E&T news weekly #96 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 27 May 2016

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Paul McCartney releasing virtual reality song featurettes

We wrote about virtual reality and Paul McCartney recently when the April 2016 issue of E&T focused on VR. Old McCartney was ahead of the game: he released a VR video with Jaunt of ‘Live and Let Die’ performed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. He’s partnered up with the 360-degree platform again and he’s releasing VR documentary short films, so we can have a sneak peek of his home studio and feel like we’re there with the old crooner. In the future, when smells become the in-thing with VR, we could smell McCartney’s musty, old man smell. I jest. Yet I find McCartney trying to be ‘down with the kids’ by releasing high-tech VR films a bit cringeworthy. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what age demographic will be giddy with excitement at the prospect of feeling face-to-face with the former Beatle. There are uncertainties of whether VR will be popular with the older generation and the hipsters, so we will have to wait and see. I give kudos to Paul McCartney though. He’s keeping up his reign of popularity with the VR and compilation album. However, I wonder when he’ll just relax and enjoy his retirement years.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Full colour e-ink display could bring magazines to Kindles

I love this news for several reasons. One of which is that I’m a huge gadget nerd and love to see what progression my favourite technology is making. Another reason is that I’m a book nerd and love to read. I have a Kindle and still buy paperback books and illustrated hardback versions of my favourite paperback books! Even though this colour technology is developing for Kindles to display magazines, I’ll still probably prefer the lure of a print magazine. On a more cynical note, it’s an example of the deliberately slow progression technology companies adopt so they can utilise the profits as much as possible. Before they even launched the Kindle Paperwhite, I’d put money on them knowing about the backlit version of the Kindle years before it came out. This is possibly the same with the iPhone10 – it’s most likely already being worked on.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Hubble Telescope picture depicts detailed Martian landscape

I had the pleasure of reading through this story before it went live on the E&T website, and truth be told I was quite impressed, which is odd as I’m not really a fan of these kinds of stories. I normally find the idea of interplanetary travel incredibly unsettling, but these newest pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope made Mars feel a bit more homely, and I found myself warming towards the mysterious red planet. That is, until later that night, when I had horribly disturbing, night-terror inducing nightmares about being stuck in a place with no air or atmosphere. It was an absolutely horrendous experience, and I was very happy to wake up and find myself safely on planet Earth, with all the air and atmosphere I could possibly need. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, perhaps: ‘don’t read stories about astrophysical research if you are a wimp’. At any rate, as cool as these photos are, I still don’t want to have anything to do with Mars, or any planet for that matter.

Wearable wrist monitor tracks long-term alcohol usage

I get the advantage of this for health professionals monitoring patients’ long-term alcohol usage, but I doubt many non-recovering alcoholics would want to wear this thing. Be honest, would you want to wear something like this when you are planning a heavy week of drinking? I know I wouldn’t. Who wants to be told they are destroying their liver?! I personally know a few people who could probably benefit from one of these, but I doubt very much any of them would consider wearing it from a healthy-living perspective. In fact, I actually could imagine a commercial version of the device becoming quite popular as a drinking aid. Picture this, a group of teenagers on their first holiday to Sunny Beach, all equipped with a handy blood alcohol monitor. Do you think they’d be more interested in monitoring the long-term effects of alcohol on their body, or competing to see who could get the evening’s highest blood-alcohol level?

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
HS2 to cost ‘five times as much as TGV’, study finds

Another bit of British railway news that defies belief! Having just completed several TGV journeys in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, I can vouch for the fact that those remarkable ‘Trains de Grand Vitesse’ remain as smooth, precise and comfortable as ever, and that being on board still feels like floating above the ground – a stark contrast to a normally bumpy ride along a hundred-year-old track in what seem like almost equally old train carriages almost anywhere in Britain. The only thing that has changed in TGV travel is its cost that has grown considerably compared to even a couple of years ago. That said, any TGV journey still remains substantially cheaper than a comparable (in time and distance) train ride in Britain. If an average cost of an East Coast trip from London to Edinburgh, the 400-mile journey that I take regularly, is £150 return (if you book your tickets well in advance that is), the maximum sum one has to cough up for a comparable TGV rail trip in France would set one back 100 euros (or roughly £75 pounds) maximum. As we know, the price of train tickets on any given railway line is normally in direct proportion to the costs of that very line’s construction. So it truly boggles me to think how much one will have to pay for a would-be 32-minute HS2 journey from London to Birmingham – the stretch of track which, according to this news story, will be five times more expensive to build than a comparable TGV track in France. As a hardened train commuter, married to another – no less hardened – commuter, I am seriously worried and do hope that if one day in the future I decide to travel to Birmingham, I won’t have to sell my house, with my writer’s garden shed thrown in.

Robots threatening more jobs than immigrants, Labour MP says

But how about immigrant robots – a clear technological possibility of the very near future? That would certainly constitute Stella’s Creasy’s nightmare scenario.

Driverless truck inspired by animal behaviour

Sounds good. as long as the trucks don’t suddenly start biting and roaring….

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Pepper the humanoid robot to learn from Android developers

Everyone finds humanoid robots irresistible, but what practical use are they? Softbank, the Japanese company behind the Pepper robot, is wondering too and wants the help of Android app developers to come up with some good applications. Pepper has apparently already found employment in customer service roles as a waiter or sales robot. I suspect even in these roles it is more of a novelty with a fairly basic level of service. ‘He’ might be able to recommend a dish from the menu, for example, but how good is a recommendation he can’t try himself? Pepper remains popular though and has already sold in the hundreds of thousands. Have you got any jobs for Pepper? Anything’s possible – well almost. At only a few feet high he’s not really cut out for some things – like getting things down from high shelves for example. Or basketball.

Struggle to find blackboxes despite years of calls for technology change

The race is to find the black box of the disappeared EgyptAir flight in the Mediterranean within a month or so before it becomes a near-impossible search for a needle in haystack as it has so many times before, such as in the case of the MH370. It’s a problem that could be avoided by employing existing technology, says our reporter Tereza Pultarova. And the solution could start with a step as simple as fitting better batteries, proposed as long ago as 2009 after the Air France crash. So what’s taking so long?

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Wearable wrist monitor tracks long-term alcohol usage

The problem with monitoring alcohol consumption is that people who do drink are notoriously unreliable about reporting how much they put away each week. Even if it’s unrelated to what you’ve gone to see your doctor about, questions about your boozing habits are likely to have you first thinking about what the recommended limits are and then adjusting your answer around that. It’s an issue on a national scale because middle-aged drinkers who scoff at what they see as nannyish guidelines could be storing up healthcare problems that will only become apparent in decades to come. For youngsters it can be a question not of how much they drink, but the fact that they’re packing all their permitted units into one dusk to dawn session a week. Hence the latest addition, if not the most glamorous, to the wearable technology wardrobe – a wristband that measures blood alcohol levels accurately, with no room for argument, and is a lot less hassle than a breathalyser or blood test. It’s designed to provide a historical record of drinking habits and not an instant indication of whether or not the wearer is over the limit, so will be useful for patients undergoing treatment for alcohol problems. That’s hard to reconcile with its creator’s claim that they’d like it to be “something people would want to wear” though. Would you like people to know every time you roll your sleeves up that you’re the sort of person who needs a helping hand from technology to keep track of your boozing?

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