Thursday, 29 October 2009

Moving disembodied voice aids attention

In driving, that is.
(Also, an oops here: I wrote this last week, and forgot to publish it)

Two of the prettiest headsets out the there: the Jawbone and the Ripple (click on pics to be taken to websites)

Eyal Ophir and his colleagues in Stanford University’s CHIMe Lab - the same people who so inflamed interest earlier this year when they revealed that people who mutitask more, are worse at the tasks they do - have been playing with the problem of mobile phone conversations (MPCs) in cars.

I thought their new research was particularly timely, given the fact that NZ has now banned the use of mobile phones in cars unless using a headset/hands-free kit (and some interesting debates can be had on the subject of whether even these should be allowed).

The thing is, even if one is not actually holding a mobile phone, a conversation can be distracting. Very. And Ophir and his colleagues have been trying to find ways to make these conversations less dangerous - after all, we all know that people are not, en masse, suddenly going to pull over for mobile conversations.

They looked, basically, at making the cell phone-originating voice move around the car. Not, as I first thought, in a sort of left-right pan, necessarily, but more having the voice speaking from head level, or from floor level. Reasoning etc below:
"Ophir designed a system that puts the voice up at the driver’s level when road conditions are relatively safe, then drops it down to the driver’s feet when conditions are more hazardous. He says he could have done it the opposite way and it appears that it would have worked equally well, but that research has shown that voices coming from lower than the speaker are less dominant, hence his choice of high and low. He tested the system with drivers in a simulator, and found that drivers quickly learned that a change in position of the voice meant, “Pay attention to the road!” They later rated the cell phone conversation as less distracting when the sound was coming from their feet.

In the real world, Ophir sees this system linked to the driver’s GPS and a database of accidents, to identify potentially treacherous areas of road."

Critically, they were wanting to find a technique that would work for both high and low multitaskers (a small note of glee for us high multitaskers: while we may not be as good at a single task, apparently we might be slightly safer drivers when having a mobile phone conversation).

Apparently, the research is, hopefully, going to be published soon.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The broadband sitrep

I found this awesome infographic on Gizmodo today (click on the picture to make it larger).

The data's been taken from various sources (which are named on the picture), and shows the costs, and speeds, of broadband internet around the world.

Of course, as we already know, New Zealand is somewhat behind the curve in a few respects: price/month for 1mbps is in the $5-10 range and its average broadband speed (mbps) is below 4 mbps. Its broadband penetration, however, is just under 80% (although, having had a look at the Internet World Stats data, this may actually be internet, not broadband, penetration).

Some discussion:

First, the positive. Penetration is really high here - would anyone like to comment on why that might be so? I imagine that it is, at least, in part due to our small population, and the very small (relatively) number of people who're unable to afford internet at all. Possibly it's also a communication thing - many of us know people elsewhere in the world, and the internet's the best way of communicating with them. Any other ideas?

Secondly, the less positive. The internet here is expensive, particularly if one looks at the speeds we get. Yes, I could fork out a great deal of money each month for the fastest possible line, but I don't want to. I'm probably spoilt, having recently spent time in the UK and having access there to fast, cheap internet.

I understand that there are reasons for the price and speed of the internet here, certainly. We have are a small, isolated country. Absolutely. Market forces and whatnot. Of course. But we also used to be known for being on the forefront of at least some technologies - 'nuff said there, as there are many, far more knowledgeable, people who can speak to that.

And, of course, we have something of monopoly in terms of copper ownership. South Africa (my homeland) has an interestingly analogous situation: there, a giant telecoms company called Telkom (I kid you not) has had something of a stranglehold as well, owing to its ownership of all the copper. Unsurprisingly, telecomms and particularly internet prices there are very high, and speeds rather low.

Hopefully it'll change, and there have been mutterings of late in that direction from various sectors etc: indeed, fellow blogger John Nixon has in fact written a little on the subject. And Abhiskeh Tiwari has pointed out that Finland has just made internet access a legal right...

I'm just jealous of Japan, I guess - look at those speeds! And the ridiculously low cost of them! Yes, that is what happens with a densely populated, tech-obsessed (in many respects) nation, but you won't find me complaining, and my resolve to visit just strengthened that little bit.

Note: check out this great video explaining Australia's National Broadband Network plans. If nothing else, it's a great example of really good design in terms of the graphics etc.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Learning to use your new prehensile tail...

The obscure title is aimed at a friend who's always sworn that, when it comes time to choose body modifications, he wants that prehensile tail.

And now, according to some new research published in PNAS last week, he can learn to use it before he even has it!

(Note: the article I read about this can be found here - unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to find the paper itself anywhere on the PNAS site...)

Researchers have been looking into the idea of phantoms: no, not pale forms inhabiting dark corners, but instead limbs that we can feel attached to us, even when they aren't. The most common form of this is after an amputation, when many amputees continue to feel the limb after the surgery and not in a good way, either - apparently, it is often quite painful.

Previous research has looked into how best to treat phantom pain, but now, scientists have gone one better: they successfully managed to get people who have lost a limb - in this case, an arm above the elbow - were able to learn to manipulate the lost limb in entirely impossible ways. Apparently, those who were successful described that their wrist had developed a new joint, and the researchers were able to corroborate that, at least as fair as the patients' brains were concerned, the new neural pathways had in fact been produced (rather than being faked).

"Seven people who had an arm that had been amputated above the elbow were encouraged to learn a particular arm movement that defies biomechanics — turning a hand that’s bent 90 degrees at the wrist the last quarter of a full turn that the hand won’t do. The study participants practiced by imagining that they were moving the phantom limb for five minutes per hour every day until they had achieved the impossible movement or had given up (this took one to four weeks depending on the individual). Four of the participants were successful in feeling the sensation of the impossible movement, the researchers report."

"Each of the participants who achieved the impossible move also described developing a new wrist joint that allowed the impossible movement. And three of the four reported that moves that were previously possible for the phantom limb were now difficult with their new wrist."

So yes - it has implications for a number of things, from people learning to use new body parts before they can access them physically, or even to readjust self-image (very useful for people with conditions such as anorexia).

And for learning to use that prehensile tail :)

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

New Zealand nature documentaries

Something for all those of you who enjoy nature docos.

NZ On Screen has published, today, a collection of 15 full-length nature documentaries, complemented by a background piece written by Peter Hayden. The docos span some 30 years of film-making, with the intention being to celebrate Aotearoa, its magnificence, and, frankly, its eccentricities as well.

The films are as follows:

So yes, have a look, and enjoy. I haven't watched any of them yet, so I'm afraid I can't comment, although that comments from anyone who has are most welcome.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Open Laboratory - the best science blogging around

Now this is a fantastic project. Even better, it's been going since 2006!

Called Open Lab (or The Open Laboratory, in book form), it's a collection of the best science blogging on the net. Each year, some 50-53 posts are selected from the hundreds sent in, and amalgamated into a book.

Not only is this extremely cool, but it actually gets better. The books are available through Lulu - why, you ask? Well, it's simple. Lulu is a print-on-demand service. It's a brilliant idea - no wastage, no huge print runs, customised printing and it means that people who might ordinarily not be able to get a publisher interested, can still get their work out there. Hurrah!

For anyone who's interested, the nominations for Open Lab 2009 can be found here - over 370 so far, and counting.

If you're interesting in purchasing copies of the previous three years' worth of goodness (which we did yesterday in digital format), they can be found simply by clicking on the pictures.

It comes to about US$94/95 for all three, plus normal P&P. Alternatively, buy all three for less than $30 us digitally, and simply print them out.

Enjoy! I'm looking forward to getting stuck into 2008 tonight...

For anyone who's interested in print-on-demand technology, have a look at this: the awe-inspiring Espresso Book Machine®, which is being trialled in a few places in the states. What I would give to have access to one of these in Wellington...

Also, an admission: you can get the 2007 Open Lab book on Fishpond...for$65. And they're available on Amazon but again, you've got to pay postage and packaging, and they're no less expensive.