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Sight Of The Bumblebee

Bumblebees might someday help robots to see better, say ophthalmologists at University College London who are studying how the bees spot nectar-rich blossoms.

Scientists had assumed that bees distinguish one flower from another by adapting to each scene's average color, much like people's eyes adjust when the lights in a movie theater dim. But by setting a swarm of bees loose in a field of plexiglass flowers, the UCL scientists found that the insects homed in on the blue blossoms -- the only ones containing nectar -- based on how they looked compared to nearby objects. Even when the researchers tried to confuse the bees by shining colored lights on the flowers, the bees always found their target. "The flower doesn't have to look blue, it just has to be bluer than everything else," explains Dr. Beau Lotto of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.

UCL researchers are recreating the experiment on computers in the hopes of making software brains that can recognize specific objects in complicated scenes.

Frequently we can identify friends just by the way they walk. Researchers have been trying to teach that skill to computers, so that surveillance systems could ID people by their gait. These systems work by matching various measurements, including the distance of the average step and the swing of the legs over intervals of time. Some methods embed sensors under the floor to measure pressure and intervals of walking.

Scientists at the government-run Technical Research Center of Finland have come up with a different use for gait recognition: preventing thieves from walking off with your valuables. The researchers install sensors in objects such as laptops and cell phones, then tune them to the owner's typical acceleration during walking. Your laptop now knows you, and if a thief takes it but fails to mimic your gait, it sends out an alert. Heikki Ailisto, a research professor at the center, admits there are major hurdles. Different shoes, he acknowledges, can alter how we walk. And a phone or laptop in a handbag will move differently from one under your arm.

It's not quite true three-dimensional technology, but it'll do until real 3D displays come along. PureDepth's multilayer displays are double-pane windows made with liquid-crystal displays (LCDs). You can look through the front screen and see what's behind it.

So a surgeon can view images of an internal organ with the patient's vital signs hovering on top. Or video-game software can be modified so objects jump between the front and rear screens depending on their movements within a scene. There are also versions with up to seven LCDs now being tested by financial analysts, says Fred Angelopoulos, CEO of the Redwood Shores (Calif.) startup.

The technology stems from military research, and the first manufacturing license went to Pentagon supplier DRS Technologies (DRS) in June. Japan's Sanyo Electric (SANYY) is also negotiating to make displays for gaming and entertainment markets. Consumers can expect to pay about 1.8 times the cost of a regular LCD monitor when the two-layer screens are in volume production.

-- Scientists at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary believe they have found a link between bacteria and wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) -- the leading cause of blindness in people over 55. The bug, which has also been linked to heart disease, may be a primary cause of eye inflammation. Researchers hope to develop tests to identify patients who are susceptible to the bacterium, and treat them before it can do much damage.

-- Imagine being able to translate a foreign language without actually learning it -- or indeed, vocalizing anything at all. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Karlsruhe in Germany are working on technology that can translate one language into another by measuring electrical currents on the surface of the cheeks as speakers mouth words in their native tongues. The system is designed to track muscle movement via electrodes, and then translate the words and speak them aloud.

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