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16. Videoconferencing made for Dr. Phil
While videoconferencing has proven its worth for corporate meetings and distance learning, researchers say the technology could also play a big role in mediating disputes between coworkers, neighbors and family members.
Researchers from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom interviewed a dozen conciliators to determine their views on what it would be like to use video technology in their jobs. The researchers say video holds the promise of being useful because it can better translate the emotional state of the parties involved and reduces possible intimidation when parties are in the same room.
"Most of the conciliation to sort out disputes between employees is done by phone because for the conciliator, who may have as many as 70 or 80 cases to deal with at once, it can be difficult, costly and slow to arrange to see people in person," said Department of Computer Science Director of Studies Leon Watts in a statement. "In situations of high conflict, it can be hard to get to the real issues, to judge what people really care about, on the phone. So using a video link, in which the conciliator can in addition see each of the disputing parties, is a step forward: it gives them new options for appreciating parties' depth of concern about different issues."
The increased availability of broadband services and improved video quality combine to make widespread videoconferencing feasible, the researchers said. The researchers plan to work with a conciliation training organization to spread the word on videoconferencing.
17. Vocal Joystick
University of Washington researchers have developed software designed to let those who can't work a handheld mouse use their voice instead to navigate the Web.
"There are many people who have perfect use of their voice who don't have use of their hands and arms," said Jeffrey Bilmes, an associate professor of electrical engineering, in a statement. "There are several reasons why Vocal Joystick might be a better approach, or at least a viable alternative, to brain-computer interfaces."
The Vocal Joystick detects sounds 100 times a second, relying on vowel sounds to move in one direction or another and moving faster or slower depending on voice volume. "K" and "ch" sounds are used for mouse clicks and releases. Some wonder why speech recognition technology might not be better, but the University of Washington researchers say it would be too slow since it would rely on drawn-out, discrete commands. (Watch a video of how Vocal Joystick works here.)
The tool can be used for Web browsing, as well as for playing video games and even drawing on a screen.
18. Measuring boredom
The National Science Foundation is funding research that could enable computers to respond to your levels of frustration or boredom. In other words, we're talking about "mind reading" technology.
Tufts University researchers are exploiting near-infrared spectroscopy technology that uses light to pick up on your emotional cues by monitoring brain blood flow.
Of course, for now you need to wear a funky headband to make it work (the headband "uses laser diodes to send near-infrared light through the forehead at a relatively shallow depth — only two to three centimeters — to interact with the brain's frontal lobe," according to Tufts.)
19. Better computer building blocks
A University of Maryland researcher has come up with a method that he says could one day be used by companies to build nanoscale computer and cell phone components faster and less expensively.
Ray Phaneuf , associate professor of materials science and engineering at the A. James Clark School of Engineering, compares his idea to self-assembly processes in nature such as crystallization.
Phaneuf has built a photolithography- and etching-based template that nature can use to assemble atoms into predefined patterns for creating things such as laptop semiconductors, wearable device sensors and cell phone components. His work has focused on silicon, typically used for computer components, and gallium arsenide, which is common in cell phone parts.
"While we understand how to make working nanoscale devices, making things out of a countable number of atoms takes a long time," Phaneuf said in a statement . "Industry needs to be able to mass-produce them on a practical time scale." Such devices could even be used some day in building the "qubits" that serve as the basis of advanced quantum computing machines, Phaneuf said.
Phaneuf's work focuses on silicon and gallium arsenide components. Silicon is the prevalent material for components in computers while gallium arsenide is used more often in cell phones.
20. Good Samaritans
Dartmouth researchers say they were surprised to find that Good Samaritans – those people who update the online Wikipedia encyclopedia when just passing by – are actually as reliable as regular, registered users of the site.
The researchers examined the quality of Wikipedia content based on how long it persisted before being changed or corrected. Wikipedia's archive of edits and user reputation allowed for the research to be done.
"This finding was both novel and unexpected," said Denise Anthony, associate professor of sociology, in a statement. "In traditional laboratory studies of collective goods, we don't include Good Samaritans, those people who just happen to pass by and contribute, because those carefully designed studies don't allow for outside actors. It took a real-life situation for us to recognize and appreciate the contributions of Good Samaritans to Web content."
Sean Smith, associate professor of computer science, added: "Wikipedia is a great example of how open-source contributions work for the greater good."
The researchers' findings are presented in a paper called "The Quality of Open Source Production: Zealots and Good Samaritans in the Case of Wikipedia."