Taking traffic mapping to a whole new level: Microsoft releases Clearflow

Loads of people use their GPS systems to plan car journeys. But imagine being able to get a computer to vary its suggested route as traffic conditions change – even if that means driving off on some of the thousands of side-streets scattered through every city.

Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to know what the traffic conditions are like on every single side street in every city you want traffic information for? Well that’s what Microsoft has done, and they have now released their revolutionary new traffic-jam avoidance system, ‘Clearflow’ onto their web mapping platform for everyone to use.

image Wait a minute… what’s so great about this new technology – we’ve been able to get traffic information from Google Maps or traffic.com for years now, so what’s the difference? Basically, Google Maps and similar websites only monitor the traffic on major roads – after all, it would be impossible to keep track of the traffic on every single side-street 24 hours a day.

What Microsoft did was to analyze what happens to traffic on side streets as levels of traffic on main roads varies. This involved using GPS systems to record a massive 125,000 miles of car journeys, and then computing all this data to work out which side-streets are faster.

The result is that Clearflow really can calculate the fastest route for you, even if it involves a long and convoluted journey through dozens of smaller roads.

So next time you’re driving in the Big Apple in rush hour, you might just want to check out the new system at maps.live.com.

IMPORTANT: Users in the UK cannot use the URL given above – for some unknown reason it redirects to much-inferior Multimap.com. Use this URL instead: http://maps.live.com/?mkt=en-us

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Scientists advance technology capable of seeing your dreams

Imagine being able to watch someone else’s dream, or see what they’re daydreaming about. Surely this is only possible in science fiction? Well actually, it is (probably) possible in real life too, and the technology needed to do it may be around in just a few decades.

Scientists at Stanford University have published new Human eye | Image: Wikipediaresearch in which they could ‘see’ what someone else was seeing. OK, the scientists didn’t physically ‘see’ an image of what the participant was viewing, but they could work out what sort of picture the participant was looking at.

It’s basically like giving someone a book with a few hundred pictures in, then telling them to open to a random page, and being able to work out which image the person is looking at. Very cool.

MRI scan of a human brain | Image: National Geographic How? I wondered that too, and it’s a lot less complicated than you might think.

The scientists started by showing a series of images to the participants, and tracking the different oxygen levels in the brain associated with each image – different pictures will trigger different amounts of oxygen in different parts of the brain. They repeated this several hundred times, putting the results into a computer program that could ‘learn’ which oxygen levels were associated with each type of picture.

Then, when an unknown image was shown to the participant, the computer program would look at the person’s brain oxygen level and figure out what sort of image they are looking at.

So what about seeing dreams? It’s certainly a long way off yet, but I think this new research is a vital first step to a massive number of possible applications. Of course, it also raises the issue of whether people want to have their brains read… I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – post a comment below.

Japan: Where robots have emotions

Is this what we'll be living with in 15 years? | Image: Wikipedia Imagine a robot that doesn’t just respond to human emotions, but actually has its own emotions. In just a few years time we may not have to imagine any longer, thanks to the astonishing recent rate of progress in robotics in Japan.

Already robots are being programmed to respond to human emotions – they might smile when they hear people laughing, or ‘cry’ when they hear about murders. And in Japan, 15% or the entire workforce is expected to be robot by as soon as 2025 – that’s just a little over 15 years.

I must admit that I had no idea that robot development is so far ahead in Japan – some hospitals have walking, talking humanoid robots that greet patients while cleaning the floors. Humanoid robots are actually expected to become a key part in care for the elderly as Japan realizes that it has far more old people to look after than young people to work, thanks to the post-war baby boom.

Map image

I think robots have really great potential, and hopefully over the next few years the rest of the world will start following Japan’s example. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we really are living in an exciting time for exploration, discovery and research – it’ll be interesting reading this post 10 years to see how much progress we’ve made.

Or maybe I’ll get my robot to read it for me.

Check out an excellent article from MSNBC on Japan’s robotic future here

Surround Video: The latest in cool technology

Everyone’s heard of Surround Sound, but what about Surround Video? Take a look at the picture below to see what it is…

Surround TV in action | Image: BBC Internet Blog

It gives a much greater sense of immersion into the picture than you would normally feel, and works by using a collection of projectors to display the image on walls and furniture.

Currently in development by Britain’s BBC TV network, it unfortunately isn’t expected to be commercially available anytime soon. Click here for more details.

Would you want Surround Video, or is it just a big gimmick? Post your views below.

Making black… blacker

Carbon Nanotubes | Image: BBC NewsHow black is black? As dark as the sky in the middle of the night? As dark as being locked in a room with no windows and no lights? Scientists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, claim to have made something even blacker than that, or anything ever produced before. Just 0.045% of light is reflected, which makes it the darkest material ever created.

The obvious first question is, why? What’s the point in making something really dark, other than to give the professor who did it a few minutes of fame? The big answer is solar energy, because the more energy a solar panel can absorb, the more efficient it will be. As renewable energy is set to become widely used in the 21st century, this could potentially be world-changing if it convinces more people to give up the oil addiction.

So how on Earth did they do it? By using something which is becomingly increasingly important in technology: carbon nanotubes, which are basically tiny rings of carbon atoms. By using carbon, one of the least reflective elements in existence, and by arranging it so it was all jumbled up to reduce reflection even more, only a tiny amount of the light bounced back.

Tennis rackets are already being made stronger by nanotechnology | Image: BBC NewsWatch out for nanotechnology, not just for scientific experiments like this, but for widespread use in our everyday lives over the next few years. Tennis rackets with nanoparticles built in to strengthen them, clothes with nanobots built in, microscopic machines flowing through our bodies to monitor health… they’re not so far in the future as you’d think. Click here for examples of how they are being used already. It’s really cool!