Rachel Wong Keynote: Growing Eyeballs in the Lab and Building Wearables that Enhance Experience

The keynote speaker at the Hackaday Belgrade conference was Rachel “Konichiwakitty” Wong presenting Jack of All Trades, Master of One. Her story is one that will be very familiar to anyone in the Hackaday community. A high achiever in her field of study, Rachel has learned the joy of limiting how much energy she allows herself to expend on work, rounding out her life with recreation in other fascinating areas.

There are two things Rachel is really passionate about in life. In her professional life she is working on her PhD as a stem cell researcher studying blindness and trying to understand the causes of genetic blindness. In her personal life she is exploring wearable technology in a way that makes sense to her and breaks out of what is often seen in practice these days.

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Internal Power Pills

Arguably the biggest hurdle to implanted electronics is in the battery. A modern mobile phone can run for a day or two without a charge, but that only needs to fit into a pocket and were its battery to enter a dangerous state it can be quickly removed from the pocket. Implantable electronics are not so easy to toss on the floor. If the danger of explosion or poison isn’t enough, batteries for implantables and ingestibles are just too big.

Researchers at MIT are working on a new technology which could move the power source outside of the body and use a wireless power transfer system to energize things inside the body. RFID implants are already tried and tested, but they also seem to be the precursor to this technology. The new implants receive multiple signals from an array of antennas, but it is not until a couple of the antennas peak simultaneously that the device can harvest enough power to activate. With a handful of antennas all supplying power, this happens regularly enough to power a device 0.1m below the skin while the antenna array is 1m from the patient. Multiple implants can use those radio waves at the same time.

The limitations of these devices will become apparent, but they could be used for releasing drugs at prescribed times, sensing body chemistry, or giving signals to the body. At this point, just being able to get the devices to turn on so far under flesh is pretty amazing.

Recently, we asked what you thought of the future of implanted technology and the comment section of that article is a treasure trove of opinions. Maybe this changes your mind or solidifies your opinion.

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Social Networking Robot Actually Respects Privacy

[Fribo] the robot is a research project in the form of an adorable unit that hears and speaks, but doesn’t move. Moving isn’t necessary for it to do its job, which is helping people who live alone feel more connected with their friends. What’s more interesting (and we daresay, unusual) is that it does this in a way that respects and maintains individuals’ feelings of privacy. To be a sort of “social connector and trigger” between friends where every interaction is optional and opt-in was the design intent behind [Fribo].

The device works by passively monitoring one’s home and understands things like the difference between opening the fridge and opening the front door; it can recognize speech but cannot record and explicitly does not have a memory of your activities. Whenever the robot hears something it recognizes, it will notify other units in a circle of friends. For example, [Fribo] may suddenly say “Oh, one of your friends just opened their refrigerator. I wonder what food they are going to have?” People know someone did something, but not who. From there, there are two entirely optional ways to interact further: knocking indicates curiosity, clapping indicates empathy, and doing either reveals your identity to the originator. All this can serve as an opportunity to connect in some way, or it can just help people feel more connected to others. The whole thing is best explained by the video embedded below, which shows several use cases.

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Making Prints More Resilient With Fibre-Filled Filament

For all that we love 3D printers, sometimes the final print doesn’t turn out as durable as we might want it to be.

Aiming to mimic the properties of natural structures such as wood, bone, and shells, a research team lead by [Jennifer A. Lewis] at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Lewis Lab have developed a new combined filament and printing technique which they call rotational 3D printing.

Minuscule fibres are mixed in with the epoxy filament and their controlled orientation within the print can reinforce the overall structure or specific points that will undergo constant stresses. To do so the print head is fitted with a stepper motor, and its precisely programmed spin controls the weaving of the fibres into the print. The team suggests that they would be able to adapt this tech to many different 3D printing methods and materials, as well as use different materials and printed patterns to focus on thermal, electrical, or optical properties.

Be it adding carbon nano-tubes or enlisting the expertise of spiders to refine our printed materials, we’re looking forward to the future of ever stronger prints. However, that doesn’t mean that existing methods are entirely lacking in endurance.

[Thanks for the tip, Qes!]

Seek and Exploit Security Vulnerabilities in an Infusion Pump

Infusion pumps and other medical devices are not your typical everyday, off-the-shelf embedded system. Best case scenario, you will rarely, if ever, come across one in your life. So for wide-spread exploitation, chances are that they simply seem too exotic for anyone to bother exploring their weaknesses. Yet their impact on a person’s well-being makes potential security holes tremendously more severe in case someone decides to bother one day after all.

[Scott Gayou] is one of those someones, and he didn’t shy away from spending hundreds of hours of his free time inspecting the Smiths Medical Medfusion 4000 infusion pump for any possible security vulnerabilities. Looking at different angles for his threat model, he started with the physical handling of the device’s user interface. This allowed him to enable the external communication protocols settings, which in turn opened to the device’s FTP and Telnet ports. Not to give too much away, but he manages to gain access to both the file system content and — as a result of that — to the system’s login credentials. This alone can be clearly considered a success, but for [Scott], it merely opened a door that eventually resulted in desoldering the memory chips to reverse engineer the bootloader and firmware, and ultimately executing his own code on the device.

Understanding the implications of his discoveries, [Scott] waited long enough to publish his research so the manufacturer could address and handle these security issues. So kudos to him for fighting the good fight. And just in case the thought of someone gaining control over a machine that is crucial to your vitality doesn’t scare you enough yet, go ahead and imagine that device was actually implanted in your body.

Quantum Computing Hardware Teardown

Although quantum computing is still in its infancy, enough progress is being made for it to look a little more promising than other “revolutionary” technologies, like fusion power or flying cars. IBM, Intel, and Google all either operate or are producing double-digit qubit computers right now, and there are plans for even larger quantum computers in the future. With this amount of inertia, our quantum computing revolution seems almost certain.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, though, before all of our encryption is rendered moot by these new devices. Since nothing is easy (or intuitive) at the quantum level, progress has been considerably slower than it was during the transistor revolution of the previous century. These computers work because of two phenomena: superposition and entanglement. A quantum bit, or qubit, works because unlike a transistor it can exist in multiple states at once, rather than just “zero” or “one”. These states are difficult to determine because in general a qubit is built using a single atom. Adding to the complexity, quantum computers must utilize quantum entanglement too, whereby a pair of particles are linked. This is the only way for any hardware to “observe” the state of the computer without affecting any qubits themselves. In fact, the observations often don’t yet have the highest accuracy themselves.

There are some other challenges with the hardware as well. All quantum computers that exist today must be cooled to a temperature very close to absolute zero in order to take advantage of superconductivity. Whether this is because of a reduction in thermal noise, as is the case with universal quantum computers based on ion traps or other technology, or because it is possible to take advantage of other interesting characteristics of superconductivity like the D-Wave computers do, all of them must be cooled to a critical temperature. A further challenge is that even at these low temperatures, the qubits still interact with each other and their read/write devices in unpredictable ways that get more unpredictable as the number of qubits scales up.

So, once the physics and the refrigeration are sorted out, let’s take a look at how a few of the quantum computing technologies actually manipulate these quantum curiosities to come up with working, programmable computers. Continue reading “Quantum Computing Hardware Teardown”

Holograms Can’t be Too Thin

We’ve seen the 3D phone fad come and go, with devices like the Evo 3D, that used a parallax barrier to achieve autostereoscopy (that is, 3D viewing without glasses). These displays aren’t holograms, they are just showing your eyes two different images like a 3D movie or a stereopticon. However, researchers from Australia and China are hoping to change that. They’ve developed a nano-hologram (their term) that is about 1000 times thinner than a human hair. You can see a video about the invention, below.

Conventional holograms modulate the phase of light to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth. But to generate the required phase shifts, those holograms need to be as thick as the optical wavelengths involved. The researchers claim the holograms are “simple” to make, but that depends on what you compare it to. You need some exotic materials, vacuum deposition gear, and a laser that can do femtosecond-long pulses.

The research team has broken this thickness limit with a 25 nanometer hologram. Their technique relies on a topological insulator material a novel quantum material that holds a low refractive index in the surface layer but a much higher refractive index in the bulk of the material. This forms an intrinsic optical resonant cavity which can enhance the phase shifts and makes holography possible.

The next step is to develop a rigid thin film to overlay an LCD screen. The current version has pixels at least ten times too large to be practical for that application, so that’s another hurdle to overcome.

We’ve seen screens that shoot 3D images on movies like Star Wars for years. This isn’t it yet, but it is the next step. Imagine a phone, a wrist watch, or a contact lens that could generate a holographic image. Or a garbage-can-sized robot.

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