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Emerging technologies in brief and more…
October 1, 2005

Motion Pictures
You’re looking at a photo of some van Gogh sunflowers, and the flowers start to sway on their long stalks as if stirred by a breeze. No, it’s not an LSD flashback; it’s the product of new image-editing tools developed at the University of Washington and Microsoft.

With the tools, a user can divide a digital still image into layers and assign a different action to each layer. In a photograph of a sailboat, for example, a swaying motion could be applied to the boat and a sideways motion to the clouds; the water, meanwhile, could be animated by algorithms that produce small distortions resembling ripples. The result can be played in a digital picture frame or as a desktop background or screensaver on a PC. The tools are experimental but might eventually be included in products, says lead researcher Richard Szeliski.

Grocery Phone

A system being developed in Finland turns camera-equipped cell phones into personal health and fitness advisors. A supermarket shopper using the technology can snap an image of the bar code on a packet of food. The phone forwards the code number to a central computer, which sends back information on the item’s ingredients and nutritional value. The computer also calculates how much exercise the shopper will have to do to burn off the calories he or she is about to buy, based on height, weight, age, and other factors.

Researchers at the Technical Research Centre of Finland, the University of Kuopio, and the Helsinki School of Economics collaborated to develop the technology and recently completed field testing. The system, which could be deployed in Finland in two years, also allows users to access logs that list their food purchases at any time via the Internet.

Eye Drain

A new implant could relieve the high eye pressure of glaucoma, which damages the optic nerve and is the second leading cause of blindness. Bruce Shields, a glaucoma expert at the Yale University School of Medicine, working with bioengineers at GMP in Fort Lauderdale, FL, has created a drain that can be slipped into the white of the eye (the sclera), near the cornea, in five to ten minutes without expensive equipment. Tissue seals around the implant, preventing excess leakage, while an interior channel precisely controls fluid flow from the front of the eye to openings in the back, regulating eye pressure.

Shields has tested the device in live pigs to check that it fits and that it is biocompatible, and he is now pursuing funding for further animal and human trials. If the technology proves itself in these studies, it could represent an advance over existing surgical corrections for glaucoma. Such corrections often stop working over time, or work too well and allow too much fluid to escape the eye–which can also impair vision. What’s more, these expensive, complicated, and lengthy procedures are ill suited to glaucoma patients who need treatment in poor countries.

75 years ago in Technology Review
The Plastic Age
Above the economic horizon a new industry, the manufacture of plastics, is climbing into prominence. Dr. Wilson Compton, Executive Secretary of the National Lumber Manufacturers Association, declares that the aggregate value of plastic products in the United States is already equivalent to one-tenth that of the products of the lumber and wood-working industries combined, and the editors of Plastics assert that the volume of the plastics business has practically doubled every year, bringing its total this year up to one-quarter of a billion dollars.

What are plastics and how are they used? The material of which phonograph records are made is a commonly known product that falls into the plastic classification and, of course, there is celluloid. The first is known chemically as a shellac base plastic and the second as a cellulose nitrate plastic, but both of these are old stories. It is the discovery and spectacular development of the phenol formaldehyde resins such as Bakelite that has created an industry that approaches the magnitude of the lumber business and bids fair to challenge the supremacy of many others.

One large firm, for example, is offering for the first time “Beetle” ware, a type of tableware that is thin, light, and colorful, that will not scratch or chip or break under ordinary usage. Surely a boon to hotels and housewives!

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