A Keyboard Without a Keyboard

keyboardWe all know there are apps for everything.  But now there is an app that can create something out of nothing.  Imagine typing up the next great novel by simply tapping your fingers on a desk.  Florian Kräutli is an industrial designer living in the Netherlands who has designed an app that can allow you to do just that.  His invention can literally turn any surface into a keyboard for your iphone.  For his master’s degree in cognitive computing from the University of London, he created the Vibrative Virtual Keyboard, an invention that is less like transmitting Morse code and more like playing air guitar.  Unlike similar designs that allow users to type onto a laser-projected keyboard, his app requires no additional hardware other than your nearest flat surface.  The app works by taking readings from the iphone’s internal accelerometer which measures vibrations near the iphone.  The user spends some time teaching the iphone what certain taps mean, and the software figures out the rest.  The app is in its early stages and the readings from the iphone’s internal accelerometer are not always spot on.  However, Kräutli claims that “if you made the accelerometer more sensitive you could improve the accuracy quite easily” (The Telegraph).  In the meantime, the app relies on a spell checker to get words right.  Here is the app in action.

How do you get your keyboard without a keyboard installed on your iphone?  The app is still in its proof of concept phase and has yet to be commercialized.  So for now, you’ll need some hardware or at least a pen and paper to get started on that novel!

Image from Goldsmiths, University of London

The Science of Loooooove!

The-Science-of-Love beakerIt’s time to get your groove on!  Get your Mojo working and get in the mood for love!  McGill’s Freaky Friday series is sponsoring a love-in of sorts with their Science of Love Competition just in time for Valentine’s Day!  Open to undergraduate students in science, the six best one-page proposals on the chemistry, biology or physics of all things love-related will be chosen to deliver a 4-slide 4-minute presentation at Redpath Museum for the McLovin’ Science Prize.  The big event will take place on Valentine’s Day (of course!) at 5pm in Redpath Museum and is open to the public.  Proposals are due Jan. 31.  Please click here for further contest details.

In need of some inspiration to get the juices flowing?  Check out the BBC’s Three stages of falling in love page, PositScience’s Your brain in love page, Nature’s blog post reporting on research that confirms the existence of love at first sight and Scientific American’s Illusions of love page.  Or check out McGill’s home grown talent from the Mini-Science lectures on Science, Sex and Gender delivered by some of McGill’s most renowned scientists like Chemistry’s own Dr. Joe Schwarcz and Dr. Ehab Abouheif from the Department of Biology.

What could be more romantic than seducing the apple of your eye by showing him or her what an expert you are in love talk and winning the grand McLovin’ Science Prize?  Go ahead and wear your heart on your sleeve.  Share what you know about the Science of Love!

Image from Arif-nma.com

The Power of the Mind

EEG headset

Just how far are we away from the mind-powered car? These were my thoughts when I read an article in Prism about Japanese researchers at Toyota who were developing a headset device for wheelchair users that would allow them to control their wheelchairs by simply thinking about where they wanted to go. Toyota’s “Brain Machine Interface” technology uses electroencephalography (EEG) data to enable people with physical disabilities to drive, steer and stop their wheelchairs using the power of the mind. The technology takes some training in order to coordinate the user’s thought patterns and the system’s responses. Researchers claim that the system can “adapt to a particular user’s thought patterns to improve accuracy to as high as 95%… Training on the system for 3 hours a day for a week is enough to have it tuned in to a user’s motor-control thought patterns” (PC World). The applications of such a revolutionary technology seem boundless! Imagine you could just think up what you wanted to have for dinner, mentally going through the various tasks while a robot actually went about preparing the meal. You might not even have to lift a finger in order to sit down to a four-course meal! Even though Japanese researchers are working on applications of this technology for use in controlling robots, we’re not quite there yet.

But now an electronics company called Emotiv has partnered with Hyundai in Australia to market a brain-powered car which uses similar EEG technology to control a vehicle via the mind and researchers in Germany are testing similar technology called BrainDriver that can actually drive a car. At this point, the only technology that has been commercialized is limited to making sure that drivers stay alert as inattentiveness on the road accounts for nearly 50% of fatal vehicle accidents in Australia (Drive.com). The Attention Powered Car will slow down and come to a stop if the driver becomes fatigued. Here it is in action. In terms of implications for road safety, Australians are already headed in the right direction!

This brings me back to my initial question: just how far are we away from a vehicle that not only stops when a driver is fatigued but is actually controlled by the impulses of the brain rather than the touch of the hand? If the work that researchers in Germany, Australia and Japan are doing is any indication, we’ll soon be driving into the future!

Image from Physiological Computing.net

Tablet for the Masses


A tablet, touted as the world’s cheapest, designed and developed by a Canadian-run company with operations in Montreal?  Who knew?  Now priced at around $40, the product is called the Aakash and it’s heading into version 3.0.   Datawind, the company that produces it, has ambitions to bring the price down even further to around $25.  Their company slogan is: “Bridging the digital divide” and now that they have the largest market share of tablets in India, the world’s second most populous nation, they may just be living up to it.  In order to bring low-cost internet to developing markets, Datawind has patented a process that uses a proxy server between a portable device and an internet service provider’s server to reduce the volume of data that get transmitted over the web.  This process shortens the time users wait to view a webpage, which is especially useful in developing countries where internet access is often slow and expensive.

I had a chance to speak with Derek Kopke, a McGill alumni (B. Ed. 1992) who is Datawind’s Executive Vice President of International Business Development.  He explained that the Aakash’s popularity took off from the time the company won an Indian government bid in 2010 against 17 competitors to produce a tablet for use in India’ schools that would be subsidized for students.  Ever since the Aakash received endorsement by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, it’s been a challenge to keep up with demand.

Datawind now has its headquarters in London, England and offices in India but maintains a Research and Development office and a touch screen lab here in Montreal.  In an interview given to the Montreal Gazette, Datawind’s Chief Technical Officer Raja Tuli states that the company finds Montreal to be a great location because it possesses “engineering graduates with impressive skills and he’s not sure he would be able to find the same level of expertise in another city.”

I was curious to know what kind of skills his company looks for in new employees.  Kopke said that they hire for very specific needs, but he suggests that new engineering graduates gain a basic understanding of how to work with open source software.   He sees future growth to be in low-cost and free applications and hardware.   For those of you in Computer Science, you may be interested in taking COMP 529: Software Architecture.  Last year’s syllabus describes the final project where students learn how to reverse engineer a large open source system.  The course will be offered again this winter.

I asked Derek if we can expect to see the Aakash on McGill campus anytime soon.  He said Datawind is planning to market their product in North America within the next couple of months.  And with that, Derek had to get back to work bringing his tablet to the masses.

Image from Smart Planet

Technical Paper Workshop


Are you a student in CIVE 432, CHEE 360, CHEE 462 or any other course in Engineering where you are writing a technical paper?  If so, please join us for a hands-on workshop on Researching and Citing for Your Technical Paper!  The sessions will be held on Mon. Sept. 16 from 2:30-4pm and Tues. Sept. 17 from 1-2:30pm in Room 313 of Schulich Library.  The same workshop will be offered on both dates.  You will learn how to:

  • Build an effective search strategy
  • Find journal articles and other sources (such as standards) appropriate for your research topic
  • Use EndNote to quickly cite your sources and automatically create the bibliography for your paper
  • Read published articles in half the time

If you can’t make the workshop, here are some of the sources we will be exploring for finding material on your research topic: Technical Report Archive and Image Library (TRAIL), ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, and McGill Library’s subject guide to standards.

If you have any questions about this workshop or about writing and citing for your technical paper, please contact tara.mawhinney@mcgill.ca or giovanna.badia@mcgill.ca

We hope to see you there!

Image from Microsoft Images

Back to School!


As the new school year begins, hope you have your pencils sharpened and are ready to learn all about the library’s resources and services!  (If you don’t have any pencils, don’t worry we have some spares.)  With workshops and tours happening almost every day, take advantage of your time now by learning about the library so you can save time later.  Everyone is welcome: new students, returning students, undergraduates, graduate students, even parents!   There are two different activities scheduled at Schulich Library.   At Library Quick Start 101, you will learn how to:

  • Navigate the library website
  • Find books, course materials, and other useful resources
  • Get help from a librarian

At the Welcome Tour, you will discover your home away from home!  We’ll show you where to:

  • Find your secret study space
  • Scan, print, and copy
  • Check out a book

For the schedule of orientation activities taking place at Schulich Library, please go here.

On behalf of the Schulich Library staff, we look forward to meeting you or welcoming you back soon!

Ode to the Bike Rack


The best part of my day is my bike commute to and from work.  It energizes me for the workday ahead and gives me time to reflect on the day that’s gone by.  Often it’s a time when creative solutions to the day’s challenges pop into my head like a happy email suddenly appearing in my inbox.  How can we ensure that more McGillians have the chance to partake of this bliss on two wheels that is as good for the body as it is for the soul?  On an already crowded campus, there’s not much room for bikes and it certainly could be a challenge really soon once new and returning students descend on the campus en masse for the start of classes.  One way would be to ensure that there is ample bike parking and this is just what a group of McGill Mechanical Engineering students set out to do a couple of years ago when they designed a space-saving bike rack as part of a class project.

The result is impressive.  Their bike rack is called the VeloCurve and is situated next to the Redpath Museum.  It looks like a work of modern art, resembling part spider, part flower.  The aesthetic component was important as a potential factor in encouraging people to cycle, say the founders in a video clip found here.  The bike rack first appeared on campus last summer and since then the students, who have now graduated, have been busy commercializing their product through their company VeloCyko.  The bike rack is space saving because it stores bikes vertically, saving 40% more space compared to a traditional bike rack, an important feature on this campus and in many other places in our densely crowded cities.  It discourages theft too because when locking a bike, the cyclist stands upright and is visible rather than crouched down and out of sight as a thief would want to be.

If you want more details, check out their website at www.velocyko.com where more innovative designs are on the way.

And once school starts, if you can’t get yourself a spot using the VeloCurve, here is a map of other bike parking on campus.

Don’t Get Bitten by One of These This Summer!


Watch where you’re swimming while on vacation this summer so as not to run into one of these giant jellyfish!  Mechanical engineers at Virginia Tech have been busy developing an autonomous underwater robot that looks just like a jellyfish and acts like one too.  It moves about just like the real thing in all depths and temperature ranges.  The 170-pound robo-jellyfish prototype named Cyro can be used to “monitor ocean currents or enemy combatants, study aquatic life, or map the sea floor” (Prism Magazine).  The project is funded by the US Navy.

Likewise, here at McGill, engineers from McGill’s Mobile Robotics Lab, School of Computer Science and the Centre for Intelligent Machines, along with partners at York University and Dalhousie University, have been busy developing their own autonomous underwater robot called the AQUA Robot that uses its six flippers to swim.  Like Cyro, the AQUA Robot can be used for studying marine habitats.  It “can explore underwater environments and gather data with minimum disturbance of the indigenous marine life” (The AQUA Project).

Watch how it moves here.

Perhaps you’ll have a chance to see the AQUA Robot live in action by participating in McGill’s Barbados Field Study Semester where it is known to swim in the clear, warm waters off the coast of the Bellairs Research Institute in Holetown, Barbados.

Even if your vacation doesn’t take you to any exotic locations this summer, you might still have a chance to spy the AQUA Robot at the McGill Athletics swimming pool where it performs its tests.  And if that’s not enough, you can even buy one of your own!

Happy and safe swimming this summer with or without the underwater robot!

Image from Prism Magazine

New Bloggers to the Turret


We would like to welcome Umma Tamima as a new student blogger to the Turret. Umma is a PhD student in Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics whose research interests include natural hazard and disaster management planning. She also works for the McGill Library as a Graduate Student Facilitator for the MyResearch Graduate Seminar Series . Welcome Umma! We look forward to lots of posts on student life and your research in Civil Engineering at McGill.

Let me also take a moment to introduce myself as another new blogger to the Turret. My name is Tara Mawhinney and I have recently returned from maternity leave to resume my duties as Liaison Librarian for Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at Schulich Library. Glad to be back!