Transparent solar collector to turn skyscrapers into power plants

We may soon be able to create electricity using the screens of our phones, windows in buildings and any other clear surface.

Researchers have created a ‘transparent’ surface that can capture light and convert it into electricity using solar technology.

The team, from Michigan State University, developed organic molecules that are able to take in waves of sunlight which are not visible to the human eye.

It is the first time that a transparent solar concentrator has been created.

Richard Lunt who worked on the research, said that the unique nature of the transparency means we may be able to incorporate it into our everyday lives and create energy from clear surfaces.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

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As the materials used do not absorb or emit any light that can be seen by the human eye, this means they appear transparent when we look at them.

Instead they rely on infrared light, which is guided to the edge of the material where it is converted to electricity by solar cells.

“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” explained Lunt. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared.”

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The previously developed coloured concentrators developed by MIT

However the future for the technology isn’t yet crystal clear as work needs to be done on improving the energy-producing efficiency.

Currently its solar conversion rate lies close to one percent, but the researchers believe they will be able to get it close to five percent when everything has been fully optimised.

At present coloured variations of the concentrator have efficiency levels of around seven percent.


Featured image and image one courtesy of the Michigan State Univeristy. Image two courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Cybathlon in practice: Augmented ‘Olympics’ gears up for 2016

A practice session for Cybathlon, the Olympics-like event for prosthetics and brain-computer interface users, has been held in Zurich, spelling future success for the event when it takes place in October next year.

Described as a “great success both for the participating groups and the Cybathlon organisers” by ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Europe, the practice session was held to test and fine-tune the various courses for the main event in 2016.

A participant in the agility course with motorised arm prostheses. The courses are designed to mimic real-life scenarios.

A participant in the agility course with motorised arm prostheses. The courses are designed to mimic real-life scenarios.

Some of the events, such as the obstacle courses for people with motorised arm and motorised leg prosthesis proved fairly quick and easy for the pilots – the game given by Cybathlon to wearers of the technology – to complete.

However, other courses proved far harder. None of the pilots operating the electric wheelchairs were able to complete the obstacle course for this event, for example, and so the organisers are likely to consider re-tuning some of the events for next year.

A participant controls a video game avatar by thought in the virtual brain-computer interface race.

A participant controls a video game avatar by thought in the virtual brain-computer interface race.

In addition to providing a testing ground for Cybathlon, the event also functioned as a meeting point for developers of prosthetic devices.

“The test run was an excellent opportunity to meet other researchers and to discuss common interests and possible cooperation,” said Matjaz Mihelj from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

“The technology presented at the test run was state-of-the-art, and it looks like next year’s competition will be a must for researchers working in the field of assistive devices.”

Using stepping stones in the obstacle course with motorised leg prostheses.

Using stepping stones in the obstacle course with motorised leg prostheses.

Given that one of the aims of Cybathlon is to promote the advancement of assistive technology, this was a highly positive result. However, there is still a considerable way to go.

“These technologies are already highly advanced in some areas,” said Robert Riener, professor at ETH Zurich and founder of the Cybathlon.

“But if we judge them according to their suitability for everyday life, it becomes apparent that research and development still have a long way to go.”

A participant maneuvers in the powered wheelchair race. Images courtesy of ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella.

A participant maneuvers in the powered wheelchair race. Images courtesy of ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella.

Nevertheless, participants were highly positive of the event’s potential to push prosthetics development forward.

“I believe that the Cybathlon will spur technology providers on to continue developing new solutions – in turn making it possible to set new standards in research,” said Luca Tonin from the University of Padua, Italy.

However, as important as the technology is, when Cybathlon gets started next October, the pilots will be just as important as the technologies they are controlling, and developers will need to find the best cybathetes if  they are to be in with a chance of winning.

Our first generation of augmented sports stars is just a year away.

Virtual reality gaming could one day dominate the way we play, but it's work being done right now that is defining how it will be. From new shocks to fresh perspectives, VR is making its own way in games, and it's far more than just adding a headset

Ever since developers first put animated pixel to screen, the industry has been on a quest to create a truly immersive world. As tech has progressed, we’ve got closer, turning blocky scenes into near photo-like depictions. Virtual reality could allow us to take the final step, from peering into the action to being in it.

“For the first time we will finally be inside of the game,” said Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR, makers of the Rift, at the company’s E3 presentation. “Gamers have been dreaming about this for decades.”

Developers, having had the opportunity to try out various demos that have been shown at conferences over the past few years, have also been filled with wonder about the prospects for VR.

VR horror Edge of Nowhere is an example of a genre seeing a VR-specific resurgence. Image courtesy of Insomniac Games

VR horror Edge of Nowhere is an example of a genre seeing a VR-specific resurgence. Image courtesy of Insomniac Games

“Once you’ve had a compelling VR experience, it’s hard not to get excited by the possibilities,” said Chandana Ekanayake, game director of VR adventure game Wayward Sky from Uber Entertainment, which is being developed for Sony’s Project Morpheus. “It’s the reason we decided to explore games in the VR space.”

But while there is undoubted excitement for the format, the industry higher ups aren’t exactly leaping on board. There’s a sense of caution in the air and the majority of bosses are taking a wait-and-see approach rather than jumping into projects for a format that they don’t yet know will be successful.

“I think that this industry is going to continue to progress by being entertaining and creating experiences that are fun,” Nintendo America COO Reggie Fils-Aime told the Guardian newspaper. “I’ve tried a lot of the different experiences – some were fun, some less so. But at the point that it’s consistently fun, it will be a real innovation.”

The dominant VR genres

In less than a year, the three standout consumer VR headsets – the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive from Valve and Project Morpheus for Sony’s PS4 – will be out and in the hands of consumers. And with an array of games on the way, they could be immense fun.

“There’s an incredible feeling of being transported to another world that you just don’t get with any other type of gaming platform,” said Brian Allgeier, creative director of Insomniac Games’ Oculus Rift horror exclusive Edge of Nowhere. “Escapist fantasy is a big part of video games and VR has the power to transport players to amazing new worlds.”

However, VR is not likely to simply replicate the current array of games in a virtual form. Instead, certain genres are looking set to blossom on headsets in a way they have not done recently on consoles and PCs. Most notable of these is horror, thanks to the level of shock and emotion that a virtual experience offers.

CCP Games' Eve: Valkyrie - a model for future VR games? Image courtesy of CCP Games

CCP Games’ Eve: Valkyrie – a model for future VR games? Image courtesy of CCP Games

“When I first put on a VR headset I immediately felt an incredible sense of presence, but at the same time a feeling of vulnerability. I wasn’t sure what might be behind me and as the world felt more real, the instinctual part of my brain became highly aware of my surroundings,” said Allgeier. “For that reason I think horror will be a very popular genre. But not everyone is going to want to scared out of their wits.”

For those not keen on having their nerves frazzled by immersive virtual shock, games focusing on wondrous visuals are also likely to do well.

“VR has the power to create amazing experiences that create a sense of wonder and delight. For example, there’s a great demo for the Oculus Rift where you can see a small model city, stare into the eyes of an alien, and look up at a massive T-Rex,” he said. “There’s an experiential component where simply being present can be engaging. I think we’re going to see a wide range of different experiences over the years.”

VR could also see a re-emergence of other genres that have fallen into the niche zone in recent times, such as JRPGs and simulators. A demonstration of the latter’s potential was shown at Oculus’ E3 event, in the form of Eve: Valkyrie, a first-person space combat simulator from the makers of Eve Online.

“What’s really a surprise is how much the concept of virtual reality added to the experience,” said CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson at the event. “With the final Rift hardware we can say with confidence is that Eve: Valkyrie is the closest thing to being a real space fighter pilot. You get something so real, it’s more than real.”

Technical challenges of gaming in VR

As exciting as the prospect of VR gaming is, the elephant in the room is the fact that it does not yet get close to matching some of the portrayals in fiction. Shows such as Sword Art Online depict vast, truly realistic open worlds with complete sensory perception that gamers can explore via headset, and, of course, the reality is a little less awesome. In fact, even the idea that you can take a game and port it effortlessly to VR is rather unrealistic thanks to technical limitations and the risk of motion sickness.

“Many people assume you can take existing genres and put them in VR. Unpredictable camera motion and rotation might be fine in non-VR games, but if you’re doing that with the player’s head, they’ll suffer from severe motion sickness,” said Allgeier.

Uber Entertainment's Wayward Sky uses fixed camera angles to avoid motion sickness.  Image courtesy of Sony

Uber Entertainment’s Wayward Sky uses fixed camera angles to avoid motion sickness. Image courtesy of Sony

However, there are ways to tackle this, and the current crop of VR game developers are currently forging a path that many future games will no doubt follow.

“With EoN, we were very conscious of discomfort from the start and designed the game to have a ‘north facing’ camera that moves with the hero character down the path,” he added.

“The camera never rotates; we leave all of that up to the player, who can freely move their head to look around. The result is a natural, comfortable, and immersive experience.”

Camera control looks set to be one of the defining differences between regular and VR games, and Uber Entertainment is planning a similar approach for Wayward Sky.

“We set out to make a game that would be a good introduction to VR and something that wouldn’t make people motion sick,” said Ekanayake. “The third-person camera cuts as the player moves the main character Bess around, which solves the locomotion issue that first-person games have trouble with in VR.”

Known issues with VR’s role for games

Of course, there are some things that VR cannot yet do. Outputting to a headset means a computer or console is effectively outputting to two screens rather than one, which effectively halves the graphical capabilities of a regular game. For this reason, it will be a fair while before we see games that can match the graphical quality of current triple A games, and discussion about how the technology will advance is common among the major players in the field.

The current software for these virtual reality devices cannot be played simultaneously by a number of people – Shigeru Miyamoto

The multiplayer issue is a less discussed, but equally limiting factor. For the most part, VR simply cannot run multiplayer on all but the most powerful machines, and in a world where co-op content is a must, this could be a real problem.

“The current software for these virtual reality devices cannot be played simultaneously by a number of people,” said Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo senior managing director and general manager of the company’s entertainment analysis and development division, in a Q&A session with shareholders.

The exception here is Project Morpheus, which was confirmed as having multiplayer support for up to four people at Sony’s E3 event. The showcase title for this feature is mech soccer game RIGS, developed by Guerilla Cambridge, but it is notable that this only supports three players simultaneously.

It appears that the more players the game supports, the lower its graphic quality – a trade-off that may not be appealing to some players.

The gaming industry’s hesitant enthusiasm for VR

For all its limitations, many game developers are still itching to try their hand at VR, including heavyweights such as executive game director for the Deus Ex series, Jean-François Dugas.

Those that have been given the opportunity have been keen to take it up, as was the case with Sunset Overdrive maker Insomniac Games. “There are a number of VR enthusiasts at Insomniac and when we were approached by Oculus to make a game, we jumped at the offer,” said Allgeier. “I think most game developers are naturally excited by new technology and the unique challenges it presents.”

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

However, it’s up to those in charge of the money to decide whether a game is made, and few have seen the opportunities as fiscally sound. The exception is Ubisoft, which has announced that it will be releasing several games for the format from next year.

“We believe a lot in virtual reality because we see that it is really giving a chance for gamers to be more immersed in worlds, and we are developing a certain number of games that are going to take advantage of this new possibility,” said Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot in a press call with Polygon. “We are very bullish about the potential. We think it is going to bring more players to the universe of video games, and we are going to come with our brands. We will have a few titles in the first year and we will have regular games coming following that.”

The virtual future of games

As hesitant as the industry is, many feel that the technology has a firm future in gaming, even if it takes several iterations of the hardware to cement its place.

“While non-VR games are not going to die anytime soon, I think more people will adopt VR as headsets get lighter and cheaper,” said Allgeier.

Along the way development approaches, and therefore games, are also expected to improve.

“I think it will take years for the market to grow and for developers to really figure out what makes a great VR experience,” said Ekanayake. “During that time, we’ll see hardware improvements that will make it more appealing for people that are still on the fence about it. Right now it’s mostly enthusiasts, early adopters and developers all exploring the space.”

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Philae instrument finds organic compounds on comet

Ptolemy, a gas analysis instrument on Philae, the first lander to ever set down on a comet, has found organic compounds on the surface of Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Although not themselves indicative of life, the compounds contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are key in the formation of water and simple sugars and played a vital role in the formation of life on Earth.

The Ptolemy principal investigator and professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, Ian Wright, said that the elements found in the detected compounds “will have gone into the mix that led to the formation of the life on Earth”.

The newly analysed data has provided unique insight into the comet, both in terms of its composition and the reactions that occur on its surface.

“We now know more about the surface of comet 67P that we ever did before,” said Ptolemy investigator Dr Andrew Morse, who is also with the Open University, which is responsible for the gas analysis instrument.

“Findings such as the fact that its surface is soft and dusty, but beneath that is hard layer of ice, will play an important part to inform plans for future comet landings and space exploration.”

Images courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Images courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The findings are published today in the journal Science after analysis of Ptolemy’s data by researchers at the Open University, but the information almost didn’t make it back to Earth at all.

When Philae first set down on the comet in November, its landing caused dust particles to be disturbed and thrust upwards, allowing them to be ‘sniffed’ by Ptolemy, which then transmitted the data back to Earth.

However, due to the slightly awkward nature of Philae’s landing, the probe could not initially get enough light to its solar panels to recharge, and so was forced to power down, preventing any further research from occurring.

ESA scientists hoped it would be able to charge as the comet’s orbit brought it closer to the sun, but were unsure if this would happen. They even considered landing Philae’s mothership Rosetta on the comet in an attempt to get the data that they had travelled for ten years to capture.

But this proved not to be necessary, and last month Philae woke up, tweeting its new status to the world.

Now Philae is awake, it is hoped that far more data will be collected and transmitted by Ptolemy, resulting in data about the comet that was never previously possible to capture.

“We’re incredibly excited by these findings. As this was the first ever attempt to land on a comet to do science, we had very limited knowledge about what to expect,” said Wright.

“Ptolemy, like all of the instruments on board, was designed to be as flexible as possible to adapt to the hostile environment in space.

“The fact that it has managed to capture this data and transmit it back to us despite such a tumultuous landing is incredible.”