E&T news weekly #79 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday January 29 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Children now spend more time online than watching TV

Children now spend more time online than they do watching television, according to a new report from research agency Childwise. In a survey covering the views of 2,000 young people aged between five and 16, it was found they now use the internet for three hours a day on average, compared with just 2.1 hours sitting in front of the television. If the children I know are anything to go by, this is indeed the common picture across the country. Is this because TV is mostly unwatchable garbage these days, whereas the internet offers endless amusing diversions? And if you want to watch exactly what you want right now, the internet is your answer. No need to check the TV schedules or wait 45 minute for your entertainment to start. Give it to me now, dagnammit, don’t make me wait. If you make me wait, I’m off. That has increasingly become the mantra for society at large, so why would our children be any different? It is also worth considering that far from being a bad thing, the internet offers myriad educational, learning and training opportunities. In terms of intellectual development and advancement, that beats watching another repeated repeat of The Big Bang Theory in to a cocked hat.

Google Street View reveals secret corners of Cambridge University

A Google Street View tour will allow the public access to private parts of Cambridge University’s colleges usually closed to visitors. The 17th-century Old Library located at the university’s St John’s College, as well as a 14th-century chapel at the Gonville and Caius College, are among the architectural treasures mapped by Google Street View’s Special Collections team last year. If, like many of us, you can’t make it to Cambridge University on academic ability, at least now you can virtually snoop around the hallowed halls to see what you’re missing and without running up a penny in student loan debt.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Smart sock helps diabetics prevent amputation

I never would have thought a sock could be smart. SenseGo, a machine washable-smart sock, is fitted with pressure sensors that pick up on the first signs of foot ulcers, poor blood supply and excessive pressure. They then send the information to your smartphone using an app. This could be really good for diabetics as it would prevent amputations. Diabetes sufferers can get type of nerve damage called diabetic neuropathy; meaning injuries on their extremities can’t heal effectively enough without potential complications – like developments of advanced-stage foot ulcers, which are the leading cause of leg amputation. Israeli engineers wanted to tackle the significant medical problem, and the SenseGo lets the user know about problems their tootsies are going through. My mother has been an insulin-dependent diabetic (Type 1) for over 30 years, so it’s always nice to hear things are happening for the diabetic community and their problems aren’t ignored. Having a diabetic as a parent makes you extremely vigilant about your feet – they’re the things that keep you moving, so look after them the best you can – as well as blood glucose tests every time I feel a little under the weather. My mother is a fantastic woman, so let’s hope the next step is finding a cure, or to make Type 1 more manageable and less gloomy. Type 2 seems to get all the limelight.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Children now spend more time online than watching TV

I have a question for the esteemed organises of the survey, quoted in the news story: what if our kids actually keep watching TV while online? Using BBC IPlayer or one of many other similar apps that allow them (and us) to catch up with our favourite TV programmes from the comfort of their/our beds and – let’s face it – sometimes bathrooms too? This is what my own kids certainly like doing. So, in actual fact, our children (and ourselves) are probably watching not less but more TV than ever before. And whereas the attraction of a good old TV set in the corner of the lounge may be diminishing steadily, the appeal of all those multiple ‘TV androids’ (iPhones, iPads, laptops etc.) is definitely on the rise. To paraphrase an old royalist saying, TV is dead – long live TV!

Beijing’s attempts to curb pollution causing mass unemployment

Here we have a classic example of putting a cart in front of a horse, or to be more specific, of trying to solve a problem by dealing with its side-effects rather than causes. Sure enough: the fewer workers there are the less pollution they will create. Theoretically that is, because in reality a handful of people is often enough to cause considerable mayhem. Yet sacking workers produces an illusion that the authorities are trying to deal with the problem, whereas in fact they are happily sitting on their own executive hands. It is they – the bureaucrats, not the workers – who should be sacked and replaced with the people capable of looking at the root of the tree rather than happily chopping off its submissive and uncomplaining branches.

Fourth dimension added to 3D printing

Is this the first real step towards time travel? In the HG Wells interpretation of it, I mean, for, according to the writer’s famous novel ‘The Time Machine’ and its main protagonist the Time Traveller, it was the mysterious ‘fourth dimension’ that represented time and space. In the latter’s theory, time and space were basically the same: as any object (or subject) moves through space, it/he/she also travels through time, that is they live (or, in the case of an object, exist). Who knows… As they say, only time will show (please excuse my unintended pun). But one thing is certain already: we are living though an amazing age when reality is often way ahead of fiction.

Katia Moskvitch  Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Electric car uptake in China could worsen smog issue

In our efforts to ‘go green,’ it’s at times possible to forget that what seems like an environmentally-friendly option actually isn’t that environmentally-friendly after all. It’s exactly what’s happening in China. The country, whose greenhouse gas emissions have escalated in the past decade, is now trying to get more people to switch to electric cars. But researchers are saying that the efforts could have the opposite effect because of to the reliance on coal-fired power generation, used to charge electric vehicles. A group of scientists from Tsinghua University has found that electric cars charged in China produce between two and five times more polluting particles than petrol-engine cars. This means that China’s efforts to have eight times more electric vehicles on the road by 2020 than the current number could achieve the opposite result than the country hopes for, if the developments are not paired with an aggressive push for renewable energy generation. China has put in place multiple incentives to encourage people to trade their fossil-fuel powered cars for electric ones. In addition to tax breaks, electric car owners are exempt from limits on the number of new car licenses that are being granted, as well as from restrictions allowing people to use their cars only on certain days of the week if smog levels get too high.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Wearable sweat analysers for real-time health monitoring
Smart sock helps diabetics prevent amputation
Proximity hat lets blind people ‘feel’ spaces

In the wonderful world of wearable technology, there’s a suspicion that companies are jumping on the band waggon by sticking the word ‘smart’ in front of any garment in which they’ve managed to incorporate even the simplest bit of electronics. Perhaps one day everyone will be wandering around sporting intelligent hats and socks as a matter of course when they’re not using their flying cars, and the clothes will be genuinely useful, not just something that sends a warning buzz to your scalp every time you get a social media notification. (The more dislikes the higher the voltage, maybe?). For now, here are three developments in wearables that meet a genuine need by occupying the assistive technology space. Wrist bands monitor your health, a smart sock keeps an eye on the condition of your feet and a sensor-equipped hat gives blind people a sense of the world around them. Three things we’d probably all agree are more worthwhile than a lot of the funkier garments that are grabbing headlines but aren’t in truth all that useful for anything other than letting the rest of the world know just how cutting edge your wardrobe is.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
First driverless shuttle bus launched in the Netherlands

This is the story that a Dutch autonomous six-seat shuttle bus, adorably named the WePod, has become the world’s first driverless vehicle to be allowed on public roads. It’s currently being trialled along a 200m stretch of road in the Dutch town of Wageningen, and, from June this year, will be introduced to transport passengers along a 6km route between the Ede-Wageningen railway and bus station and Wageningen University & Research Centre. Pretty cool huh? The drawback – it travels at 8km/h. Ok, I understand, it’s a new technology and we need to take baby steps, but I am also a massive cynic, and think that the bicycle-crazy Dutch are highly unlikely to opt for a tedious 48-minute journey via autonomous shuttle. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Electric car uptake in China could worsen smog issue

It seemed like such a simple solution: tackle your country’s horrendous smog issue by increasing the number of ‘clean’ electric cars. The problem? Electricity in China is far from clean. A new study has found that electric vehicles charged in China produce between two and five times more polluting particles than petrol-engine cars due to the country’s reliance on coal-fired power generation. This means that China’s attempt to clean up the air by getting eight times more electric vehicles on the road by 2020 could actually achieve the opposite result. Whoops. Looks like it’s time to start embracing the renewables sector, China.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Driverless trucks could halve costs and improve safety

The first autonomous vehicles to become a common sight on our roads won’t be private cars or cabs carrying passengers but trucks carrying freight because the cost savings are more attractive while speed is less of an issue. That will be bad news for lorry drivers but good news for consumers. There could be savings from fuel because autonomous trucks don’t have to stop to take rests or breaks. They can just keep going all night. Like the tortoise racing the hare, they can still get there first. In several years we will get used to seeing convoys of autonomous trucks trundling slowly but surely all night up our motorways. Slow speeds are easier to implement safely in autonomous vehicles than fast ones. And lower speeds mean more efficient fuel consumption, which in turn means lower emissions.

First driverless shuttle bus launched in the Netherlands

But this is the exception that proves the rule: the first operational autonomous vehicle in the world to be allowed on public roads with no driver is a boring old shuttle bus. But it is limited to going backwards and forwards along a short stretch of the same road.

Taylor announces smart health check system for acoustic guitars

This ‘wired acoustic guitar’ is a humble but very good example of how the development of the Internet of Things means manufacturers in sectors that never before had to worry much about information technology in their products will have to now start making their products smarter with sensors andaccompanyingapps. In the longer run, it will change traditional manufacturers’ business models. Consumers will expect to be told when something needs fixing or adjusting before it needs replacing not afterwards.

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