Tag Archives: Belgium

The human body as a musical instrument: performance at the University of British Columbia on April 10, 2014

It’s called The Bang! Festival of interactive music with performances of one kind or another scheduled throughout the day on April 10, 2014 (12 pm: MUSC 320; 1:30 PM: Grad Work; 2 pm: Research) and a finale featuring the Laptop Orchestra at 8 pm at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Music (Barnett Recital Hall on the Vancouver campus, Canada).

Here’s more about Bob Pritchard, professor of music, and the students who have put this programme together (from an April 7, 2014 UBC news release; Note: Links have been removed),

Pritchard [Bob Prichard], a professor of music at the University of British Columbia, is using technologies that capture physical movement to transform the human body into a musical instrument.

Pritchard and the music and engineering students who make up the UBC Laptop Orchestra wanted to inject more human performance in digital music after attending one too many uninspiring laptop music sets. “Live electronic music can be a bit of an oxymoron,” says Pritchard, referring to artists gazing at their laptops and a heavy reliance on backing tracks.

“Emerging tools and techniques can help electronic musicians find more creative and engaging ways to present their work. What results is a richer experience, which can create a deeper, more emotional connection with your audience.”

The Laptop Orchestra, which will perform a free public concert on April 10, is an extension of a music technology course at UBC’s School of Music. Comprised of 17 students from Arts, Science and Engineering, its members act as musicians, dancers, composers, programmers and hardware specialists. They create adventurous electroacoustic music using programmed and acoustic instruments, including harp, piano, clarinet and violin.

Despite its name, surprisingly few laptops are actually touched onstage. “That’s one of our rules,” says Pritchard, who is helping to launch UBC’s new minor degree in Applied Music Technology in September with Laptop Orchestra co-director Keith Hamel. “Avoid touching the laptop!”

Instead, students use body movements to trigger programmed synthetic instruments or modify the sound of their live instruments in real-time. They strap motion sensors to their bodies and instruments, play wearable iPhone instruments, swing Nintendo Wiis or PlayStation Moves, while Kinect video cameras from Sony Xboxes track their movements.

“Adding movement to our creative process has been awesome,” says Kiran Bhumber, a fourth-year music student and clarinet player. The program helped attract her back to Vancouver after attending a performing arts high school in Toronto. “I really wanted to do something completely different. When I heard of the Laptop Orchestra, I knew it was perfect for me. I begged Bob to let me in.”

The Laptop Orchestra has partnered itself with UBC’s Dept. of Computer and Electrical Engineering (from the news release),

The engineers come with expertise in programming and wireless systems and the musicians bring their performance and composition chops, and program code as well.

Besides creating their powerful music, the students have invented a series of interfaces and musical gadgets. The first is the app sensorUDP, which transforms musicians’ smartphones into motion sensors. Available in the Android app store and compatible with iPhones, it allows performers to layer up to eight programmable sounds and modify them by moving their phone.

Music student Pieteke MacMahon modified the app to create an iPhone Piano, which she plays on her wrist, thanks to a mount created by engineering classmates. As she moves her hands up, the piano notes go up in pitch. When she drops her hands, the sound gets lower, and a delay effect increases if her palm faces up. “Audiences love how intuitive it is,” says the composition major. “It creates music in a way that really makes sense to people, and it looks pretty cool onstage.”

Here’s a video of the iPhone Piano (aka PietekeIPhoneSensor) in action,

The members of the Laptop Orchestra have travelled to collaborate internationally (Note: Links have been removed),

Earlier this year, the ensemble’s unique music took them to Europe. The class spent 10 days this February in Belgium where they collaborated and performed in concert with researchers at the University of Mons, a leading institution for research on gesture-tracking technology.

The Laptop Orchestra’s trip was sponsored by UBC’s Go Global and Arts Research Abroad, which together send hundreds of students on international learning experiences each year.

In Belgium, the ensemble’s dancer Diana Brownie wore a body suit covered head-to-toe in motion sensors as part of a University of Mons research project on body movement. The researchers – one a former student of Pritchard’s – will use the suit’s data to help record and preserve cultural folk dances.

For anyone who needs directions, here’s a link to UBC’s Vancouver Campus Maps, Directions, & Tours webpage.

Starry gold and silica Janus particles

A Feb. 11, 2014 news item on phys.org features a joint Basque/Belgian research collaboration on a Janus-type particle useful for future biomedical applications,

Researchers from the Basque centre CIC biomaGUNE and the University of Antwerp (Belgium) have designed nanoparticles with one half formed of gold branches and the other of silicon oxide. They are a kind of Janus particle, so-called in honour of the Roman god with two faces, which could be used in phototherapy in the future to treat tumours.

The Feb. 11, 2014 Platforma SINC news release on the Alpha Galileo website, which originated the news item, elaborates on the Janus myth and on the research,

In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of gates, doors, beginnings and transitions between the past and the future. In fact, the first month of the year, January (from the Latin, ianuarĭus), bears his name. This deity was characterised by his profile of two faces, something which has inspired scientists, when naming their chemical designs with two clearly distinct components.

Now, a team of researchers from CIC biomaGUNE in San Sebastian, together with colleagues from the Belgian University of Antwerp, have created Janus particles of nanometric size. They are constituted by silicon oxide on one side and gold points on the other.

Here’s an image of the ‘starry’ particles supplied by the researchers,

Two examples of nanostars with one silicon oxide face (bluish) and another with golden branches (yellow). / Credit: Liz-Marzán et al.

Two examples of nanostars with one silicon oxide face (bluish) and another with golden branches (yellow). / Credit: Liz-Marzán et al.

The news release goes on to describe the ‘starry’ particles in more detail,

As Luis Liz-Marzán, the main author of this study published in the journal ‘Chemical Communications’, explains to SINC: “These nanostars have optical and electronic properties determined largely by their small dimensions and their morphology.”

The researchers have come up with techniques to mould the sharp gold points from nanoparticles of this metal, such that very intense electric fields can be generated on the gold points using light.

“Our research is basic science, but these fields are used in processes of ultrasensitive detection to identify negligible quantities of molecules that can be absorbed on the gold face as contaminants or biomarkers that indicate the presence of a disease,” says Liz-Marzán.

Another possible application is phototherapy, the object of which is to kill malignant cells using heat, in this case induced by lighting the gold points. The oxide face would be used to join the nanostars to specific biological receptors that would take them to the damaged cells and only to these, so that the metal part can exercise its therapeutic or diagnostic function.

These nanoparticles are produced in various stages. First, golden nanospheres are produced by the chemical reduction of a salt from the precious metal. Then, two different organic compounds are added on opposite sides of the particle in order to give them distinct affinity due to the silicon oxide. In this way, the oxide covers only one part and the other remains uncovered in order to let the golden points grow.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Denis Rodríguez-Fernández, Thomas Altantzis, Hamed Heidari, Sara Bals, Luis M. Liz-Marzán. “A protecting group approach toward synthesis of Au–silica Janus nanostars”. Chemical Communications 50: 79-81, 2014. DOI: 10.1039/C3CC47531J.

This article is available for free but you need to register with the website first or log in if you have already registered.

I last wrote about a Janus particle in an Aug. 13, 2009 post about research at Duke University.

“Care to swap excitons?” asked one graphene layer to the other layer

Belgian science does not often make an appearance here perhaps due to language issues or the direction that science research has taken in that country or something else. In any event, a Feb. 3, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights some graphene research taking place in Belgium (Note: A link has been removed),

Belgian scientists have used a particle physics theory to describe the behaviour of particle-like entities, referred to as excitons, in two layers of graphene, a one-carbon-atom-thick honeycomb crystal. In a paper published in EPJ B (“Exciton swapping in a twisted graphene bilayer as a solid-state realization of a two-brane model”), Michael Sarrazin from the University of Namur, and Fabrice Petit from the Belgian Ceramic Research Centre in Mons, studied the behaviour of excitons in a bilayer of graphene through an analogy with excitons evolving in two abstract parallel worlds, described with equations typically used in high-energy particle physics.

I found the previous description a little more confusing that I’d hoped but do feel that this line present in the Jan. 21, 2014 EPJ B news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Feb. 3, 2014) helped clarify matters,

Equations used to describe parallel worlds in particle physics can help study the behaviour of particles in parallel graphene layers

One of the problems with skimming through material as I often do is that more complex sentences cause confusion and whoever removed the first line from the news item was relying on me (the reader) to carefully read through some 70 to 80 words before revealing that the scientists had created two parallel virtual worlds to test their theory. Once that was understood, this made more sense (from the news release),

The authors used the equations reflecting a theoretical world consisting of a bi-dimensional space sheet—a so-called brane—embedded in a space with three dimensions. Specifically, the authors described the quantum behaviour of excitons in a universe made of two such brane worlds. They then made an analogy with a bilayer of graphene sheets, in which quantum particles live in a separate space-time.

They showed that this approach is adapted to study theoretically and experimentally how excitons behave when they are confined within the plane of the graphene sheet.

Sarrazin and his colleague have also theoretically shown the existence of a swapping effect of excitons between graphene layers under specific electromagnetic conditions. This swapping effect may occur as a solid-state equivalent of known particle swapping predicted in brane theory.

To verify their predictions, the authors suggest the design for an experimental device relying on a magnetically tunable optical filter. It uses magnets whose magnetic fields can be controlled with a separate external magnetic field. The excitons are first produced by shining an incident light onto the first graphene layer. The device then works by recording photons in front of the second graphene layer, which provide a clue of the decay of the exciton after it has swapped onto the second layer from the first.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

M. Sarrazin and F. Petit (2014), Exciton swapping in a twisted graphene bilayer as a solid-state realization of a two-brane model, European Physical Journal B, DOI 10.1140/epjb/e2013-40492-5

Clicking on the link will lead you directly to this open access paper.

Peter Higgs and François Englert to receive 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics and TRIUMF name changes?

After all the foofaraw about finding/confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson or ‘god’ particle (featured in my July 4, 2012 posting amongst many others), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2013 Nobel prize for Physics to two of the individuals responsible for much of the current thinking about subatomic particles and mass (from the Oct. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily),

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2013 to François Englert of Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, UK, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 for the theory of how particles acquire mass. In 1964, they proposed the theory independently of each other (Englert together with his now deceased colleague Robert Brout). In 2012, their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of a so called Higgs particle at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva in Switzerland.

TRIUMF, sometimes known as Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, has issued an Oct. 8, 2013 news release,

HIGGS, ENGLERT SHARE 2013 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS

Canadians Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize to “Godfathers” of the “God Particle”

(Vancouver, BC) — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Professor Peter W. Higgs (Univ. of Edinburgh) and Professor François Englert (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) to recognize their work developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass.  Canadians have played critical roles in all stages of the breakthrough discovery Higgs boson particle that validates the original theoretical framework.  Throngs across Canada are celebrating.

More than 150 Canadian scientists and students at 10 different institutions are presently involved in the global ATLAS experiment at CERN.  Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, has been a focal point for much of the Canadian involvement that has ranged from assisting with the construction of the LHC accelerator to building key elements of the ATLAS detector and hosting one of the ten global Tier-1 Data Centres that stores and processes the physics for the team of thousands.

“The observation of a Higgs Boson at about 125 GeV, or 130 times the mass of the proton, by both the ATLAS and CMS groups is a tremendous achievement,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the ATLAS Canada collaboration, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and Institute of Particle Physics scientist. “Its existence was predicted in 1964 when theorists reconciled how massive particles came into being.  It took almost half a century to confirm the detailed predictions of the theories in a succession of experiments, and finally to discover the Higgs Boson itself using our 2012 data.”

The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was first proposed in 1964 in two papers published independently, the first by Belgian physicists Robert Brout and François Englert, and the second by British physicist Peter Higgs. It explains how the force responsible for beta decay is much weaker than electromagnetism, but is better known as the mechanism that endows fundamental particles with mass. A third paper, published by Americans Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen with their British colleague Tom Kibble further contributed to the development of the new idea, which now forms an essential part of the Standard Model of particle physics. As was pointed out by Higgs, a key prediction of the idea is the existence of a massive boson of a new type, which was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN in 2012.

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the Higgs particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing
in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

TRIUMF salutes Peter Higgs and François Englert for their groundbreaking work recognized by today’s Nobel Prize and congratulates the international team of tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, students, and many more from around the world who helped make the discovery.

For spokespeople at the major Canadian universities involved in the Higgs discovery, please see the list below:

CANADIAN CONTACTS

U of Alberta: Doug Gingrich, [email protected], 780-492-9501
UBC:  Colin Gay, [email protected], 604-822-2753
Carleton U: Gerald Oakham (& TRIUMF), [email protected], 613-520-7539
McGill U: Brigitte Vachon (also able to interview in French), [email protected], 514-398-6478
U of Montreal: Claude Leroy (also able to interview in French),[email protected], 514-343-6722
Simon Fraser U: Mike Vetterli (& TRIUMF, also able to interview in French), [email protected], 778-782-5488
TRIUMF: Isabel Trigger (also able to interview in French), [email protected], 604-222-7651
U of Toronto: Robert Orr, [email protected], 416-978-6029
U of Victoria: Rob McPherson, [email protected], 604-222-7654
York U: Wendy Taylor, [email protected], 416-736-2100 ext 77758

While I know Canadians have been part of the multi-year, multi-country effort to determine the existence or non-existence of the Higgs Boson and much more in the field of particle physics, I would prefer we were not described as “… Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize … .” The question that springs to mind is: how were Canadian efforts key to this work? The answer is not revealed in the news release, which suggests that the claim may be a little overstated. On the other hand, I do like the bit about ‘saluting Higgs and Englert for their groundbreaking work’.

As for TRIUMF and what appears to be a series of name changes, I’m left somewhat puzzled, This Oct. 8, 2013 news release bears the name (or perhaps it’s a motto or tagline of some sort?): TRIUMF — Accelerating Science for Canada, meanwhile the website still sports this: TRIUMF Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics while a July 17, 2013 TRIUMF news release gloried in this name: TRIUMF Accelerators, Inc., (noted in my July 18, 2013 posting). Perhaps TRIUMF is trying to follow in CERN’s footsteps. CERN was once known as the ‘European particle physics laboratory’ but is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research and seems to also have the tagline: ‘Accelerating science’.

Monkey Tales games better than class excercises for teaching maths

Publicizing an unpublished academic paper, which makes the claim that a series of math games, Monkey Tales, are more effective than classroom exercises for teaching maths while trumpeting a series of unsubstantiated statistics, seems a little questionable. The paper featured in a July 8, 2013  news item on ScienceDaily is less like an academic piece and more like an undercover sales document,

To measure the effectiveness of Monkey Tales, a study was carried out with 88 second grade pupils divided into three groups. One group was asked to play the game for a period of three weeks while the second group had to solve similar math exercises on paper and a third group received no assignment. The math performance of the children was measured using an electronic arithmetic test before and after the test period. When results were compared, the children who had played the game provided significantly more correct answers: 6% more than before, compared to only 4% for the group that made traditional exercises and 2% for the control group. In addition, both the group that played the game and that which did the exercises were able to solve the test 30% faster while the group without assignment was only 10% faster.

Ordinarily, this excerpt wouldn’t be a big problem since one would have the opportunity to read the paper and analyse the methodology by asking questions such as this, how were the students chosen? Were the students with higher grades given the game? There’s another issue, percentages can be misleading when one doesn’t have the numbers, e.g., if there’s an increase from one to two, it’s perfectly valid to claim a 100% increase even if it is misleading. Finally, how were they able to measure speed? The control group, i.e., group without assignment, was 10% faster than whom?

The University of Ghent July 8, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, also includes a business case in what is supposed to be a news release about a study on maths education,

Serious or educational games are becoming increasingly important. Market research company iDate estimates that the global turnover was €2.3 billion in 2012 and expects it to rise to €6.6 billion in 2015.* A first important sector in which serious games are being used, is defence. The U.S. Army, for example, uses games to attract recruits and to teach various skills, from tactical combat training to ways of communicating with local people. Serious games are also increasingly used in companies and organizations to train staff. The Flemish company U&I Learning, for example, developed games for Audi in Vorst to teach personnel the safety instructions, for Carrefour to teach student employees how to operate the check-out system and for DHL to optimise the loading and unloading of air freight containers.

Reservations about the study aside, Monkey Tales (for PC only) looks quite charming.

[downloaded from http://www.monkeytalesgames.com/demo.php]

[downloaded from http://www.monkeytalesgames.com/demo.php]

In addition to a demo which can be downloaded, the site’s FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) provides some information about the games’ backers and the games,

Who created Monkey Tales?
Developed by European schoolbook publisher Die Keure and award winning game developer Larian Studios, Monkey Tales is based on years of research and was developed with the active participation of teachers, schools, universities and educational method-makers.

What does years of research mean ?
Exactly that. The technology behind Monkey Tales has been in development for over 4 years, and has been field tested with over 30 000 children and across several schools, with very active engagement from both teachers and educational method-makers. Additionally, a two years research project is underway in which the universities of Ghent & Leuven are participating to measure the efficiency of the methods used within Monkey Tales.

What is the educational goal behind Monkey Tales?
Monkey Tales’ aim is not to instruct, that’s what teachers and schools are for. Instead it aims to help children rehearse and improve skills they should have, by motivating them to do drill exercises with increasing time pressure.

Because the abilities of children are very diverse, the algorithm behind the game first tries to establish where a child is on the learning curve, and then stimulates the child to make progress. This way frustration is avoided, and the child makes progress without realizing that it’s being pushed forward.

There’s a demonstrable effect that playing the game helps mastery of arithmetic. Parents can experience this themselves by trying out the games.

What can my child learn from Monkey Tales?
Currently there are five games available, covering grades 2 to 6, covering the field of mathematics in line with state standards (Common Core Standards and the 2009 DoDEA standards). Future games in the series will cover language and science.

What’s special about Monkey Tales?
A key feature of Monkey Tales is its unique algorithm that allows the game to automatically adapt to the level of children so that they feel comfortable with their ability to complete the exercises, removing any stress they might feel. From there, the game then presents progressively more difficult exercises, all the time monitoring how the child is performing and adapting if necessary. One of the most remarkable achievements of Monkey Tales is its ability to put children under time pressure to complete exercises without them complaining about it!

Hopefully this Monkey Tales study or a new study will be published and a news release, which by its nature, offers skimpy information won’t provoke any doubts about the validity of the work.

European nanotech roadmap

No event, document, or specific announcement appears to have occasioned the May 10, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about Europe’s nanotechnology roadmap (Note: A link was removed),

Nanotechnology is opening the way to a new industrial revolution. From ‘individualised’ medical treatments tailored for each patient to new, environmentally-friendly energy storage and generation systems, nanotechnology is bringing significant advances. Exciting new futures await those businesses able to get ahead in the race to turn this wealth of promise into commercial success. But in a field which requires a high degree of coordinated effort involving many different stakeholder groups, including researchers, policymakers and commercial players across a wide variety of industrial sectors, it has perhaps been inevitable that fragmentation, disconnectedness and duplication have stood in the way.

NANOfutures was set up in 2010 to tackle exactly this problem of fragmentation. Supported by European Union (EU) funding, NANOfutures is a European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP) bringing together industry, research institutions and universities, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], financial institutions, civil society and policymakers at regional, national and European levels. Acting as a kind of ‘nano-hub’ for Europe, NANOfutures is dedicated to fostering a shared vision and strategy on the future of nanotechnology.

The May 9, 2013 European Commission news release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the NANOfutures project which ended in Sept. 2012,

Reflecting its objective of achieving a truly cross-sectoral approach, breaking out of individual industry silos and addressing the major nanotech issues which are common to all sectors, NANOfutures set up a steering committee which included representatives from 11 European Technology Platforms (ETPs) – sector-specific networks of industry and academia – including those for textiles, nanomedicine, construction and transportation. Chaired by Professor Paolo Matteazzi of Italian specialist nanomaterials company MBN Nanomaterialia, the committee also included ten nanotechnology experts, each one chairing a NANOfutures working group on cross-sectoral topics such as safety, standardisation, regulation, technology transfer and innovative financing.

This approach allowed NANOfutures to identify key aspects of nanotechnology and its exploitation in which all players – from researcher to politician, financier, commercial developer, regulator or end-user – were involved and therefore had common interests.

One of the major successes achieved by the two-year project was securing an agreement by all 11 ETPs on a set of research and innovation themes for the next decade. “The ETPs agreed to focus their private efforts, and call for increasing public efforts, on such themes in order to bring European nano-enabled products to successful commercialisation, with benefits for the grand challenges of our time such as climate change, affordable and effective medicine, green mobility and manufacturing,” says the project’s coordinator, Margherita Cioffi of Italian engineering consultancy D’Appolonia.

The most tangible result of this, and the key outcome from NANOfutures, was the development and publication of a ‘Research and Industrial Roadmap’ setting out, in Ms Cioffi’s words, “a pathway up to 2020 which will enable European industry and researchers to deliver and successfully commercialise sustainable and safe nano-enabled products.” Divided into seven separate thematic areas, or ‘value-chains’, the roadmap covers European priorities from materials research to product design, manufacturing, assembly, use and disposal. It describes both short- and longer-term actions with the aim of providing a practical guide for EC and Member State governments, research centres and industry, as well as standardisation and regulation bodies.

Other benefits directly resulting from the project, Ms Cioffi adds, were the sharing of safety best practices, the creation of partnerships to promote product development, training and other services, and the bringing together of relevant SME businesses with potential users and investors during specially organised Technology Transfer workshops.

Since it is not a product in itself, but a method with an enormous range of potential applications, nanotechnology naturally reaches into a diverse range of human activities. Paradoxically, almost, this very richness and universality of its benefits leads to a fragmentation of effort which acts as a barrier to its efficient exploitation. By bringing together the various stakeholders to create a unified, strategic approach, replacing fragmentation and duplication with a focus on areas of agreed priority and common interest, NANOfutures has played an invaluable role in promoting the rapid development of nanotechnology – with its twin benefits of societal usefulness and enhanced European competitiveness.

Project details

Project acronym: NANOFUTURES

  • Participants: Italy (Coordinator), Belgium, Spain
  • Project FP7 266789
  • Total costs: €1 171 011
  • EU contribution: €999 980
  • Duration: October 2010 – September 2012

The NANOfutures website provides more resources including a list of documents/deliverables  featuring a 148 pp. July 2012 roadmap. Unfortunately, I cannot provide a direct link to the roadmap or the documents page, for that matter.

At this point, the site is probably most valuable for its links to other project as a host of resources are organized under buttons (the left side of the home page) titled with Communication Projects, Finance Projects, Safety Projects, etc.

Prosthetics and the human brain

On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe  have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.

First, there’s the ‘wheelchair’ research, from the Mar. 6, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

People with spinal cord injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile limbs.

The human brain can learn to treat relevant prosthetics as a substitute for a non-working body part, according to research published March 6 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Mariella Pazzaglia and colleagues from Sapienza University and IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia of Rome in Italy, supported by the International Foundation for Research in Paraplegie.

The researchers found that wheelchair-bound study participants with spinal cord injuries perceived their body’s edges as being plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair, independent of time since their injury or experience with using a wheelchair. Patients with lower spinal cord injuries who retained upper body movement showed a stronger association of the wheelchair with their body than those who had spinal cord impairments in the entire body.

According to the authors, this suggests that rather than being thought of only as an extension of the immobile limbs, the wheelchairs had become tangible, functional substitutes for the affected body part. …

As I mentioned in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting,

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot? [you can find the article here: http://www.economist.com/node/21560986]),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

According to the Mar. 6, 2013 news release on EurekAlert from the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the open access article by Pazzaglia and her colleagues can be found here (Note: I have added a link),

Pazzaglia M, Galli G, Scivoletto G, Molinari M (2013) A Functionally Relevant Tool for the Body following Spinal Cord Injury. PLOS ONE 8(3): e58312.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058312

At almost the same time as Pazzaglia’s work,  a “Mind-controlled Exoskeleton” is announced in a Mar. 7, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Every year thousands of people in Europe are paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Many are young adults, facing the rest of their lives confined to a wheelchair. Although no medical cure currently exists, in the future they could be able to walk again thanks to a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton being developed by EU-funded researchers.

The system, based on innovative ‘Brain-neural-computer interface’ (BNCI) technology — combined with a light-weight exoskeleton attached to users’ legs and a virtual reality environment for training — could also find applications in there habilitation of stroke victims and in assisting astronauts rebuild muscle mass after prolonged periods in space.

The Mar. 7, 2013 news release on CORDIS, which originated the news item, offers a description of the “Mindwalker” project,

‘Mindwalker was proposed as a very ambitious project intended to investigate promising approaches to exploit brain signals for the purpose of controlling advanced orthosis, and to design and implement a prototype system demonstrating the potential of related technologies,’ explains Michel Ilzkovitz, the project coordinator at Space Applications Services in Belgium.

The team’s approach relies on an advanced BNCI system that converts electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the brain, or electromyography (EMG) signals from shoulder muscles, into electronic commands to control the exoskeleton.

The Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Movement Biomechanics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) focused on the exploitation of EEG and EMG signals treated by an artificial neural network, while the Foundation Santa Lucia in Italy developed techniques based on EMG signals modelled by the coupling of neural and biomechanical oscillators.

One approach for controlling the exoskeleton uses so-called ‘steady-state visually evoked potential’, a method that reads flickering visual stimuli produced at different frequencies to induce correlated EEG signals. Detection of these EEG signals is used to trigger commands such as ‘stand’, ‘walk’, ‘faster’ or ‘slower’.

A second approach is based on processing EMG signals generated by the user’s shoulders and exploits the natural arm-leg coordination in human walking: arm-swing patterns can be perceived in this way and converted into control signals commanding the exoskeleton’s legs.

A third approach, ‘ideation’, is also based on EEG-signal processing. It uses the identification and exploitation of EEG Theta cortical signals produced by the natural mental process associated with walking. The approach was investigated by the Mindwalker team but had to be dropped due to the difficulty, and time needed, in turning the results of early experiments into a fully exploitable system.

Regardless of which method is used, the BNCI signals have to be filtered and processed before they can be used to control the exoskeleton. To achieve this, the Mindwalker researchers fed the signals into a ‘Dynamic recurrent neural network’(DRNN), a processing technique capable of learning and exploiting the dynamic character of the BNCI signals.

‘This is appealing for kinematic control and allows a much more natural and fluid way of controlling an exoskeleton,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

The team adopted a similarly practical approach for collecting EEG signals from the user’s scalp. Most BNCI systems are either invasive, requiring electrodes to be placed directly into brain tissue, or require users to wear a ‘wet’ capon their head, necessitating lengthy fitting procedures and the use of special gels to reduce the electrical resistance at the interface between the skin and the electrodes. While such systems deliver signals of very good quality and signal-to-noise ratio, they are impractical for everyday use.

The Mindwalker team therefore turned to a ‘dry’ technology developed by Berlin-based eemagine Medical Imaging Solutions: a cap covered in electrodes that the user can fit themselves, and which uses innovative electronic components to amplify and optimise signals before sending them to the neural network.

‘The dry EEG cap can be placed by the subject on their head by themselves in less than a minute, just like a swimming cap,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

Before proceeding any further with details, here’s what the Mindwalker looks like,

© MINDWALKER (downladed from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

© MINDWALKER (downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

After finding a way to collect the EEG/EMG signals and interpret them, the researchers needed to create the exoskeleton (from the CORDIS news release),

The universities of Delft and Twente in the Netherlands proposed an innovative approach for the design of the exoskeleton and its control. The exoskeletonis designed to be sufficiently robust to bear the weight of a 100 kg adult and powerful enough to recover balance from external causes of instability such as the user’s own torso movements during walking or a gentle push from the back or side. Compared to other exoskeletons developed to date it is relatively light, weighing less than 30 kg without batteries, and, because a final version of the system should be self-powered, it is designed to minimise energy consumption.

The Mindwalker researchers achieved energy efficiency through the use of springs fitted inside the joints that are capable of absorbing and recovering some of the energy otherwise dissipated during walking, and through the development of an efficient strategy for controlling the exoskeleton.

Most exoskeletons are designed to be balanced when stationary or quasi-static and to move by little steps inside their ground stability perimeter, an approach known as ‘Zero moment point’, or ZMP. Although this approach is commonly used for controlling humanoid robots, when applied to exoskeletons, it makes them heavy and slow – and usually requires users to be assisted by a walking frame, sticks or some other support device when they move.

Alternatively, a more advanced and more natural control strategy can replicate the way humans actually walk, with a controlled loss of balance in the walking direction.

‘This approach is called “Limit-cycle walking” and has been implemented using model predictive control to predict the behaviour of the user and exoskeleton and for controlling the exoskeleton during the walk. This was the approach investigated in Mindwalker,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

To train users to control the exoskeleton, researchers from Space Applications Services developed a virtual-reality training platform, providing an immersive environment in which new users can safely become accustomed to using the system before testing it out in a clinical setting, and, the team hope, eventually using it in everyday life.

By the end of this year, tests with able-bodied trial users will be completed. The system will then be transferred to the Foundation Santa Lucia for conducting a clinical evaluation until May 2013 with five to 10volunteers suffering from spinal cord injuries. These trials will help identify shortcomings and any areas of performance improvement, the project coordinator says.

In the meantime, the project partners are continuing research on different components for a variety of potential applications. The project coordinator notes, for example, that elements of the system could be adapted for the rehabilitation of stroke victims or to develop easy-to-use exoskeletons for elderly people for mobility support.

Space Applications Services, meanwhile, is also exploring applications of the Mindwalker technology to train astronauts and help them rebuild muscle mass after spending long periods of time in zero-gravity environments.

There’s more about the European Commission’s Seventh Programme-funded Mindwalker project here.

Parallel with these developments in Europe, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University has stated that he will have a working exoskeleton (Walk Again Project)  for the kickoff by a paraplegic individual for the opening of the World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil in 2014. I mentioned Nicolelis and his work most recently in a Mar. 4, 2013 posting.

Taken together, this research which strongly suggests that people can perceive prostheses as being part of their bodies and exoskeletons that are powered by the wearer’s thoughts, we seem to be edging closer to a world where machines and humans become one.

Fireflies and their jagged scales lead to brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes)

According to the Jan. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily, scientists have used an observation about fireflies to make brighter LEDs (light emitting diodes),

The nighttime twinkling of fireflies has inspired scientists to modify a light-emitting diode (LED) so it is more than one and a half times as efficient as the original.

Researchers from Belgium, France, and Canada studied the internal structure of firefly lanterns, the organs on the bioluminescent insects’ abdomens that flash to attract mates. The scientists identified an unexpected pattern of jagged scales that enhanced the lanterns’ glow, and applied that knowledge to LED design to create an LED overlayer that mimicked the natural structure. The overlayer, which increased LED light extraction by up to 55 percent, could be easily tailored to existing diode designs to help humans light up the night while using less energy.

The Optical Society of America’s Jan. 8, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes how the scientists came to make their observations,

“The most important aspect of this work is that it shows how much we can learn by carefully observing nature,” says Annick Bay, a Ph.D. student at the University of Namur in Belgium who studies natural photonic structures, including beetle scales and butterfly wings.  When her advisor, Jean Pol Vigneron, visited Central America to conduct field work on the Panamanian tortoise beetle (Charidotella egregia), he also noticed clouds of twinkling fireflies and brought some specimens back to the lab to examine in more detail.

Fireflies create light through a chemical reaction that takes place in specialized cells called photocytes. The light is emitted through a part of the insect’s exoskeleton called the cuticle.  Light travels through the cuticle more slowly than it travels through air, and the mismatch means a proportion of the light is reflected back into the lantern, dimming the glow. The unique surface geometry of some fireflies’ cuticles, however, can help minimize internal reflections, meaning more light escapes to reach the eyes of potential firefly suitors.

In Optics Express papers, Bay, Vigneron, and colleagues first describe the intricate structures they saw when they examined firefly lanterns and then present how the same features could enhance LED design. Using scanning electron microscopes, the researchers identified structures such as nanoscale ribs and larger, misfit scales, on the fireflies’ cuticles. When the researchers used computer simulations to model how the structures affected light transmission they found that the sharp edges of the jagged, misfit scales let out the most light. The finding was confirmed experimentally when the researchers observed the edges glowing the brightest when the cuticle was illuminated from below.

“We refer to the edge structures as having a factory roof shape,” says Bay.  “The tips of the scales protrude and have a tilted slope, like a factory roof.” The protrusions repeat approximately every 10 micrometers, with a height of approximately 3 micrometers. “In the beginning we thought smaller nanoscale structures would be most important, but surprisingly in the end we found the structure that was the most effective in improving light extraction was this big-scale structure,” says Bay.

Here’s how the scientists applied their observations to LEDs (from the news release),

Human-made light-emitting devices like LEDs face the same internal reflection problems as fireflies’ lanterns and Bay and her colleagues thought a factory roof-shaped coating could make LEDs brighter. In the second Optics Express paper published today, which is included in the Energy Express  section of the journal, the researchers describe the method they used to create a jagged overlayer on top of a standard gallium nitride LED. Nicolas André, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, deposited a layer of light-sensitive material on top of the LEDs and then exposed sections with a laser to create the triangular factory-roof profile. Since the LEDs were made from a material that slowed light even more than the fireflies’ cuticle, the scientists adjusted the dimensions of the protrusions to a height and width of 5 micrometers to maximize the light extraction.

“What’s nice about our technique is that it’s an easy process and we don’t have to create new LEDs,” says Bay.  “With a few more steps we can coat and laser pattern an existing LED.”

Other research groups have studied the photonic structures in firefly lanterns as well, and have even mimicked some of the structures to enhance light extraction in LEDs, but their work focused on nanoscale features. The Belgium-led team is the first to identify micrometer-scale photonic features, which are larger than the wavelength of visible light, but which surprisingly improved light extraction better than the smaller nanoscale features. The factory roof coating that the researchers tested increased light extraction by more than 50 percent, a significantly higher percentage than other biomimicry approaches have achieved to date. The researchers speculate that, with achievable modifications to current manufacturing techniques, it should be possible to apply these novel design enhancements to current LED production within the next few years.

For those who care to investigate further,

Both articles (HTML version) are open access; PDF versions were not checked.

Dyeing textiles naturally when enabled by nanotechnology

The May 15, 2012 news item on Nanowerk is intriguing,

Nanoparticles from a fungus could lead to new eco friendly dyes claim scientists from the Catholic University of Louvain.

Researchers working for the EU-funded research project SOPHIED have discovered that a fungus from the Solomon Islands produces special enzymes that act as nano-bio-catalysts.  These components help to trigger a chemical reaction between two different basic ingredients and turn it into a dye.

On digging into the matter a little further I found a Sept. 2, 2011 article by Elena Ledda for YOURIS; European Research Media Center about the reasons for the work and about the researcher who’s  focusing on the fungus, Estelle Enaud at Catholic University  of Louvain in Belgium,

The problems encountered by the traditional European colour industry go from lack of innovation and weak market competitiveness to toxicity, environmental hazards and health risks for those working in it. Dye-making industry is based on chemistry and processes designed more than a century ago, some of which are very energy consuming and potentially dangerous for the workers. In order to prevent explosive reactions when mixing the chemicals, the process has to be cooled down to ice cold temperatures, which consumes a lot of energy. Besides, some dyes can be toxic and there is a risk that they may pass the skin through perspiration. …

To overcome this bias scientists of the EU-funded research project SOPHIED led by the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, have extracted special proteins, called enzymes, from fungi. …

“We already knew there is a whole spectrum of colours in the fungis and that the enzymes can form new color compounds during the bioremediation part, that is the process through which the metabolisms of microorganism removes pollutants. What we didn’t know was if it was possible to make textile dyes because these have special properties and chemical functions that you cannot find in nature”, says Estelle Enaud of the Earth and Life Institute – Applied Microbiology at the Université Catholique de Louvain. Enaud was a post-doc researcher in Sophie Vanhulle’s team. Sophie Vanhulle, the project co-ordinator, died two years ago. “The challenge was if it was possible to use the enzyme on a substance that is not natural, and it turned out it was!”

Here’s an interview with Enaud discussing her project (from the YOURIS website),

My curiosity still not satisfied, I researched SOPHIED to find out it is a European Union-funded project (Framework Project 6) with the tagline, novel sustainable bioprocess for European colour industries.  Here’s a 2008 interview with Magalie Foret, another researcher on the project discussing he SOPHIED project and her specialty wetlands engineering  (in French), from the SOPHIED website,

Getting back to Enaud and her latest work (from the Ledda article),

To extract the enzymes the fungi are put into a liquid that contains nutrients, which allows them to grow and release the desired proteins. After taking out the fungi, silica particles are added to the fluid. “The combination of enzymes and silica particles brings to a stabilization of the enzyme and eliminates proteins at the end in our dye product, since they might provoke allergies”, Estelle Enaud points out. “The particle we used the most had a mean size of 100 µm, much bigger than nano. The nano size and the nano part of the project concern the enzymes that are nanocatalysts and can also be called biological nano tools”, she explains. “I must admit I do not really like to use the word nano because although everything I work with as a biochemist is nano, biochemistry is not a new science area”.

The new colorants possess chemical features that allow them to adhere directly to the fibers of polyamide, wool or silk, making it unnecessary to add extra chemicals that can pollute water and provoke allergies. “Before putting this product on the market, it would be important to check its toxicity”, Victor Puntes, responsible of the ‘Inorganic nanoparticles group’ at the ICN (Institut Català de Nanotecnologia) points out. “In principle, large silica particles are more toxic than their nano counterpart: on the one hand, being larger they have a hard time to enter into the cell, on the other, once a few of them have entered, they can produce chronic inflammation that can result, maybe 20 years later, in some kind of cancer”, Puntes explains. Enaud ensures that the silica particles that they use are not toxic. She adds that the particles are customarily used in tooth paste, as ingredient in horticulture, and in concrete are not classified as dangerous substances.

Some interesting possibilities here assuming toxicity and scaling issues are dealt with. One final thought, I wonder if there might be some sort of ‘property’ issues. Given that the fungus under discussion comes from the Solomon Islands, it seems possible that indigenous peoples might feel proprietary, especially if they’ve been making using of it themselves thereby piquing the scientists’ interest in the first place.