Mouth-operated mouse

A new mouth-operated computer mouse developed in Russia could enable people unable to move their bodies to use computers, opening up a whole host of activities for them such as playing games and participating in online chatrooms.

The technology, designed over five years and patented by researchers at Moscow-based company Gravitonus - which specialises in the ergonomics of data input - lets users control PCs with the help of the tongue and the teeth but without interfering with breathing, drinking or talking.

While other groups have tried to develop a product along similar lines, they haven’t been able to build a device that can be mass produced and used right out of the box, according to Gravitonus scientists. Other systems have only been geared to individuals making the technology prohibitive expensive.

Dubbed the Alternative Computer Control System (ACCS) [See pictures here], the device is a combination of a keyboard of 19 keys and a joystick which are placed on the upper palate and connected directly to the PC, so additional drivers are not required.

To fasten the device securely, there are universal mechanical holders on the upper teeth and a plate made of special material with “shape memory”. When the plate is applied firmly to the palate surface it moulds from faceless plastic into the individual shape of the inner mouth - so there is no need to make a cast and mould an individual variant.

The scientists stress the system’s absolute safety: with only 0.2 volts of electricity passing through the wiring even if it is accidentally bitten through there will be no harm caused.

Wearers will use their tongue to move the joystick and hit the keys, using movements that should only take 10 minutes to learn. For now, the keyboard is based on the English alphabet only.

Of course, the user cannot see the keyboard so they will have to keep in mind the keys’ layout, but they have the added convenience of assigning the functions to the keys themselves.

As in normal Windows operations, you can use two keys to introduce a third function. There are also two “hard” keys controlled by pressing on them with the teeth which correspond to the left and right keys of the mouse.

The designers say the device has “practically no limitation” allowing quadriplegics - people with paralysed legs and hands - and patients who have become completely immobilised through spinal chord injury to participate in a whole range of digital activities, including complex PC games, internet surfing, instant messaging and even working.

In addition, they foresee a time when ACCS could be used in combination with a “smart house” system, allowing people to operate doors, heat and light and air conditioning.

Water alert system

A small water sampling bottle that alerts people that their water is contaminated could help save lives in the poorer regions of the world, according to its developer.

Puja Tandon, a PhD student from Northumbria University in the UK, has fitted a bottle with a special chemical system that warns people when sewage bacteria such as E. Coli are present in drinking water - an indicator of the presence of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, which kills several million young children in developing countries every year.

The bottle contains a dried mixture of nutrients to encourage the growth of bacteria (under conditions similar to those in the human gut) along with a chemical indicator that turns black when the bacteria are present.

A sample of local water is taken in the bottle and left in a darkened room overnight. If the colour has changed to black by the next day then it is contaminated and should not be drunk.

If contamination is established, the water can be made safe through simple methods. It can be left in a clear bottle in direct sunlight for five to six hours which kills the bacteria or store it in copper vessels for 48 hours which makes them inactive.

Ms Puja is now looking for cheaper chemical ingredients to use in the system to make the device more affordable.

New substance from spider silk

Scientists have fused proteins from two of nature’s most remarkable materials - spider silk and silica - to form a new material that could have applications in the world of industry and medicine.

Silica is a very pure glass from which optical fibres are manufactured created through a combination of silicon and oxygen. It provides structural support to diatoms, single-celled organism known for their intricate but minute structures. Meanwhile, silk proteins from spiders and silkworms are flexible, strong and able to self-assemble into easily defined structures.

Researchers from Tufts University in Massachusetts were able to design and clone genetic fusions of the encoding genes for these two proteins and then turn them into a nanocomposite material using water at ambient temperatures. Normally, high temperatures and harsh conditions are needed for industrial synthesis of silica.

The particles of the silk-glass composite are also considerably smaller than artificially created silica particles, giving better control and more options for processing - factors important for biomedical and specialty materials, say the scientists.

The team predict that the new protein could lead to a variety of biomedical materials that restore tissue structure and function, including bone repair and regeneration, as well as less specialised areas of science and engineering particularly related to making more environmentally friendly materials.

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