sit in a cart that rocks and rolls, but the sensation of moving is brilliantly simulated using virtual reality projection and you never leave the confines of a small room. Alton Towers, attempting to entice visitors back following a safety incident last year, is looking to combine both with a new ride that’s an actual rollercoaster on which riders wear a VR headset to create the illusion of flying through space on an 840m long track. I might be tempted to give it a try, but my dealbreaker as with all attractions like this is that I’m never going to queue for more than about half an hour minutes for a trip – however exhilarating, that only takes two minutes.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Moonwalking shoes take Indiegogo by storm

“You’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by, a smooth criminal,” I attempt to croon, as I perform one of the most iconic dance moves of all times, sliding my feet backwards as I impress all of my friends, I make it look so easy, all thanks to my Moonwalker shoes! Parading around like the King of Pop himself, spinning, moving and grabbing my crotch in a painful way… Wait. What? These aren’t shoes that will bless me with the skills of Michael Jackson on the dance floor? So you’re telling me they won’t make me move like MJ at all? Are you kidding me? Well that’s taken the spring out of my (could’ve been like MJ) step. The actual Moonwalker shoes have been designed by a New York-based start-up called Moonshine Crea, who created them to give the impression of walking in space. Fitted with powerful magnets, the shoes simulate the feeling of you parading around in reduced gravity, so you feel like a moon walker. Now I get it. Still not as good as my idea. The shoes utilise N45 Neodymium magnets, which other uses include lifting heavy objects like cars. Does that mean you can lift a car with your shoe? Perhaps I could be a superhero, or something? Saving the world with my super-strong feet? I’m getting carried away again, apologies. You disappoint me once… Cruel, cruel world. Moonshine Crea says I’ll be bounding around like a happy astronaut once I have my Moonwalker shoes on. I’ll bound around, all right. But I won’t be happy about it.

‘Spermbots’ could boost fertility rates in men

If you’ve seen Transformers, you’ve got the Autobots (the good side) and Decepticons (the bad). I wonder where Spermbots would fit in. Perhaps they’re the way of producing new machine alien things. I jest. Promising demonstrations have shown that these nano-bots could wrap themselves around the sperm to drive it, meaning this could help a lot of men with fertility problems. Low fertility rates in men are usually caused by their sperm being unable to swim to the desired location. Hopefully the Spermbots will be able to give them a helping hand, which would be good news for a lot of people wishing to start or add to their families, but have faced these – often distressing – problems. The findings come from researchers at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences at IFW Dresden in Germany. The nanomotors have yet to start clinical trials. Let’s hope it works!

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