Robots with the sense of touch: 3D-printed “bionic skin” developed by University of Minnesota engineers

May 12, 2017

A revolutionary process for 3D printing “stretchable electronic sensory devices” has been developed by engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota, USA. According to the University, the technology could be used in robots to enable them to feel their environment.

“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses,” Michael McAlpine, mechanical engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the study, was quoted as saying. “Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just using cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”

According to McAlpine, the technology could also be used to print electronics on human skin.

“While we haven’t printed on human skin yet, we were able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique,” McAlpine said. “We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and were surprised that the device was so sensitive that it could detect your pulse in real time.”

The “electronic fabric” was developed using a 3D printer McAlpine and his team of researchers built themselves.

The multifunctional printer has four nozzles to print the various specialised ‘inks’ that make up the layers of the device—a base layer of silicone, top and bottom electrodes made of a conducting ink, a coil-shaped pressure sensor, and a sacrificial layer that holds the top layer in place while it sets (later washed away in the final manufacturing process), the University report said.

This method of 3D printing uses “inks” that can set at room temperature. The liquid plastic used in conventional 3D printing uses is too hot and too rigid to use on the skin.

“This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics,” McAlpine said. “We have a multifunctional printer that can print several layers to make these flexible sensory devices. This could take us into so many directions from health monitoring to energy harvesting to chemical sensing.”

According to the researchers, the best part of the discovery is that the manufacturing is built into the process.

“With most research, you discover something and then it needs to be scaled up. Sometimes it could be years before it ready for use,” McAlpine said. “This time, the manufacturing is built right into the process so it is ready to go now.”

The researchers say the next step is to move toward semiconductor inks and printing on a real body. “The possibilities for the future are endless,” McAlpine said.

The full research paper entitled “3D Printed Stretchable Tactile Sensors,” is due to be published in the next issue of peer-reviewed material science journal, Advanced Materials and is available online.

Sources: University of Minnesota

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UK VR tech startup receives $502 million investment from Softbank

May 12, 2017

British virtual reality startup, Improbable, has announced that it has raised USD 502m (GBP ) after a round of round of Series B funding led by Japanese multinational telecommunications company SoftBank, the company said.

The investment is thought to be the largest ever investment made in a fledgling European tech firm, according to The Guardian

Improbable said all the funds will be invested in developing the company’s technology, including its SpatialOS distributed operating system. Improbable’s plans include accelerated recruitment in its London and San Francisco offices, and investments to develop a vibrant ecosystem of developers and customers.

“This investment reflects the potential size and importance of the market for this next generation of games and, ultimately, how massive-scale virtual worlds could become fundamental to how society works,” Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable said.

SoftBank is a perfect partner for us, with many complementary investments in their portfolio. This investment will allow us to take the big, bold steps needed to fully realise our vision.”

Improbable has also said it will explore and identify opportunities for mutually beneficial relationships with SoftBank, its partners and portfolio companies.

About Improbable

Improbable was co-founded in 2012 by a group of Cambridge University computer science graduates. It uses cloud-based distributed computing to enable the creation of virtual worlds for use in games and massive-scale simulations of the real world.

Its first product, SpatialOS, a distributed operating system for massive-scale simulations created using Improbable’s technology, integrates with major game engines and has been in live beta since March.

“Because the work of maintaining game worlds and tracking activities within them is managed and distributed across the cloud using SpatialOS, multiplayer and massively multiplayer games can be created and scaled by teams of any size, without dedicated network engineering and without initial infrastructure costs,” the company said in a press release.

“Developers are already using SpatialOS to build a range of different types of games which take advantage of its ability to manage larger scale, higher player numbers and easy scaling in a seamless virtual world.”

Real-world applications

Improbable says it is also applying the same technology that powers SpatialOS to the simulation of complex real world systems. Potential applications include simulating transport infrastructure, telecommunications networks or the behaviour of fleets of autonomous vehicles.

“Beyond gaming, this new form of simulation on a massive scale has the potential to help us make better decisions about the world we live in, Deep Nishar, managing director of Softbank, said, “Improbable’s technology will help us explore disease, improve cities, understand economies and solve complex problems on a previously unimaginable scale.”

Sources: Improbable, The Guardian

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Surge in Brits wanting to learn a new language after Brexit referendum, app data shows

May 12, 2017

Language learning app, Lingvist, has reported a 91% increase in UK user interest in the nine months following the EU referendum.

The company examined the nine months of learning data before and after Brexit (August 2016 – April 2017) and found that Britons’ appetite for language learning strengthened despite the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The company found that its English-French course had experienced a 12% increase in learners, and that the most popular language courses were French, Spanish, and German.

“With Brexit around the corner, the growing concerns around how the UK will be able to bridge the language skills gap have been brought to the fore,” Lingvist’s co-founder and COO, Ott Jalakas was cited as saying in a report by Tech City News.

Government statistics show that the UK is already losing £50bn a year due to poor language skills with an over-reliance on one language affecting business turnover, profitability and expansion to new markets.

“Our data shows that the UK is on the right path to bridge the language learning gap,” Jalakas said.

Source: Lingvist; Tech City News

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Legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki working on new film

February 27, 2017

According to reports, the 76-year old has come out of retirement to work on a new animated feature film.

Thomas Schulz detengase @ Flickr - http://flickr.com/photos/t_p_s/2842706001/

Hayao Miyazaki at the 2008 Venice Film Festival.

The Oscar-winning director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli retired almost three and a half years ago after directing WWII drama The Wind Rises (released in July 2013), said to be his final feature-length film.

Toshio Suzuki, a producer at Studio Ghibli, said on Thursday (16.02.17) during a pre-Oscars interview – to promote the studio’s most recent picture The Red Turtle – that the legendary director was working on a new feature-length film. “He is creating it in Tokyo, working hard right now,” Suzuki was cited by The Japan Times as saying.

“(The storyboard) was quite exciting,” Suzuki said, “but if I’d told him it was good, I know it would ruin my own retirement,” as making the film would dominate his life, Suzuki told the audience.

“Nevertheless, I put my own feelings aside and told him straight, ‘This is fascinating.”

Some reports name the new film as Boro The Caterpillar or “Kemushi no Boro” in Japanese, a film which Mizyazaki described in documentary, “Hayao Miyazaki: The Man Who Is Not Done”, aired in Japan in November 2016 as “a story of a tiny, hairy caterpillar, so tiny that it may be easily squished between your fingers” In an interview for the documentary, Miyazaki said he would “continue making anime until I die.”

Miyazaki is known for his anime feature films, which include My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away. The latter won the Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear award in 2002 and the Oscar for Animated Feature Film in 2003.

Source: The Japan Times, The Guardian

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No public consultation planned to decide Japan’s new Imperial era name

February 27, 2017

The Japanese government is not planning to ask for the public’s opinion on what the next Imperial era name should be if Emperor Akihito abdicates in order to speed up the process, a government source was cited as saying.

Called a “gengo” in Japanese, an Imperial era name is valid for the entirety of an Emperor’s reign but changes with a new Emperor. The name is often used on calendars and official documents without reference to the Gregorian date.

The current period under Emperor Akihito is known as “Heisei”. It changed from “Showa” on 8 January 1989, the day after the death of the Emperor Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.

Usually, a new era name is selected by a process of incorporating public submissions when passing an ordinance. Although the government is not legally obliged to abide by the outcome of public consultation, it is required to give thorough consideration to suggestions and present its opinions on the proposals.

When Emperor Hirohito died, however, the selection of the era name was fast-tracked as a matter of urgency. Instead of asking the public, the government officially solicited ideas for the next era’s name from intellectuals and presented three of them to a panel of experts.

This time around, time is also a concern. The succession from Emperor Akihito to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, could take place at a predetermined date because the government plans to announce the new era name at least several months before the Emperor’s envisioned abdication, The Japan Times reported.

“The government source acknowledged that seeking public comment improves transparency, but also expressed concern that it might not be able to come up with a “satisfactory” name in time if the opinions presented diverge too widely,” the newspaper said.

Since 83-year-old Emperor Akihito hinted that he would like to resign and pass the Chrysanthemum throne onto his son in a rare video message last summer, Japan has been anticipating the need for a new Imperial era name. Businesses and calendar-makers require advance notice of the name change which will have a number of effects upon the Japanese calendar. The date of the Emperor’s Birthday national holiday will probably have to be changed to reflect the new emperor’s date of birth, for instance.

“Changes in era names have affected people’s lives in various ways, including administrative papers and official documents such as driver’s licenses and health insurance cards,” The Japan Times said.

“Shortly after the nation changed from the Meiji Era to the Taisho Era in 1912, following Emperor Meiji’s death, names inspired by the new era name, such as those containing the Chinese character used, became the most common new names for babies, according to Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co., which compiles an annual ranking of the most popular baby names.”

To allow the current Emperor to abdicate and pass on the throne without dying (the 1947 Imperial House Law currently lacks a provision regarding abdication meaning only posthumous succession is allowed), the Japanese government is reportedly seeking to pass special legislation in the Diet.

Source: The Japan Times

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Japan to use world’s smallest flying car to transfer Olympic flame at Tokyo 2020 closing ceremony

January 27, 2017

A team of Japanese engineers is developing a miniature flying car to drive the Olympic flame around the New National Stadium track and then take off to light the Olympic cauldron.

skydrive_img

Image of the SkyDrive from Cart!vator’s website

Cart!vator (Cartivator),  the company behind these plans, comprises a team of about 20 young engineers. Founded in 2012, the company’s objective is develop a flying car that can be used to reduce the reliance on roads, and also be used to lift people out of disaster zones, SportTechie reported.

In order to develop the vehicle, the Cart!vator team has been conducting tests at an abandoned primary school in the mountains of the Aichi Prefecture after being given permission to use this building by the city of Toyota.

“We aim to create (a) world where anyone can fly in the sky anytime by 2050,” the Cart!vator website states. “To realize our vision, a compact flying car is necessary with a vertical takeoff and landing type, which does not need roads and runways to take off.”

According to SportTechnie, the car, known as “SkyDrive” will be a single-seat electric vehicle design that will have one front wheel, two rear wheels, and a rotor in each of the four corners. Each rotor will consist of two propellers that will allow the car to take off and land vertically.

In terms of dimensions, the vehicle is expected to be roughly three metres in length and 1.3 metres in width. According to the company, this will make it the world’s smallest flying car.

Cart!vator’s website says the company hopes to start selling SkyDrive to the public in 2023, with mass production planned by 2030.

“If technological innovation is achieved in the battery performance and other fields, the vehicle could be commercialized in the future,” Masafumi Miwa, a mechanical engineering professor and Cart!vator partner, told the Asahi Shimbun.

First, however, the team needs to get the vehicle to fly higher. Its current prototype can only fly at an altitude of one metre for a period of five seconds, according to the Asahi Shimbun. The company believes this can be remedied by reducing the weight of the vehicle by replacing the 180kg aluminium frame with a 100kg frame made of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic.

The car will not be cheap to make. The company says that it needs 30 million yen (GBP 208,000) from investors to make the prototype ready for a manned test flight. To raise these funds, the company presented a 1/5 scale prototype at a Maker Faire in Tokyo in 2014, and set up a page on the Japanese crowdfunding website zenmono. By January 2015, it had raised almost 2.6 million yen (about GBP 18,000). “It used the money to purchase a full-scale prototype from a joint researcher, and that’s the prototype it’s experimenting with now,” reported Sports Technie. If the company raises the 30 million yen, it plans to perform a manned-piloted demonstration of the car in January 2019.

Another concern is safety. A breakdown in the air probably means a fatal crash.

According to the SportTechie report, at least nine other companies are also trying to build some version of a flying car. “Google co-founder Larry Page has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two different flying car companies. Slovakian company AeroMobil could be launching its own flying car as early as next year. And the Massachusetts-based company Terrafugia has already built a flying car that has received legal approval for personal use, although it’s really more of a street-legal plane,” the website revealed.

Sources: SportTechie, Asahi Shimbun

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Fingernail QR codes to keep track of dementia sufferers in Japan

December 9, 2016

The Japanese city of Iruma has developed a QR code tagging system for elderly dementia patients at risk of getting lost, the BBC reported.

The QR barcode stickers, 1cm (0.4in) square in size can be attached to fingers and toes. According to an official, the new method is more effective and discreet than the existing system in which sufferers put ID stickers on clothes or shoes as “dementia patients are not always wearing those items.” The new stickers are also water-resistant and remain attached for an average of two weeks.

The information held in the code includes an address, telephone number and unique identity number for each user. The service is free and will be launched this month, BBC News said.

“The initiative, which uses a system of QR codes, was set up to help reunite family members with their elderly loved ones in the event that they go missing, according to the Iruma welfare office,” the report said. “The technology allows police to obtain details of a person’s local city hall, along with contact telephone numbers and personal details, simply by scanning the code.”

More than a quarter of Japanese citizens are aged 65 or over and the number of dementia sufferers is increasing. According to a Guardian report in June, the disorder currently affects 4.6 million people in Japan. The number is expected to rise to 7 million – one in five people aged 65 or over – by 2025.

A record number of people with dementia were reported missing in Japan in 2015, according to the national police agency. Of the more than 12,000, most were found within a week, but 479 were found dead and 150 are still missing.

Last year, the Japanese government announced it planned spend 22.5bn yen (£152.3m) in 2016 to train more specialists, improve early diagnosis and expand community-based care to relieve the pressure on family members who have to give up work to become carers.

Source: BBC; The Guardian

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