Archive for February, 2011

3D printer prints out fully functioning hybrid car

Posted February 28, 2011 By David Kolle
urbee 2

Above: A full-scale prototype, along with this 1/6 scale finished model of the Urbee will be displayed at the SEMA automotive show in Las Vegas next week.

Urbee

Right: Urbee’s body is entirely made using a 3D printer.

Two companies in the US have partnered to design and create Urbee – the car built entirely by a 3D printer.

Urbee was made using additive manufacturing processes, which prints layer upon layer of material to create a product.

Many manufacturers, including aeroplane giant Boeing, print their parts, but this is the first time an entire machine prototype has been created using the 3D printing process.

Every exterior component of Urbee, including the windscreen, was made using Dimension 3D printers and Fortus 3D Production Systems by Stratasys, who teamed up with Kor Ecologic to create the energy efficient car.

Jim Kor, president and chief technology officer for Kor Ecologic, said the process eliminated tooling, machining and handwork.

“If you can get to a pilot run without any tooling, you have advantages,” he said.

The electric/petrol hybrid car is extremely fuel efficient, getting approximately 85km/L on the highway.

A standard 4WD uses about 10 times the amount of petrol to go the same distance.

The futuristic looking vehicle can be charged from a regular household power outlet – just plug it in overnight – or can draw power from renewable sources such as sunlight or wind.

This combined with the environmentally friendly production process is part of the manufacturers’ goal of Urbee being “as green as possible”.

There are no current plans to go into mass production.

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Google is changing the formula it uses to rank web pages

Posted February 27, 2011 By David Kolle
Google

Google, the choice for most for searching the web, is changing the secret formula it uses to rank web pages as it struggles to combat websites that have been able to game its system.

The internet giant, which handles nearly two-thirds of the world’s web searches, has been under fire recently over the quality of its results. Google said it changed its mathematical formula yesterday in order to better weed out “low-quality” sites that offer users little value. Some such sites offer just enough content to appear in search results and lure users to pages loaded with advertisements.

Google generates billions of dollars from advertising linked to its search engine, whose influence as a front door to the world’s online content and commerce continues to grow by the year. Google’s power over the fortunes of so many other companies has made it a target of competitor complaints. It has also faced government investigations, including scrutiny by regulators in the US and Europe.

The Silicon Valley company built its business on the strength of algorithms that yield speedy results. The company constantly refines those formulas, and sometimes takes manual action to penalise companies that it believes use tricks to artificially rise in search rankings. In recent weeks, it has cracked down on retailers JC Penney and Overstock.com.

Last month, Google acknowledged it “can and should do better” to beat back sites that “copy content from other websites” or provide information that is “just not very useful” but are ranked highly anyway.

“I’ve never seen Google be attacked on the relevancy of their results the way they have these past couple of months,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of a widely read blog about the field called Search Engine Land.

The debate about Google’s results was sparked by a recent blog post by Vivek Wadhwa, a former technology executive and a visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. He wrote that his students had trouble finding basic information about the founders of start-up companies on Google.

“The problem is that content on the internet is growing exponentially and the vast majority of this content is spam,” or of little use, he wrote. “Google has become a jungle.”

Today, Mr. Wadhwa said in an interview that he had previously “written Google off” but is now “optimistic they may well get this under control,” though it will take time to see whether there are improvements. “It’s not rocket science; they know who the bad guys are, they compensate the companies” by letting them post Google ads and share revenue, he said.

Google search engineer Amit Singhal said in an interview that the company added numerous “signals,” or factors it would incorporate into its algorithm. Among those signals are “how users interact with” a site.

It also used feedback from hundreds of people it hires to evaluate changes. These “human raters” are asked to look at search results and decide whether to give their credit card number to a site or follow its medical advice, Mr Singhal said.

Yesterday, Mr Singhal and a colleague wrote in a blog post that most of the changes would be “so subtle that very few people notice them” but “it’s a big step in the right direction of helping people find ever higher quality in our results”.

About 12 per cent of US-based queries would be affected by the change, Google said, and the changes would expand to non-US users in the near future.

Google didn’t give examples of web pages that rose or dropped in its rankings for certain queries, setting off a wave of speculation by professionals whose job it is to help sites rise in Google’s results.

“It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down,” the Google engineers wrote, adding that sites with original content “such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on” will move up.

Many sites rely on web traffic from Google, and even a small drop in the rankings could have a large impact and potentially reduce revenue. Today, some large content creators, such as HubPages.com and ChaCha.com, said they noticed significant changes to traffic for some of their pages.

Demand Media, which recently went public and runs large content sites such as eHow.com and Answerbag.com, said “we haven’t seen a material net impact”.

Mr Sullivan, the blogger, said an eHow page with what he characterised as “shallow” content previously appeared as the first Google search result when users searched “how to get pregnant fast.” Since Google’s change yesterday, the eHow page has dropped out of the top results.

Yesterday’s move was an example of Google’s tremendous influence over the web, which has drawn scrutiny from US and overseas governments that have launched probes to see whether it is involved in anticompetitive behaviour. More recently, some websites have complained that Google is placing links to its own services ahead of Google’s competitors.

Google says it acts in the best interest of users, and frustration by some sites is understandable.

“Google has an enormous amount of power to make or break businesses,” said Scott Jones, chief executive of ChaCha Search, a question-and-answer site, who said he was seeing some negative effects from yesterday’s algorithm change, especially for web pages on his site that have short, “bite-sized” content.

“It’s unfair, I think, that Google made some wide, paint-brush decisions here in their algorithm that didn’t take into account a site like ChaCha that does have unique content created at fairly high cost,” he said.

Paul Edmondson, chief executive of HubPages.com, which shares ad revenue with writers that publish Web content about a variety of topics from making scarves to Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, said it was too early to tell how his site, would fare under the changes.

Web traffic sent by Google to a HubPages article about nose piercing rose by 40 per per cent since yesterday, he said, while traffic to an article on “what happens if you abandon your home and let it foreclose” dropped by 80 per cent.

Google said the effort that resulted in the latest search change has been underway for about a year. In order to learn which sites users find to be of poor quality, Google earlier this month began offering software for its Chrome browser that allows users to block sites from their search results if they deem them to be low quality.

Once blocked, the sites won’t appear during future searches. Google yesterday said that while it didn’t use data from the experiment to influence the changes it made to its algorithm, it found that the algorithm change covered 84 per cent of the internet sites that were the “most-blocked” by users.

One new competitor to Google, start-up search engine Blekko, relies on its users to weed out what they believe are poor sites in categories such as health, cars and personal finance.

“Overall Google has done a great job and there are very few cracks in the system,” said Seth Besmertnik, chief executive of Conductor, a company that helps companies such as General Electric and Federal Express rank highly on search engines. “But spammers are getting smarter and Google needs to keep getting smarter.”

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Intel unveils the company's latest Thunderbolt interface technology during a press briefing in San Francisco.

Apple overnight unveiled an updated line of MacBook Pro laptop computers featuring new Intel “Thunderbolt” technology for moving digital films and other data “blazingly fast”.

Apple upgraded the new-model laptops with the latest multi-core chips from Intel and high-definition “FaceTime” cameras for video chat and other uses.

“The new MacBook Pro brings next generation dual and quad Core processors, high performance graphics, Thunderbolt technology and FaceTime HD to the great design loved by our pro customers,” said Apple senior vice president of marketing Philip Schiller.

Apple also released to software developers a preview of the next generation Macintosh operating system named “Lion”, which it said “takes the best ideas from iPad and brings them to the Mac”.

A finished version of Lion for Macintosh computers is on track for release in mid-2011, according to Apple.

Lion software available at the online Mac App Store was intended to allow outside developers begin crafting hip, functional or fun programs that fuel the popularity of Apple gadgets.

“The iPad has inspired a new generation of innovative features in Lion,” Schiller said.

“Developers … can now start adding great new Lion features like full screen, gestures, Versions and Auto Save to their own apps.”

Cupertino, California-based Apple has sold more than 15 million iPads since the tablet computers hit the market last April.

The company has a tradition of releasing new products annually and is expected to introduce a second-generation iPad tablet computer at a March 2 press event in San Francisco.

The debut of the new MacBook Pro models came on the 56th birthday of Apple’s iconic chief executive Steve Jobs, who is on an indefinite leave of absence for medical reasons but remains involved in running the company.

MacBook Pro prices ranged from $1399 for a 13-inch (33-centimetre) model with a 320-gigabyte hard drive to $2899 for a 17-inch (43-centimetre) model with a 750-gigabyte hard drive.

Apple touted the new models as being twice as fast as the prior generation, with Thunderbolt making it possible to transfer an entire Blu-ray film for viewing in less than 30 seconds.

Digital data is transferred at a rate of 10 gigabytes per second, according to Intel.

“We’re thrilled to collaborate with Intel to bring the groundbreaking Thunderbolt technology to Mac users,” said Mac Hardware Engineering senior vice president Bob Mansfield.

“Thunderbolt is a breakthrough for the entire industry and we think developers are going to have a blast with it.”

Thunderbolt technology built into computer ports moves media faster and simplifies connections between devices, according to Intel, which demonstrated the technology at its Silicon Valley headquarters.

“Working with HD media is one of the most demanding things people do with their PCs,” said Intel PC Client Group general manager Mooly Eden.

“We’ve taken the vision of simple, fast transfer of content between PCs and devices, and made it a reality.”

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NASA: Humanoid robot launches future

Posted February 27, 2011 By David Kolle

With 38 computer processors and working arms and hands, the humanoid robot onboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery is expected to be the centerpiece of a dramatic step forward in the evolution of humans and robots working together in space.

Dubbed Robonaut 2 or R2, the 300-pound robot is stowed aboard Discovery, which is set for a final launch this afternoon.

R2 will accompany six NASA astronauts on an 11-day mission that includes the delivery of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station. The crew is also slated to undertake scientific experiments during the trip.

“It’s difficult to imagine any robot we’ve shipped in the past being able to some day cook dinner for an astronaut,” said Kris Verdeyen, an electrical engineer on NASA’s Robonaut project. “Now we can think about something like that. Someday [astronauts] can keep working and say, ‘Robonaut, go pop my food in the microwave.’”

Such possibilities are exciting to the engineers charged with getting R2 ready for space flight.

“If you’re talking about the evolution of humans and robots working together, these kinds of things now seem possible,” added Verdeyen. “It’s a big step in the evolution of human/robotic work.”

For the better part of the next year, however, the robot will mostly be undergoing tests to make sure the trip to the space station caused it no trouble. The testing period should give the astronauts aboard the station a chance to get used to large, heavy and imposing Robonaut 2.

The robot, which is fitted with velocity and speed controls to help make sure it doesn’t injure an astronaut, will have some time to prove itself — both in terms of its abilities and to ensure it works safely.

“The astronauts and mission controllers need to get comfortable with it,” said Verdeyen. “This is the first humanoid robot in space. I imagine it will be pretty scary to begin with. If you’ve ever watched a movie with a robot, they can be pretty scary.

“It’s not a cylon or whatever, but there’s going to be a period where we have to, as a team and robot, prove ourselves to the astronauts that we can be useful and we can be trusted. I think that will happen but I don’t know how long it will take,” he added.

Robonaut 2, which has been in the works for nearly 11 years, wasn’t originally conceived for space travel. In fact, Verdeyen said Robonaut 2 was simply a lab experiment until mid-2010. At that point, engineers started working to get the robot ready to both survive a turbulent trip to the space station and operate there over a long period of time.

“We found out that he was going to the space station so it required an overhaul of his electronics,” said Verdeyen. “We had to turn around and make it space ready. It was unprecedented.”

One of the biggest challenges for NASA engineers was to retrofit all of the robot’s electronics to withstand radiation in space.

They also worked to make Robonaut 2 as “smart” as possible.

The robot has a total of 38 Power PC processors, including 36 embedded ones. The embedded chips are running in the machine’s joints — its hands, shoulders, waist, elbows, neck and five large joints in each arm.

Each of the embedded processors control senses and movement in each joint. However, the embedded processors don’t communicate with each other; each one communicates with the robot’s main computer chip.

NASA also plans on periodically upgrading Robonaut 2 in the coming years.

The first upgrade, according to Verdeyen, is to add a set of legs. Right now, the robot consists of two arms and hands, a torso and a helmeted head. Legs have been built for it but there was no time to get them ready for the Discovery mission.

At this point, the robot will be attached to a pedestal on the space station and it will work in place. By the end of the year, engineers hope to ship one or two leg attachments for installation to the station.

With a pair of legs, the robot could around the station. A single leg, meanwhile, could be easily attached to the robotic arm outside the space station so it can assist astronauts during spacewalks.

Next year, NASA hopes to upgrade the robot’s torso, giving it new electronics and computer chips. And at some point, engineers want to add a battery so the robot can move freely about the space station — as well as outside it — without being plugged in.

“We took something that was meant to live in a lab on Earth and we upgraded it in a few months to the point that it’s sitting on the shuttle waiting for launch,” said Verdeyen. “It’s a pretty great robot.”

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