January 23, 2006

Goals tame home electronics

Take a look at any of today's remote control units and it's clear that you can do a lot with them. It's also clear that figuring out how to do any one task takes an inordinate amount of cognitive effort.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have gone back to the drawing board to redesign the consumer electronics interface from a different angle. Instead of buttons and menu items for each function, the researchers' Roadie software presents the user with a list of goals -- for example, record a movie on a DVD -- and either automatically carries out the steps required to accomplish the task or guides the user through them.

The software consists of a user interface, a device interface, a database of commonsense knowledge, and an artificial intelligence-based task planner. The commonsense database helps the system recognize that when a person turns on the television she is not intending to listen to the radio. The task planner determines the individual steps needed to meet the user's goal.

The software is designed to allow novices and technophobes to configure and use combinations of consumer electronic devices. One drawback to the system is that many consumer electronic devices do not support third party software.

(A Goal-Oriented Interface to Consumer Electronics Using Planning and Commonsense Reasoning, Intelligent User Interfaces (IUI) 2006, Sidney Australia, January 29-February 1, 2006)

Previous news story about the commonsense database: Common sense boosts speech software, March 23/30, 2005

Context boosts VR interfaces

Context makes a big difference in how humans relate to each other and their environment. It also turns out to make interacting with virtual environments better and more efficient.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California have developed a natural language spoken interface for virtual reality environments that uses the environment's context -- the software's understanding of the situation at a given moment -- to narrow the possibilities that the software has to consider in interpreting the user's words.

The researchers found that the interface performed better than standard natural language interfaces when they tested it on the Mission Rehearsal Exercise virtual environment, which is designed for training soldiers in peacekeeping duties. (See VR tool aims high, TRN, May 30, 2001)

The method removes the need for engineers to manually assign meanings to specific utterances, and it overcomes many of the errors introduced by the system's automatic speech recognition software.

The interface could be used to improve virtual environments used for training, evaluation and entertainment.

(Taking Advantage of the Situation: Non-Linguistic Context for Natural Language Interfaces to Interactive Virtual Environments, Intelligent User Interfaces (IUI) 2006, Sidney Australia, January 29-February 1, 2006)

Bits and pieces

Caterpillar to butterfly to LED

Dipping butterfly wings in zinc nitrate and baking them in an oven causes them to curl up and harden into zinc oxide microtubes with pores. The resulting tubes could be used as light emitting and controlling devices, chemical catalysts and drug delivery systems.

(Fabrication of ZnO Microtubes with Adjustable Nanopores on the Walls by the Templating of Butterfly Wing Scales, Nanotechnology, February 14, 2006)

Spray-on prosthetics

Adapting a simple, one-step process for spraying thin layers of plastics to work with phospholipid molecules produces biologically-compatible membranes. The technique could be used to make artificial organs and other prosthetic devices.

(Phospholipid Nonwoven Electrospun Membranes, Science, January 20, 2006)

Bubbles clean up ultrasound

A technique for producing ultrasonic bubbles in tissue cleans up phantom features in medical ultrasound diagnostic images. The method, which mimics the way astronomers correct for distortions caused by imperfect lenses and the atmosphere, promises better medical images of soft tissue.

("Ultrasonic Stars" for Time-Reversal Focusing Using Induced Cavitation Bubbles, Applied Physics Letters, January 16, 2006)

Nanowire mats flex muscle

Sheets made from single-wall carbon nanotubes coated with platinum nanoparticles can be made to move like piezoelectric ceramics and are stronger than human skeletal muscles. The nanowire sheets could be used to make artificial muscles for robots and nanodevices like grippers.

(Hybrid Platinum/Single-Wall Carbon Nanotube Nanowire Actuators: Metallic Artificial Muscles, Nanotechnology, February 14, 2006)

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