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Michael Banks: April 2010 Archives

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The roof garden at Fusionopolis

By Michael Banks in Singapore

It is not every day that I get to dance with the popstar Shakira, but that is what I did this morning. Well, in the world of virtual reality at least.

Today I visited what is known as the Fusionopolis complex here in Singapore. The centre, which consists of three separate towers, each 100 m tall, contains government-funded research institutes, international companies and a range of facilities such as a gym, a theatre and restaurants – all under one roof.

The idea of Fusionopolis is to attract multinational companies from all over the world as well as local firms to establish a research and development base in the country.

There are six government-funded applied research institutes that will eventually be housed in Fusionopolis, which are each encouraged to collaborate and share their facilities with companies who put a base there.

Venturing into Fusionopolis this morning did feel a little like taking a trip into the future. I first visited FusionWorld, which showcases some of the applications that have emerged from research carried out by the six institutes.

One example was the so-called “transparent self-cleaning windows” – essentially glass coated with a substance that reacts with dirt and grease, turning it into something that is easily washed away when it rains.

But then the tour turned to more dreamier concepts. Indeed, one involved sleep itself – researchers have developed a sensor that can be put into a mattress that is sensitive enough to detect breathing and whether someone moves around in the bed. One application for this is in hospitals where an alarm can be sent to a doctor or nurse if a patient stops breathing.

I will leave it to your imagination to picture the “demonstration home”, which included a kitchen that can tell you when you run out of eggs or if they are out of date, a toilet that can diagnose ailments, or a computer display that can be controlled with a laser pointer.

By the end, Fusionopolis had a slight whiff of Jurassic Park about it and I thought that at any moment they would pull away the curtains to reveal tiny dinosaurs walking around in a pen. But maybe that was my imagination running away with me.

One of my next stops in Fusionopolis was the Institute for Infocomm Research, where researchers are developing new wireless network protocols as well as new methods of data compression for audio files.

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The next phase of Fusionopolis

In one room they have been developing a virtual reality system that can process a person’s movements and then display that action through a computer-generated figure on a 3D screen.

The perfect demonstration of such a technology is, of course, dancing. So after some persuasion I stepped (or was forced) onto the dance floor where I “threw some shapes”.

The system works by picking up movements with a camera, which then sends a signal to the computer that immediately renders the 3D figure to copy your dance moves (in my case the figure was Shakira, but you could select other characters).

After taking off my dancing shoes, we moved quickly to another virtual-reality room. Unfortunately, I did not get to test the “tennis simulation room” where players can run around (it even has artificial turf) wearing 3D glasses and pretending to hit a virtual tennis ball at the screen, which itself covers the whole wall.

Apparently the system was being upgraded so that it can handle two players instead of just one. I was told by Susanto Rahardja, director of research of the Infocomm institute, that the system was sensitive enough to detect whether your wrist movement would put top-spin on the ball.

Fusionopolis is certainly a vibrant place and you get the sense that there is a lot of excitement about the project, which is expected to be fully complete by the end of the decade once all six institutes are housed there.

Indeed, companies are flocking to join the institute, including computer giant HP, which announced In January that it would open a research centre in Fusionopolis. Two other buildings are currently being constructed for Fusionopolis in what is known as phase 2A and phase 2B, which will be able to house more companies and facilities.

Overall the technology and research on show was quite impressive. Indeed, when browsing the glossy brochures after my visit I was almost expecting to see videos and hear audio straight from the pages. I didn’t, of course, but possibly that is something the Fusionopolis researchers are working on right at this minute.

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It is really cold in there

By Michael Banks in Singapore

It was a humid 30 °C by mid-morning here in Singapore, so I was happy to be visiting what must be the coolest place in the country – the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT).

The CQT is located on the campus of the National University of Singapore, which lies on the southern tip of the island.

Founded in December 2007 by Artur Ekert from the University of Oxford, the centre carries out research into all things quantum, be it quantum computers, optics or cryptography.

I was satisfied enough to be standing in the air-conditioned labs to cool down, but that must not have been cold enough for physicists Murray Barrett and Kyle Arnold, both at the CQT.

Last year they reached a low-temperature extreme by creating a Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) of atoms – reaching temperatures of a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero.

A poster on the wall outside their lab proudly identifies it as the first place in Singapore to have created a BEC – making it the coldest place in the country (and most likely on the equator as well).

Ekert, who is the CQT’s director, is hoping that this is the first of many breakthroughs that the centre will make in the coming years.

Ekert, one of the founders of quantum cryptography, certainly has some experience setting up successful research groups. During his PhD at Oxford, he established, together with fellow physicist David Deutsch, the first research group in quantum cryptography and computation.

Now armed with a grant of S$150m (£75m) from Singapore’s National Research Foundation, he is starting to build up the centre and attract top-notch researchers from around world.

There are already 90 researchers from no less than 24 nations at the CQT, with the majority coming from Singapore, China, Germany and the UK.

As CQT’s funding is over a five-year period, Ekert will have to apply for more funds in the coming years to keep the centre going. “We have received a lot of positive responses from the university, so I am pretty confident we will get it,” he says.

By Michael Banks

It is amazing how far a bottle of scotch can take you.

On 18 April 1955 photographer Ralph Morse got a call early in the morning from an editor at LIFE magazine to go to Princeton.

Morse, who worked for the magazine for decades, was told to cover the news that Albert Einstein had died of heart failure at Princeton Hospital.

Armed with his camera and a case of scotch, Morse travelled 90 miles from his home to Princeton, New Jersey. But instead of going straight to the hospital, which was flooded with reporters, Morse drove to Einstein’s office at Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

After offering a superintendent some scotch, Morse had access to Einstein’s office just as the physicist left it, where he took a now iconic image of his desk.

Last week, LIFE magazine published 10 other previously unseen photographs taken on the day. Most of the pictures are taken at the service, which was held on the afternoon of 18 April at Ewing Crematorium in Trenton, 20 km south of Princeton.

Morse located the service after workers at a cemetery in Princeton told him where it was being held – all with the help of a little scotch.