Science

Science

Disney tech smooths out bad CG hair days

Disney is unequivocally the world’s leader in 3D simulations of hair — something of a niche talent in a way, but useful if you make movies like Tangled, where hair is basically the main character. A new bit of research from the company makes it easier for animators to have hair follow their artistic intent while also moving realistically. The problem Disney Research aimed to solve was a compromise that animators have had to make when making the hair on characters do what the scene requires. While the hair will ultimately be rendered in glorious high-definition and with detailed physics, it’s too computationally expensive to do that while composing the scene. Should a young warrior in her tent be wearing her hair up or down? Should it fly out when she turns her head quickly to draw attentio...

Machine learning boosts Swiss startup’s shot at human-powered land speed record

The current world speed record for riding a bike down a straight, flat road was set in 2012 by a Dutch team, but the Swiss have a plan to topple their rivals — with a little help from machine learning. An algorithm trained on aerodynamics could streamline their bike, perhaps cutting air resistance by enough to set a new record. Currently the record is held by Sebastiaan Bowier, who in 2012 set a record of 133.78 km/h, or just over 83 mph. It’s hard to imagine how his bike, which looked more like a tiny landbound rocket than any kind of bicycle, could be significantly improved on. But every little bit counts when records are measured down a hundredth of a unit, and anyway, who knows but that some strange new shape might totally change the game? To pursue this, researchers at the École Polyt...

Virgin Galactic agrees to launch space flights from Italy

U.S. space venture Virgin Galactic announced it has partnered with two aerospace companies to help bring commercial space launches to Italy. The agreement with Italy’s largest private space company SITAEL, and ALTEC, a public-private company owned by the Italian Space Agency and Thales Alenia Space, has been two years in the making. The idea is to put Virgin Galactic’s space vehicle system at the future Grottaglie Spaceport where it can be used by private individuals who want to experience space, as well as customers like the Italian Space Agency interested in conducting research. Earlier this year, Italian aviation authority ENAC designated the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport as the future home for horizontally launched spaceflights in Italy. While this Italian spaceport will eventually provid...

Chinese company claims its ‘laser AK-47’ can set you on fire from half a mile away

Lasers! Everybody loves them, everybody wants them. But outside a few niche applications they have failed to live up to the destructive potential that Saturday morning cartoons taught us all to expect. In defiance of this failure, a company in China claims to have produced a “laser AK-47” that can burn targets in a fraction of a second from half a mile away. But skepticism is still warranted. The weapon, dubbed the ZKZM-500, is described by the South China Morning Post as being about the size and weight of an ordinary assault rifle, but capable of firing hundreds of shots, each of which can cause “instant carbonization” of human skin. “The pain will be beyond endurance,” added one of the researchers. Now, there are a few red flags here. First is the simple fact that the weapon is only desc...

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launch set back to 2021

NASA announced yesterday that its highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope is delaying its launch — again. It was announced in March that the mission would be delayed until 2020, which is already two years past its original launch date of October 2018. But after accepting the recommendations of an independent review board, NASA has announced that the launch has been rescheduled for early 2021. According to the report, technical issues and human error have “greatly impacted the development schedule” and added $800 million to the already $8 billion budget approved by Congress. For a mission that’s been deemed NASA’s “next big telescope,” it’s not surprising there’d be a few bumps in the road. The telescope’s honeycombed structure of (literally) gold-plated mirrors will help scientists s...

Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’

Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based rocket company that is looking to further amplify the commercial space frenzy, is launching its first fully paid payload atop an Electron rocket tonight — technically tomorrow morning at the launch site. If successful, it will mark a significant new development in the highly competitive world of commercial launches. Liftoff is planned for 2:10 in the morning local time in New Zealand, or 7:10 Pacific time in the U.S.; the live stream will start about 20 minutes before that. [embedded content] The Electron rocket is a far smaller one than the Falcon 9s we see so frequently these days, with a nominal payload of 150 kilograms, just a fraction of the many tons that we see sent up by SpaceX. But that’s the whole point, Rocket Lab’s founder, CEO and chief engine...

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain

Prosthetic limbs are getting better and more personalized, but useful as they are, they’re still a far cry from the real thing. This new prosthetic ankle is a little closer than others, though: it moves on its own, adapting to its user’s gait and the surface on which it lands. Your ankle does a lot of work when you walk: lifting your toe out of the way so you don’t scuff it on the ground, controlling the tilt of your foot to minimize the shock when it lands or as you adjust your weight, all while conforming to bumps and other irregularities it encounters. Few prostheses attempt to replicate these motions, meaning all that work is done in a more basic way, like the bending of a spring or compression of padding. But this prototype ankle from Michael Goldfarb, a mechanical engineering profess...

A new extinct species of gibbon found in China

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Official near-earth object plan will look into nuking asteroids and other ‘planetary defense missions’

Space is a big place, and mostly empty — but there’s no shortage of objects which, should they float our direction, could end life as we know it. A new national plan for detecting and handling such objects was proposed today, and it includes the possibility of nuclear strikes on the incoming asteroids and other “planetary defense missions.” The plan, revealed and discussed this morning, is far from a joke — it’s just that the scales these threats operate at necessarily elevates the discourse to Hollywood levels. It’s not so much “let’s do this” as “let’s figure out what we can do.” As such it has five major goals. First, improve our ability to detect and track near-earth objects, or NEOs. We’ve been doing it for years, and projects like NEOWISE have captured an incredible amount of these o...

What’s under those clothes? This system tracks body shapes in real time

With augmented reality coming in hot and depth tracking cameras due to arrive on flagship phones, the time is right to improve how computers track the motions of people they see — even if that means virtually stripping them of their clothes. A new computer vision system that does just that may sound a little creepy, but it definitely has its uses. The basic problem is that if you’re going to capture a human being in motion, say for a movie or for an augmented reality game, there’s a frustrating vagueness to them caused by clothes. Why do you think motion capture actors have to wear those skintight suits? Because their JNCO jeans make it hard for the system to tell exactly where their legs are. Leave them in the trailer. Same for anyone wearing a dress, a backpack, a jacket — pretty much an...

Facebook’s new AI research is a real eye-opener

There are plenty of ways to manipulate photos to make you look better, remove red eye or lens flare, and so on. But so far the blink has proven a tenacious opponent of good snapshots. That may change with research from Facebook that replaces closed eyes with open ones in a remarkably convincing manner. It’s far from the only example of intelligent “in-painting,” as the technique is called when a program fills in a space with what it thinks belongs there. Adobe in particular has made good use of it with its “context-aware fill,” allowing users to seamlessly replace undesired features, for example a protruding branch or a cloud, with a pretty good guess at what would be there if it weren’t. But some features are beyond the tools’ capacity to replace, one of which is eyes. Their detailed and ...

Elizabeth Holmes reportedly steps down at Theranos after criminal indictment

Elizabeth Holmes has left her role as CEO of Theranos and has been charged with wire fraud, CNBC and others report. The company’s former president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, was also indicted today by a grand jury. These criminal charges are separate from the civil ones filed in March by the SEC and already settled. There are 11 charges; two are conspiracy to commit wire fraud (against investors, and against doctors and patients) and the remaining nine are actual wire fraud, with amounts ranging from the cost of a lab test to $100 million. Theranos’s general counsel, David Taylor, has been appointed CEO. What duty the position actually entails in the crumbling enterprise is unclear. Holmes, meanwhile, remains chairman of the board. The FBI Special Agent in Charge of the case against Theranos...