What if your clothes were a touchscreen? Explaining Google’s Project Jacquard

Prototype jacket that powers your devices

Prototype jacket that powers your devices

Imagine controlling your lights and TV just by touching the arm of your couch.  Imagine running your fingers along your sleeve to control your smartphone device.  Imagine throwing away your fitness tracking band because your clothing did the measurements instead.

All of these ideas already exist at the prototype level and I’ve chatted about jackets and other clothing that can unlock your car and light up motifs before.  However, yesterday the interactive clothing technology concept took one giant step closer to large scale commercial availability thanks to Google’s advanced technology and platforms team (ATAP) launch of Project Jacquard.

Grid of conductive fibres (red) sewn into normal fabric (source)

Grid of conductive fibres (red) sewn into normal fabric (image source ATAP Google)

To understand how this works, you first need to understand how touchscreens work.  I’ve previously explained touchscreen technology but briefly, underneath the glass of your screen lies a grid of conductive wires which register a neutral charge state.  As the human body has a natural capacitance (meaning we are all electrically conductive), touching this grid changes the electrical charge at that point of contact which can be registered electronically as a touch response.

Summary of how your touchscreen work, from my previous blog

Summary of touchscreen technology, from my blog post “how does the iPhone touchscreen work?

Touch sensitive clothing involves removing the glass screen and replacing the conductive wires with conductive yarn which can be woven into the normal fabric.

Conductive yarn can be made in two ways, either regular fabric such as cotton, nylon or polyester is coated with conductive nanoparticles like silver or carbon nanotubes to make them conductive or conductive threads like carbon fibre can be twisted into the regular thread creating a conductive hybrid yarn.

Embedding electronics into fabrics needs to be subtle

Embedding electronics into fabrics needs to be subtle (Image source Google ATAP)

The biggest drawback to conductive fabrics is that they need to have several other properties in addition to conductivity.  Flexibility, stiffness, abrasion resistance, elasticity, wrinkle recovery to name just a few currently limit the longevity and practicality of conductive fabrics.  These new fibres not only need to transfer electrons, but also last many wash cycles,  cope with rubbing against other fibres, stretch without breaking, be able to hold colour through dyes and feel the same as other fibres when touched.

The Google Jacquard project claims to have overcome some of the strength issues by creating a conductive yarn that is strong enough to be woven on an industrial loom, taking steps towards mass manufacturing capabilities.

Conductive fabric snap fastener (left) and flexible electronic circuit connected with grid conductive yarn show the possibilities of connection.  (adapted image source)

Conductive fabric snap fastener (left) and flexible electronic circuit connected with grid conductive yarn show the possibilities of connection. (adapted image source)

Creating long lasting conductive yarns is only half of the battle, next you have to connect the yarn to electrical connectors and circuits in a subtle way so that the measured touch can be converted into a signal that is recognized by your device.

Ideally being able to hide this technology into a button or zip would allow current clothing features to have multiple functions, but we are only just getting to the point where all of the technology needed is small enough to be able to fit into a button.  Sensor fasteners, pressure sensitive pads for push touch fabrics, woven circuits are all in existence today, the question is, can Google take these one off concepts and help reliably scale up the technology so you can hide technology in any type of clothing?

You may wonder why Google would want to get into clothing, and my guess is that they don’t.  Google is good at software, and what better way to be a world leader in software technology than to help create a potentially huge new market that needs apps and API’s (application program interfaces) which Google could lead the world in by helping to create the hardware first.  They haven’t announced a product yet, but they have announced Levi’s jeans as their first clothing partner making me imagine a new denim line of boot cut jeans with integrated system boot in our future!

So it looks like the day that tech clothing can be bought from your favourite store is getting closer, but until then, we can watch this video and get excited about the possible capabilities from our clothes of the future.

Top 10 new species of 2015!

Around 18,000 species were newly named and identified last year and added to the 2 million species named so far.  Estimates are that we still have around 10 million species still to be discovered on earth, and many will be extinct before they are even found.

To draw public awareness to our planets amazing biodiversity, scientists at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) chose 40 of the 18,000 that were discovered last year and judges selected the top 10.

This morning on the Paul Henry Breakfast Show I discussed my favourite ones based on how quirky and fascinating I thought they were, as well as how much potential I thought they might have for biomimetic engineering research where we try to copy the cool things that nature does to engineer something useful for society.

 

Of the 10, my top three favorites were:

Mounted replica skeleton of the new oviraptorosaurian dinosaur species Anzu wyliei on display in the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (source)

Mounted replica skeleton of the new oviraptorosaurian dinosaur species Anzu wyliei on display in the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (source)

1 – Anzu wyliei – a feathered bird dinosaur.

Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Sauropsida, Order: Saurischia,Family: Caenagnathidae

Mixing both bird and dinosaur features, this creature lived in North America where it made nests, sat on the eggs until they hatched and was an omnivore eating small animals and plants.

They are described as having bird-like feathers, hollow bones and a short snout with a parrot-like beak. At more than 3.5m in length (10 feet), 1.5m in height (5 feet) and 300Kg (600lbs), this was no small chicken.

2 – Cebrennus rechenbergi – a cartwheeling spider

Kingdom: Animalia, Family:  Sparassidae

In the Moroccan desert where this spider is found, the sand is hot and flat, and running away still means you are visible for a long time so might use all your energy trying to escape.  To try and survive a threatening situation, this spider somersaults towards the threat which is much faster than running and I’m assuming might cause the predator to back off as it sees the crazy arachnid coming towards it!

This unique way to get across sand quickly has been mimicked in the lab through the creating of a rotating robot designed after studying this spider.

A female of Deuteragenia ossarium in its natural ecosystem in South East China Photograph: Michael Staab (Source)

A female of Deuteragenia ossarium in its natural ecosystem in South East China
Photograph: Michael Staab (Source)

3 – Deuteragenia ossarium – the bone house wasp

Kingdom: Animalia, Family: Pompilidae, Etymology:  The epithet is from the Latin ossarium, meaning an ossuary or bone-house.

This wasp is the nicest mother in the grossest way.  She creates individual nest cells for her eggs and deposits a dead spider in each for her young to eat as they develop. After laying her eggs, she seals the whole nest off with a chamber full of dead ant bodies which emit chemicals to camouflage her young.

The rest of the list can be viewed here and include sea slugs with cool colourations, puffer fish that make incredible sand sculptures and a parasitic plant that doesn’t have chlorophyll!

How butterfly nanotechnology could inspire your next touchscreen

Sitting outside reading your e-book on a glorious sunny day sounds delightful, but many of us have experienced the frustration of the sun reflecting off our screens making them hard to see.  When turning up the brightness to maximum and moving under a shady tree still fail, the next solution we seek might come from butterflies.

The glasswing butterfly with its micro hairs consisting of nanopillars (Source)

The glasswing butterfly with its micro hairs consisting of nanopillars (Source)

The glasswing  butterfly Greta oto is found in Central America with its distinct transparent wings that look like they are made from glass. Typically transparent materials such as glass reflect part of the incident light that hits them, which is why you struggle to read your smartphone screen in bright light environments as that reflected light hits your eyes. The wings of the glasswing butterfly are unique in that they have very low reflection of visible, infrared and ultraviolet light when looking onto them from different angles.  This is crucial to the survival of the butterfly whose life is spent trying to avoid being seen by hungry birds, spiders and reptiles. Researchers at KIT studied the wings under a scanning electron microscope and found they were covered in nanopillars ranging from 400-600 nanometers (about 200x thinner than your hair), with between 100-140 nanometers space between each one.

The irregular arrangement of the nanopillars making up the butterfly wing are the secret to its anti-reflective surface (source)

The irregular arrangement of the nanopillars making up the butterfly wing are the secret to its anti-reflective surface (source)

The secret to the antireflection wing was not in the nanopillars themselves, but in their highly irregular arrangement. In computer simulations, the researchers mathematically modeled the irregularity of the nanopillars in height and arrangement. They found that the calculated reflected amount of light exactly corresponded to the low observed amount at variable view angles. Basically chaotic nanopillars reflect less light than ordered ones. This is very unusual in nature, where regularity and symmetry in structures are the norm, but it does lead to the potential of chaotic nanostructures being applied to screens to reduce the reflection from their surface. With nanostructures on screens already creating hydrophobic and self cleaning surfaces, the next logical step is to add anti-reflection to the nanopowers hiding on your next smart screen giving a whole new perspective to the butterfly effect. butterfly

What if scientists were celebrities?

As a new columnist for Villainesse, a digital magazine for young women, I have been thinking a lot about the power of influence and who our youth look up to as role models.

I remember my teenage years consisted of watching Judith Hann explain technology on Tomorrows world, and Katherine Janeway command the Starship USS Voyager.

These were smart women who were famous for using their intelligence to explain technical content, be effective communicators and show leadership skills.  To me these women were role models that I aspired to be like (yes I know one of them is fictional).

I look at how television shows have changed since then, how we’ve lost science and tech education shows like tomorrows world and instead make people famous by following them with cameras catching their extroverted personalities in shows claiming to depict reality by creating a platform for highly emotional responses.

I think about whether losing shows that educate and inform and replacing them with ones that entertain and ridicule has a much broader effect on our youth and their perception of personal qualities that they aspire to have to be successful.

Being famous, or being a celebrity comes with great power, the power to influence, to guide, to inspire.

For my first column, I ask the question:

what if science

I recently visited a high school and asked 100 students to name a famous living woman in each category:

1 – TV

2 – Music

3 – Sport

4 – Science

They easily had answers to the first three, names like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Valerie Adams, and Kim Kardashian, but when it came to number four I was bombarded with blank faces. 100% of the students I asked could not name a famous living female scientist, not one! You may not think this is an issue, but how much influence do these celebrity role models have on our health decisions and beauty purchases?

Gwyneth Paltrow has a whole section of her website dedicated to the science of detoxing and why it’s good for you; so [allegedly] good that a multi-million dollar industry has been created from it. The problem is, actual scientists state that there are no medical or scientific bases supporting the value of detoxing with juice or soup, only fasts. Our liver and kidneys are already excellent at removing toxins, so simply having a healthy diet will allow your body to work efficiently, no juice and soup detox necessary.

Alicia Silverstone wrote a book called The Kind Mama, and in it she claimed that chemicals used in tampons might cause infertility. Again, there are zero scientific studies backing up that statement and research studies actually show that tampon use seems linked to protecting women from the disease endometriosis.

How about Kim Kardashian and her highly publicised use of vampire facials, where needles filled with her own blood are injected into her face to reduce the appearance of ageing?  Yes, you guessed it, no real science showing it has any effect on facial wrinkles, yet the number of women choosing the treatment has skyrocketed since Mrs K-W posted an after-treatment photo of her bloodied face on Instagram.

So why do we believe celebrities over scientists? My guess is it’s mostly marketing.  Celebrities have fancy blogs, Instagram feeds of perfectly photoshopped photographs; they tag on to popular Twitter hashtags and have millions of followers who watch their every move. In the meantime scientists are busy in their labs, they write complex jargon-filled research papers instead of picture-filled magazine articles, and our TV screens are hardly filled with reality science shows.

In a world where public status seems to correlate to how many designer outfits you have, how low your BMI is and whether or not you have a full-lipped pout for the cameras, scientists will always lose. But wouldn’t you want to take advice from an expert rather than from somebody with absolutely no qualifications in the field, who may be getting paid to endorse a certain product?

It’s time for a new breed of celebrity; one that values cold, hard logic over cold, hard cash. One that can tell the difference between a potentially harmful fad and a scientifically-proven solution. It’s time to make celebrities out of scientists, to create positive role models for careers young women may never have considered, and to promote the value of brains over beauty.

Celebrities are created by us, the public; we decide who we watch, who we follow and who we blog about. So next time you see a celebrity endorsement, take a moment to think about whether that celeb actually has a clue what they’re talking about. Let’s think about who we’re listening to.

Originally posted here.

Dresses for Science and Tech loving women!

Percentage of female and male professional engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ)

Percentage of female and male professional engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ)

As a female engineer I’m very aware of being a minority in my field, and as time passes I seem to have become less sensitive to some of the comments, and inappropriate questions I’ve been asked during my career.

Studying the recent numbers makes for very sad reading as a lowly 13% of professional engineers are female in New Zealand, 14% are female in the US and a very sad 6% of engineers are female in the UK.

Some of the top reasons why women leave the engineering profession are listed as having feelings of isolation and loneliness as women struggle to fit in to a very male dominated field.

I’ve experienced this, and often am in tech focused businesses where the assumption is that I am filling an admin role or secretarial role.  When I explain that I’m attending a meeting as an engineering expert, males meeting me for the first time often act surprised, and say they weren’t expecting me to be female.  Hearing this once is annoying, but hearing this over my whole career implies that the trend is not changing.

T-Shirt worn in TV series Silicon Valley, no comment needed

T-Shirt worn in TV series Silicon Valley, no comment needed

I get it, our media world is filled with Sheldon Coopers, the world thinks that tech nerds are male, with no social skills and a robot T-shirt filled wardrobe.

I along with many other tech females I know wish the stereotype was changing and wish that we could fit in more to the tech field so that the initial questions asked relate to our Python code or friction free bearing design.

Last month I was in silicon valley and noted that the clothing many of the tech males wore typically reflected their interests.  Prints of Star wars characters, robot images, sci fi movie pictures, nerdy computer jokes were everywhere, all of them giving an outward message to others that this person, in this T-shirt had an interest in something techy.

I searched and searched for something similar that I could wear, something that reflected my interests, my personality and my clothing preferences, but all I could find were oversized, baggy mens T-shirts.

It was 2015, and I still couldn’t find a work meeting suitable dress that had pictures of robots on it.  Maybe I was being picky, maybe I should broaden my search and look for something science themed instead of engineering themed.  I searched and searched and still nothing.

I decided I needed to create something new, something that reflected me as a feminine female with an interest in science and technology to solve my frustrations.

Firstly I had to find my canvas, and with a love innovation, Icebreaker are one of the coolest, most innovative companies I know.  Their clothing is made from pure merino wool, a fabric that doesn’t need to be ironed (perfect for my suitcase filled travel life), can be worn for 40 days and 40 nights without needing to be washed,  and comes with a Baacode which lets me trace the farm that my wool came from.

Female Brontosaurus design

Female Brontosaurus design

So armed with some Icebreaker Merino dresses it was now time to create the tech designs.  With the help of the amazing tech designer Helen Simonson from Hoist apps, designs that reflected science and engineering in a feminine way were created.  The experience of Peter Heslop from AUT allowed us to be able to digitally print on merino with the added complexity of printing over the seams.

I love dinosaurs and with news that the Brontosaurus should be reinstated as its own genus, it seemed like the perfect dinosaur to showcase.  Dinosaurs from the outset probably aren’t that easy to sex, but I wanted this dinosaur to be very feminine, so with her long eyelashes and flower being held by her tail this creation was not just a man’s shirt logo transferred onto a skirt.

Brontosaurus design runs across this dress.  Details like holding a flower in her tail and having long eyelashes differentiate her as a female bronto

Brontosaurus design runs across this dress. Details like holding a flower in her tail and having long eyelashes differentiate her as a female bronto (Photo by Paul Petch)

Space, the final frontier, a line that defined my Star Trek filled childhood, and a scientific field that I’m fascinated in was finally reflected through this cross-seam design, filled with stars and planets and one non-gender specific space rocket.  I had to be careful where I put this design as I was conscious that I didn’t want the rocket flame to be firing out of my @$$!

Space rocket design dress

Space rocket design dress

Finally, as a huge robot nerd and co-founder of the charity OMGTech! which teaches children to build and code robots, the creation of a female robot design was the one that inspired this whole project.

Female robot design

Female robot design on a pink dress, because tech girls can be geeky and wear pink!

So now I have clothing that helps me to feel like part of the community I work in, and now my science and technology interests can be signaled before my gender comes into question.  Perhaps now I will get more questions about the technology I’m working on and less about how people weren’t expecting me to know so much about tech.

Perhaps creating clothing that is designed for both men and women will help reduce the feelings of isolation and instead create a more diverse community.  It’s not going to change the world, but it will change my wardrobe and hopefully be one step in the right direction for helping our little girls grow up seeing a space that welcomes them too.

This is what people in tech look like.  Janet (left), mechatronics engineer and make up artist, me (middle) materials engineer and nanotechnologist, Vivian (right) physicist and coder extraordinaire!

This is what people in tech look like. Janet (left), mechatronics engineer and make up artist, me (middle) materials engineer and nanotechnologist, Vivian (right) physicist and coder extraordinaire!

100% Kiwi designed and made – thanks New Zealand 🙂

To see the slides associated with this idea click here:
science-and-tech-dresses-launched-at-creative-mornings-1-638

How exercise is good for your brain as well as your body

In this age of screen driven office life, it’s easy to forget that we are actually built to move all day.  Our caveman self didn’t sit hunched over a desk staring at the same spot, our caveman self was aware of our environment around us, listening, seeing, smelling, touching, stimulating all of our senses to stimulate our brain.  We hunted by using our brain to find, hide and store food, then used our memory to retrieve the food when we needed it.  We did this well because we were using our bodies constantly, running around, chasing prey, carrying out physical tasks, our brains and our bodies worked as one.

The technology era we live in today seems to treat our brains and our bodies as if they were totally separate and independent of each other.  We tend to either use one or the other but our typical workplace is not set up to help us use both at the same time.

So what happens to our brains when we move our bodies? Science shows something very interesting:

brain-scan-003This research study shows that you don’t need to be a marathon runner to improve your brain. Just a brisk walk in this experiment caused blood to flow to the brain carrying oxygen and nutrients with it resulting in the electrophysiological plots above.  The plots represent the brain processing capacity and mental workload during cognitive tasks. The red colouring represents the greatest amplitude, the blue colouring represents the lowest amplitude.  In summary, red is good and the image above shows that that even a 20 minute walk increases our brain power.

Validating the 20 minutes theory, another study showed aerobic exercise helped with information processing and memory functions, even down to the cellular level where the amount of neurotrophin growth factors your brain produces increases making it easier to grow new brain cell (neuron) connections.

In addition to better brain power, you also feel happier as exercise releases endorphins, a chemical designed to fight stress with the same effective power of antidepressant drugs!  This is commonly known as runners high and in addition to making you feel happier it is also linked to more brain cell growth in the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory.

Note – you don’t have to run to achieve runners high, it’s just an expression that is used to describe the good feelings you get after exercising.

For me, I have a thing for the ocean, I love the feeling of water on my skin, the openness of a vast sea and the total ability to switch off from technology for a while.  My brain boosting treat is kitesurfing, but that’s the thing about exercise, it’s all about finding the activity that works for you.

Me, helping my brain to perform better by enjoying my favourite sport of kitesurfing.

Me, helping my brain to perform better by enjoying my favourite sport of kitesurfing.

It doesn’t take much, a simple walk through a park or quick bike around the neighbourhood, try different things to find the one you like the most.

I used to feel guilty about exercise, in a busy world full of meetings, and deadlines, taking time out to have ‘fun’ seemed like a waste of time that I could be using to work.

Now I know that to achieve that deadline and create the best work I possibly can, daily exercise is crucial to help my brain perform to the best of its ability.

So I think it’s time to stop feeling guilty about taking time out for you, science says its better for your body, your mind and your business.

Can you blame your parents for being a ‘drama queen’?

The ADRA2b gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional event, especially negative ones, more vividly than others (image source)

The ADRA2b gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional event, especially negative ones, more vividly than others (image source)

I’m using the term ‘drama queen’ for both genders by the way, it’s not just a female issue as the name implies, but we all know those people who seem to blow things out of all proportion, who overreact to a negative situation as if its much worse that it actually is and those who are eternal pessimists.

The question is, do certain types of people thrive from creating drama around themselves or is it a learned behaviour determined by our upbringing and surroundings?

New research published in the journal of neuroscience strengthens the hypothesis that different people see the world differently and that genetics could influence how sensitive you are to emotional information in addition to environmental factors that shape your childhood.
Research by Assistant Professor Rebecca Todd at UBC looked at the ADRA2b deletion variant gene which is present in around 3154% of Caucasians, 12% of African Americans, 35% of Japanese and 44% of Chinese to see if the presence of the variant had any effect on how people felt about emotional images.

The influence of ADRA2b showed up in neural measures of emotionally enhanced vividness through brain scans (modified from source)

The influence of ADRA2b showed up in neural measures of emotionally enhanced vividness through brain scans (modified from source)

The group found that those carrying the variant gene seemed to perceive positive and negative images more vividly when asked, which also showed up during brain scans as heightened activity in regions of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and evaluating both pleasure and threats.

The study involved asking participants to estimate the amount of pixelation (or how fuzzy an image seemed) with the images containing positive, neutral or negative content.  Carriers of the deletion variant consistently estimated lower levels of noise on the positive and negative images which indicated emotionally enhanced vividness as they saw them more clearly.  They also showed significantly more brain activity on scans when viewing the images related to strong positive or negative emotional relevance.

Examples of images from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) that may have been shown to participants to invoke emotion (source)

Examples of images from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) that may have been shown to participants to invoke emotion (source)

The pictures used for the study were taken from the internet and the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) and contained content that would arouse both highly positive and highly negative emotions as well as a set of neutral photographs to act as a control.

This new research continues previous work the same group carried out where 200 participants were shown positive, negative and neutral words in a rapid succession. Those with the ADRA2b gene variant were more likely to perceive negative words than others, while both groups perceived positive words better than neutral words to an equal degree.

The consequence of ADRA2b deletion carriers perceiving emotional aspects of the world more vividly leads to a physical response as they influence the activity of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin which relate to our mood and fight or flight response.

Such emotionally enhanced perception may in part explain why deletion carriers are susceptible to intrusive memories following trauma such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and implies some people may be genetically predisposed to see the world more darkly wearing the opposite of rose tinted glasses.

To watch the video click here

To watch the video click here

As your parents pass on their genetics to you, I guess carriers of this gene variant could blame their parents, but it takes more than just a gene to affect behaviour and neuroplasticity means that through brain training techniques research shows we can choose to think more positively about situations and see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

I chatted about this topic live on the Paul Henry Breakfast show this morning, to watch the video click on the image.