Archive for November, 2008

Knight Rider: Copying A Key From Really Far Away

By Eric Wolff | November 12, 2008 4:52 pm

Screen capture from Knight Righter, Episode 1×02A few weeks ago, I wrote about 3-D printing in light of a Knight Rider episode in which KITT photographed a key and then used a handy laser cutter to produce the key. But in that post, I never considered the other component of that technology, namely, making a key based on a  photograph. Fortunately, a couple of scientists at the University of California-San Diego got right on that problem and proved that you can, indeed, copy a key from a photograph.

Dr. Stefan Savage, a UCSD computer scientist, and his student, Benajamin Laxton, demonstrated their software on two images of a key. The first was taken from close range with a cellphone camera. The second set of keys was shot using a telephoto lens form a rofotop to capture an image of keys on a cafe table 200 feet away.  Then they wrote an algorithm in Matlab that could normalize the picture of the key depending on distance and the angle of the photo. Once the image has been normalized, it was a relatively simple matter to encode the ridges along the keylength into a numerical pattern, and then render that pattern into a real metal key.

Of course, the unanswered question for this experiment has to be, Why? Here’s what Savage said on the UCSD website: “If you go onto a photo-sharing site such as Flickr, you will find many photos of people’s keys that can be used to easily make duplicates. While people generally blur out the numbers on their credit cards and driver’s licenses before putting those photos on-line, they don’t realize that they should take the same precautions with their keys.”

Well, that’s a good point, and it’s something worth being careful about. But I still say he watched too many police shows.

MORE ABOUT: keys, Knight Rider

Seeing The Future, Literally

By Eric Wolff | November 11, 2008 2:36 pm

Augmented RealityVision, for the SciFi robot, is a much richer affair than it is for us ordinary mortals. Even the eyes of a trash compactor like Wall-E can home in on an object, zoom in or out as needed, apply light filters, and  maintain a heads up display showing velocity or coordinates, as needed. It’s so common in TV and movies that when a movie starts with a view through cross hairs, a light filter, and a rapid zoom on something or someone, it’s an instant signifier that we, the audience, are seeing the world from a  robot’s point of view. But not for long,perhaps. A couple of University of Washington researchers are ready to take the cool-vision mantle back from the robots.

In essence, what Dr. Babak Parviz has accomplished is to put an integrated circuit into a contact lens. Using a process called self-assembly, Parviz arranges nanometer-thick metal onto the organic polymer that makes up the contact lens, and then connects them to tiny light emitting diodes. The LEDs will be able to paint information on top of whatever scene you are looking at. They haven’t gotten to the point of lighting up the diodes, but they have begun testing them on animals. So far,  rabbits can withstand wearing the lenses for 20 minutes with no ill effects.

But once the microchip is in place, Parviz thinks it will be a short hop, technologically speaking, to getting those robot features built into the lens. Perhaps most of us don’t need targeting computers, but the zoom feature could sure be handy when I have to watch baseball from the nosebleed section, and I have to figure that recording video straight from the contact lens, Finder style, can’t be far behind.

Most of the gadgetry on the lens will be arranged into a ring that surrounds the transparent part of the eye. As contact lens wearers know, the sclera has no nerves in it, which makes it a great spot for putting wireless communications or other features for this lens. Actually, they’re  hoping to use that space for  solar panels. 

The one thing these contact lenses can’t do? Fix your eyesight. I imagine that wll be along soon.


10 Best Post-Apocalypses

By Stephen Cass | November 10, 2008 6:19 pm

Screenshot from 28 Days LaterWith buzz already building for The Road, a post-apocalyptic movie starring Viggo Mortensen set to come out sometime in 2009, Science Not Fiction decided to take at look at some of our favorite after-the-end-of-the-world scenarios. I excluded the various incarnations of War of Worlds because the book is basically an extended flashback from the safety of a rebuilt future, and the movies are apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic. Similarly Independence Day and Deep Impact are about averting armageddon. Twelve Monkeys and Oryx and Crake have post-apocalyptic scenes, but the back bone of their narrative is firmly in the pre-apocalyptic world–the selections below are all about life in the no-holds-barred aftermath. So in chronological order:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Books, Movies

Eleventh Hour: Staying Safe From Scary Germs

By Eric Wolff | November 7, 2008 10:22 pm

Screenshot from Eleventh HourLast night’s episode of Eleventh Hour was pretty straightforward: some smallpox germs escape from the private storage spot of a virologist whose doing some research on the side. Call him a mad scientist, if you like, but he felt really bad about his crime at the end, so he commits suicide by drinking a vial of his own super germs. Ick.

Anyway, one of the keys to the drama of the episode was the question of just how fast smallpox would spread from person to person, and whether Jacob Hood, our intrepid scientist, and Rachel young, his compadre and handler, could stop the disease from spreading. It’s not easy, because smallpox can be transmitted over the air, just by breathing within six feet of a victim. Contagion is even more likely if you touch the victim or for  some reason exchange fluids. Alas, Young tries to capture a possible suspect by chasing him into the street where he promptly gets hit by a car. Young goes to check on him and gets blood all over herself. Straight to the containment area for her!

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Knight Rider: Self-programming machines

By Eric Wolff | November 6, 2008 6:21 pm

Screenshot from Knight RiderThe writers of Knight Rider love us. Better yet, they are us. In last night’s Halloween episode, Zoe showed up in a Claire Bennet costume (Heroes‘ famed cheerleader), and Billy comes dressed as Capt. Jack Harkness of Dr. Who and Torchwood fame. We also got some love from the producers with the initiation of a multi-episode story arc (perhaps a product of the fact that Knight Rider has been picked up for the full season).

Around half way through the episode we learn that KITT has been programmed with a self-destruct mechanism by his creator, Dr. Charles Graiman, so there would be a failsafe against KITT going bad. Graiman is familiar with cyborgs gone wild, because he made a KITT prototype named KARR (who is not, as it happens, a car) with the capability to self-program. KARR’s evolution as a learning machine apparently led him to cause the deaths of seven people, though we don’t know how, exactly.

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Michael Crichton's Legacy

By Stephen Cass | November 5, 2008 6:09 pm

AndromedaScience Not Fiction was saddened to learn of the death of Michael Crichton yesterday. His 1969 novel, The Andromeda Strain, alone would have been enough to make him a science fiction legend, but he turned out string of taut technothrillers, even equalling The Andromeda Strain‘s iconic status with 1990’s Jurassic Park.

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Primeval: Exclusive Cast Video

By Stephen Cass | November 4, 2008 11:56 am

The British sci-fi series, Primeval, features a small team who have the job of capturing dinosaurs and other creatures who wander through rips, or “anomalies,” in the time-space continuum.The DVD of the first season that we reviewed yesterday is out today, and the nice folks at BBC America gave us the opportunity to pose a question to the cast about the show. Here, Andrew-Lee Potts, who plays Connor Temple, the show’s resident geek, answers our question about what creature he’d most like to see make an appearance on the show.


Primeval: DVD Review

By Stephen Cass | November 3, 2008 2:35 pm

Primeval DVD Box artJust finishing its first season on BBC America is Primeval, a british sci-fi adventure series that shows how monster-of-the-week is really done.

In recent years, science fiction and fantasy shows have generally tried to steer away from plotlines that involve creatures appearing, then terrifying and/or eating bystanders, and then being dispatched at the end of the episode once the cast has figured out the creatures’ main weakness. This plot formula is only for the start of season one, the thinking goes, when audiences need self-contained stories to introduce them to the cast and the show’s milieu. The real meat happens later, as multi-episode arcs and more complex character development are brought in, and monster-of-the-week episodes, with their limited formula, go to the bottom of the story pitch pile. Primeval explodes this thinking by having a show built firmly around the monster-of-the-week device, while still advancing engaging season-length arcs and furthering clever character development.

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