This ultrasonic gripper could let robots hold things without touching them

If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.

It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.

This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.

A small electric component, or a tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.

Another, more sinister-looking prototype.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly which combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.

A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.

How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear, but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately, he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Kids with lazy eye can be treated just by letting them watch TV on this special screen

Amblyopia, commonly called lazy eye, is a medical condition that adversely affects the eyesight of millions, but if caught early can be cured altogether — unfortunately this usually means months of wearing an eyepatch. NovaSight claims successful treatment with nothing more than an hour a day in front of its special display.

The condition amounts to when the two eyes aren’t synced up in their movements. Normally both eyes will focus the detail-oriented fovea part of the retina on whatever object the person is attending to; In those with amblyopia, one eye won’t target the fovea correctly and as a result the eyes don’t converge properly and vision suffers, and if not treated can lead to serious vision loss.

It can be detected early on in children, and treatment can be as simple as covering the good eye with a patch for most of the day, which forces the other eye to adjust and align itself properly. The problem is of course that this is uncomfortable and embarrassing for the kid, and of course only using one eye isn’t ideal for playing schoolyard games and other everyday things.

And you look cool doing it!

NovaSight’s innovation with CureSight is to let this alignment process happen without the eyepatch, instead selectively blurring content the child watches so that the affected eye has to do the work while the other takes a rest.

It accomplishes this with the same technology that, ironically, gave many of us double vision back in the early days of 3D: glasses with blue and red lenses.

Blue-red stereoscopy presents two slightly different versions of the same image, one tinted red and one tinted blue. Normally it would be used with slightly different parallax to produce a binocular 3D image — that’s what many of us saw in theaters or amusement park rides.

In this case, however, one of the two tinted images just has a blurry circle right where the kid is looking. The screen uses a built-in Tobii eye-tracking sensor so it knows where the circle should be; I got to test it out briefly and the circle quickly caught up with my gaze. This makes it so the other eye, affected by the condition but the only one with access to the details of the image, has to be relied on to point where the kid needs it to.

The best part is that there isn’t some treatment schema or tests — kids can literally just watch YouTube or a movie using the special setup, and they’re getting better, NovaSight claims. And it can be done at home on the kid’s schedule — always a plus.

Graphs from NovaSight website.

The company has already done some limited clinical trials that showed “significant improvement” over a 12-week period. Whether it can be relied on to completely cure the condition or if it should be paired with other established treatments will come out in further trials the company has planned.

In the meantime, however, it’s nice to see a technology like 3D displays applied to improving vision rather than promoting bad films. NovaSight has been developing and promoting its tech over the last year; It also has a product that helps diagnose vision problems using a similar application of 3D display tech. You can learn more or request additional info at its website.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

‘Carpentry Compiler’ turns 3D models to instructions on how to build them

Even to an experienced carpenter, it may not be obvious what the best way is to build a structure they’ve designed. A new digital tool, Carpentry Compiler, provides a way forward, converting the shapes of the structure to a step-by-step guide on how to produce them. It could help your next carpentry project get off the screen and into the shop.

“If you think of both design and fabrication as programs, you can use methods from programming languages to solve problems in carpentry, which is really cool,” said project lead Adriana Schulz from the University of Washington’s computer science department, in a news release.

It sounds a bit detached from the sawdust and sweat of hands-on woodworking, but they don’t say “measure twice, cut once” for nothing. Carpentry is a cerebral process more than a physical one, and smart, efficient solutions tend to replace ones that are merely well made.

What Carpentry Compiler does is codify the rules that govern design and carpentry, for example what materials are available, what tools can do, and so on, and use those to create a solution (in terms of cuts and joins) to a problem (how to turn boards into a treehouse).

Users design in a familiar 3D model interface, as many already do, creating the desired structure out of various shapes that they can modify, divide, pierce, attach, and so on. The program then takes those shapes and determines the best way to create them from your existing stock, with the tools you have — which you can select from a list.

Need to make the roof of your treehouse but only have 2x4s? It’ll provide a recipe with that restriction. Got some plywood sheets? It’ll use those, and the leftovers contribute to the base so there’s less waste. By evaluating lots and lots of variations on how this might be accomplished, the program arrives at what it believes are the best options, and presents multiple solutions.

“If you want to make a bookcase, it will give you multiple plans to make it,” said Schulz. “One might use less material. Another one might be more precise because it uses a more precise tool. And a third one is faster, but it uses more material. All these plans make the same bookcase, but they are not identical in terms of cost. These are examples of tradeoffs that a designer could explore.”

A 24-inch 2×4 gets cut at 16 inches at a 30-degree angle.

That’s really the same kind of thing that goes on inside a woodworker’s brain: I could use that fresh sheet to make this part, and it would be easy, or I could cut those shapes from either corner and it would leave room in the middle, but that’ll be kind of a pain… That sort of thing. It can also optimize for spatial elements, if for example you wanted to pack the parts in a box, or for cost if you wanted to shave a few bucks off the project.

Eventually the user is provided with a set of instructions specific to their set of tools. And the carpenters themselves act as the “processor,” executing operations, like “cut at this angle,” on real-world materials. In Carpenter Compiler, computer programs you!

The team presented their work at SIGGRAPH Asia last month. You can read more about the project (and learn how you can try it yourself) at its webpage.

Gadgets – TechCrunch