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Why researchers are turning to consumer electronics for a quick fix.

As consumer electronics become increasingly sophisticated, they have found a new niche market: academics. Some scientists may well have a closet video game obsession, but others are hijacking existing technology to aid their research.

Given the choice between spending time and money developing custom-built electronics from scratch or simply tweaking your kids’ console, it’s easy to see the appeal of adopting off the shelf electronics.

Gadget fans’ insatiable appetite for newer and flashier toys drives technological innovation, with mass production pushing down costs. The result is top of the range hardware at rock bottom prices.

Here are some of the projects making games and gadgets get down to some serious work.

Does God play PS3?

Cosmologist Dr Gaurav Khanna is probing some of the Universe’s greatest mysteries, looking for gravitational waves produced when two black holes collide. Carrying out this research means running mind-bogglingly complex simulations, an intensive process that only the most powerful supercomputers can stomach.

Khanna’s solution is to hook together 16 of Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles to form what he calls the PS3 Gravity Grid - a supercomputer capable of some serious number crunching. The Gravity Grid has the computing power of 100 high end PCs, and can do up to 40 billion calculations per second. It is also ten times cheaper,  more energy efficient and more compact  than a traditional cluster of PCs.

Although Sony actively supported this project by donating eight PS3s, they have recently responded to piracy issues by modifying the console to make it more difficult to hack – simultaneuously threatening it future use by scientists.

Read more about Gaurav Khanna’s supercomputer

Click here to explore the universe with our favourite cosmology websites

Kinect to the rescue

Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect revolutionised gaming by allowing users to play without a controller for the first time. The device works by shining near-infrared light on its surroundings and measuring how it is reflected to create a 3D image.

Engineers from Warwick Mobile Robotics were quick to recognise a sideline for the Kinect in rescue operations. The team builds robots for use in disaster zones that are difficult or dangerous for rescuers to access – the 21st century equivalents of a St Bernard.

In order to navigate in the aftermath of an earthquake for example, rescue robots need to build up an image of their immediate environment. The Kinect sensor enables the team’s robot to take an instant 3D snapshot of the scene in order to negotiate uneven terrain and spot potential victims. It also makes each robot about £2,000 cheaper to produce than the previous model which used LIDAR [../explore/lidar] to ‘see’.

Click here to see our recommended robotics sites


First the iPhone and then the iPad opened up a whole new realm of applications. But even Apple visionary Steve Jobs probably wouldn’t have predicted that the iPad would be used in high level optics research.

Researchers at Bristol and Glasgow universities have developed an iPad app which takes advantage of the device’s sensitive multitouch screen, providing a new user friendly interface for optical tweezers.

Optical tweezers use highly focused laser beams to hold or move microscopic objects. They are commonly used by molecular biologists to manipulate tiny structures inside cells.

The researchers’ iPad app doesn’t change the way the tweezers work, but provides a much more user-friendly interface than a clunky computer mouse or a joystick. Users move particles in 3D space with dragging or pinching movements on the screen, making for an intuitive experience that anyone can get to grips with (see video).

Watch the iPad app in action:

Embedded youtube video

Click here to see our top sites about optical tweezers


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