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Mobile Technology News, February 6, 2014

As developers for tablets and smartphones we like to keep abreast of the latest mobile technology developments . This is a daily digest of mobile development and related technology news gathered from the BBC, the New York Times, New Scientist and the Globe and Mail to name a few. We scour the web for articles concerning, iPhone, iPad and android development, iOS and android operating systems as well as general articles on advances in mobile technology. We hope you find this useful and that it helps to keep you up to date with the latest technology developments.

  • Sony agrees to sell PC business
    Sony will sell it Vaio PC operations to an investment fund, confirming earlier speculation.
  • Cellphones Better Than Sex, Most Americans Say
    What’s more important than sex?

    Turns out a whole bunch of things, according to an online poll conducted by Harris Interactive.

    On a list of 10 things people can’t live without, sex came in near the bottom – behind food, cars, Internet access, cellphones and computers and just ahead of navigation systems, social networks and tablets.

    Check out the numbers in this infographic from Statista:

    Infographic: Mobile Phones Are More Important Than Sex | Statista

    You’ll find more statistics at Statista.

    On the other hand, some people refuse to choose one or the other. Multitasking is taking off in the bedroom, with one recent survey showing that 20 percent of young adults check their smartphones during sex. And over in the U.K., 62 percent of women and 48 percent of men admit to checking their phones while doing the deed.

  • VIDEO: Do children need to learn to code?
    Newsnight looks at government plans to make the study of coding compulsory in all state primary and secondary schools in England.
  • Apple creates TV spot-length ad from Burberry fashion shoot
    Apple has edited down footage shot with multiple pre-release iPhone 5s units during a Burberry fashion show last September into a 30-second TV ad-style video, currently seen on the iPhone’s spotlight page. Like the recent “01.24.14” ad, the promo and fashion show were shot in HD entirely using the iPhone 5s as a showcase of how high-quality the camera is. The shortened spot may end up appearing on television as a genuine ad to promote the iPhone 5s.

        



  • Former Federal Official Claims Attack On Silicon Valley Phone Lines Was Terrorism
    SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff says he believes an April attack on Silicon Valley’s phone lines and power grid was terrorism.

    Wellinghoff, who was in office during the incident, said he reached his conclusion after consulting with Defense Department experts to review the attack that involved snipping AT&T fiber-optic lines to knock out phone and 911 service. In addition, shots were fired into a PG&E substation, causing outages. Wellinghoff made the statement on Wednesday to The Associated Press. His comments were initially reported by The Wall Street Journal.

    The FBI is still investigating but says there is no indication it was an act of terrorism.

    Wellinghoff says he is speaking out because he’s concerned the grid is not being adequately protected.

  • Twitter's Plan To Woo Regular People
    Twitter CEO Dick Costolo kicked off the company’s inaugural earnings call Wednesday by listing four adjectives that, to him, sum up the service’s most winsome qualities: “public,” “real-time,” “conversational” and “widely distributed.”

    “Friendly” didn’t make the cut.

    Twitter does a lot of things well, but being easy to use and intuitive isn’t among them. With Twitter’s total number of active users hovering around 240 millionabout half as many as Costolo had promised by now — the CEO dedicated much of his chat with investors and analysts to explaining how Twitter plans to attract all the regular people still unconvinced by its 140-character format.

    “We have a massive global awareness of Twitter. And we have to bridge the gap between awareness and deep engagement with Twitter on the platform,” said Costolo. He maintained that that Twitter’s growth so far has been mostly viral and word of mouth — or just “something that happened to us.”

    The strategy Costolo outlined rests on the assumption that more friends, more pictures, more chatting and more order will bring more users to Twitter.

    So what does that mean, exactly?

    Many fervent Twitter fans will tell you it’s taken them years to build the perfect feed and, like fastidious artists, they’re constantly improving it by making tiny tweaks to whom they follow. People new to the service don’t necessarily have that patience, and Twitter recognizes it has to make the service immediately appealing to people when they first sign up. To do so, Costolo teased Twitter’s plans to simplify the registration process and to help people connect with friends already on Twitter — a key step he said boosts engagement from the very first day, and corresponds to higher growth later on.

    “It’s very much about making it easier for people who first come to the platform to get it more quickly,” Costolo said. “It’s not just ‘get it in the first weeks and months on Twitter.’ It’s, ‘get in the first moments, the first day on Twitter.'”

    Costolo maintained that transforming Twitter into a “more visually engaging medium” — think more pictures and video in the feed — will make it “more accessible to broader audiences.” Already, Twitter has made a move in this direction by launching services like Vine, a six-second video sharing platform, and by redesigning the Twitter app to show images in the stream itself.

    The third part of Costolo’s grand plan focuses on a topic that’s commanded Facebook’s attention of late, too: messaging. He promised the company will work to “make Twitter a better tool for conversations both public and private,” adding that updates to Twitter’s design had increased the number of direct messages by 25 percent in the most recent quarter.

    And finally, Costolo teased a change he argued could “make Twitter easier to use and understand for everyone,” albeit one that would be a departure from its traditional architecture. The current Twitter organizes tweets chronologically. But Costolo’s new-and-improved, easy-to-use Twitter would seek to organize content “along topical and relevance lines,” the chief executive said.

    He cited last quarter’s increase in direct messaging and 35 percent growth in retweets and “favorites” as evidence that these four planned revamps to Twitter’s design will win over all the normal people still befuddled by Twitter’s “RTs,” “MTs,” “HTs” and “#”s.

    “We don’t need to change anything about the characters of our platform,” said Costolo. “We have to make Twitter a better Twitter.”

  • The man who watches over the NSA
    Meet the man charged with keeping the NSA clean
  • Twitter reports $645m loss for 2013
    Microblogging site Twitter reports a net loss of $645m (£396m) for 2013, just three months after its flotation on the New York Stock Exchange.
  • This Is What Happens When You Mix Alcohol With MIT Students (VIDEO)
    Gin and tonic, vodka and cranberry, and bugs and biomimetic cocktails? When you’re a mechanical engineering graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it all seems par for the course.

    Under the advisement of professor John Bush, Lisa Burton, and colleague Dr. Nadia Cheng began designing small “boats” to float in cocktails, inspired by the bodies of Microvelia insects. Microvelia, or “water striders,” propel themselves across water by releasing a substance that lowers the surface tension of the water behind it. Alcohol leaking from the miniature boats at controlled speeds, they reasoned, could work similarly.

    Think of it as a smart party favor that drops a little extra alcohol into your drink.

    The 3D-printed results of their experiments can be seen in the video above. Burton and Cheng also created a floral pipette that appears to blossom when lowered into liquid, its design is a re-imagination of flowers that close up when confronted with a flood.

    Leave it to MIT to make drinking alcohol a little nerdy.

  • Target Hearing Highlights Need for Congressional Action on Data Breaches
    To listen to some House Republicans at the Target hearing Wednesday, and the Senate Republicans on Tuesday, one would be forgiven for thinking that the massive data breaches experienced by customers of Target, Neiman Marcus and the hotel management chain White Lodging were serious enough to warrant two congressional hearings (and one more to come), but not a single change to federal law.

    Responding to Senate Democrats’ interest in a new federal breach notification law, which would require companies to notify people in a uniform way if their personal data was lost or stolen, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “Overnotification can lead to harm and apathy” — just moments before Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the room that she had been affected by one of the data breaches but had yet to receive any notice.

    The House committee’s Privacy Working Group co-chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) seemed entirely unconvinced that any new legislation was necessary, suggesting that the House might only have to decide how to “take the rules on the books for the physical space and apply them to the virtual space to encourage commerce” — even though she acknowledged how concerned her constituents remained about their own security.

    It’s not as though these breaches are the first to affect millions of Americans and, rest assured, they won’t be the last. Data breaches are destined to join death and taxes as the third certainty in life, as a new Javelin survey this week shows. Javelin’s numbers indicate that 2013 was the second most prolific year for identity thieves in recent history, with a near-record 13.1 million Americans being affected to the tune of $18 billion — an increase of 500,000 victims over 2012.

    But it’s only going to get worse for people — between the slow crawl by retailers and card issuers to make the requisite investment to replace the ubiquitous, less-secure magnetic stripe cards and readers with a fully-functional chip-and-pin smartcard system that provides a heightened level of security, and the exponential increase in the technological sophistication of hackers determined to maximize the take from their criminal activities.

    Americans have the right to know when their financial lives have been put at risk by one of the many organizations that collect and maintain their data — be that medical information, personally identifying information and/or financial information. But currently, each state has a different law (if they have one at all), making notifications more difficult for especially small organizations to handle correctly — and they all require companies to reveal different things in different ways, making it hard for consumers to understand how they might or might not really be affected.

    As Sen. Feinstein noted, some in the business community have been fighting against federal breach notification standards for years, even as the number of breaches and the number of Americans affected by each breach has skyrocketed. In the past two months, it’s possible that fully half of this country — or more — has been snared in one of the breaches that have made the nightly news, and those are just the ones about which we know.

    But House Republicans seemed more interested in encouraging companies like Target and Neiman Marcus to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s information-sharing system for critical infrastructure, in which companies and the government share information with each other, than legally requiring companies under federal law to share information with the consumers actually affected by the breaches.

    (Notably, Homeland Security did in fact warn retailers about potential malware breaches in January, well after Target and Neiman Marcus’ – and potentially other retailers’ — customers had been affected.)

    It’s time to stop the tired anti-government rhetoric and start dealing with the reality that people need to know when their data has been exposed to criminals so they can be on alert and take steps to mitigate the risks engendered by that exposure. Most people assume that if they do all the right things, they can protect themselves from being victims of identity theft.

    But as these ongoing data breaches prove, if your data is in the wrong database at the wrong moment when the wrong person gains unauthorized access, it doesn’t matter how many credit card offers or sensitive documents you have shredded over the years: you can and very likely will be victimized by identity thieves. Without the knowledge that your personal or financial information has been exposed in a breach, you can hardly take the proactive steps needed to protect your identity or be on heightened alert for phishing scams in all their various new-fangled forms.

    Once identity thieves have your information, their ability to exploit it (and you) doesn’t stop if and when your bank replaces one credit card or you change one password. It costs them little additional effort to relentlessly bombard your inbox with real-seeming emails from your supposed bank, or phone calls from your supposed utility provider, or text messages from your supposed cellphone company — and their payday can be massive if they just get one person in a hundred to click, call, reply or give up a credit card number.

    But to hear Republicans talk, the real danger is that you might get too many notifications that your identity is at risk. Must be nice to be a senator, eh?

  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Dubs New Health Care Initiative 'RouhaniCare'
    While some Republicans may not like it, it looks like Obamacare has earned at least one important fan abroad.

    The English Twitter account of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attracted attention on Wednesday when it used the hashtag #RouhaniCare to label a new health care initiative that will extend medical insurance to all Iranians.

    Gov will extend medical insurance to all Iranians. First step will be to cover 5mn uninsured Iranians by the social safety net #RouhaniCare

    — Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) February 5, 2014

    The hashtag is a playful reference to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, commonly dubbed “Obamacare.”

    According to Bloomberg News, Rouhani announced the new health care plans in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night. The speech also covered topics such as the Geneva accords on Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s economy.

    Experts and pundits were quick to respond to the #RouhaniCare tweet, with many referring to the obstacles the Affordable Care Act has faced in the U.S.

    Obama must sue for trademark violation… “@HassanRouhani: Gov will extend medical insurance to all Iranians. #RouhaniCare@jimsciutto

    — Trita Parsi (@tparsi) February 5, 2014

    If you like your plan you can keep it. RT @HassanRouhani: Gov will extend medical insurance to all Iranians #RouhaniCare

    — Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) February 5, 2014

    Maybe @BarackObama should offer @HassanRouhani some lessons learned before he loses majles on #RouhaniCare! https://t.co/cSGXOE9pmM

    — Laura Rozen (@lrozen) February 5, 2014

    The Iranian president told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January that he does not run his popular English twitter account himself, but trusts “friends” to post the frequent updates.

  • Google Picks Longtime Executive Susan Wojcicki To Head YouTube
    (Reuters) – Google Inc executive Susan Wojcicki has been appointed new head of the company’s YouTube video business, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

    The move, in which Wojcicki will replace Salar Kamangar, represents the latest change to Google’s top properties by Chief Executive Larry Page and comes as Google is striving to turn the popular video portal into a bigger money-maker.

    “It’s one of the biggest traffic sources on the Internet, so it makes sense to want to try to monetize the best they can,” said Needham & Co analyst Kerry Rice.

    Google does not disclose YouTube’s financial results, though analysts believe the website generates several billions of dollars in annual revenue from video ads and other promotions.

    Wojcicki who is a member of Page’s inner circle of top managers known as the “L” Team, was most recently senior vice president of Ads and Commerce. She shared the title with Sridhar Ramaswamy, another Google executive.

    Wojcicki’s new job is effective immediately, according to the source. It was not immediately clear what Kamangar would do. A report in the tech blog The Information, which first reported news of the change, said that Kamangar was expected to remain at Google, perhaps playing a greater role in Google’s in-house venture capital arm.

    YouTube, the world’s No. 1 video website, is moving to add professional-grade video programs to the vast archive of amateur, home-shot videos as it seeks to attract a bigger slice of the estimated $70 billion in spending on U.S. television ads.

    “Like Salar, Susan has a healthy disregard for the impossible and is excited about improving YouTube in ways that people will love,” Page said in a statement.

    The change at YouTube comes nearly a year after Google appointed Sundar Pichai to lead its Android mobile software group, taking over from Andy Rubin, who is now spearheading a secretive group within Google that is developing robots.

    Wojcicki has been with Google from its earliest days. Page and co-founder Sergey Brin set up shop in the garage of Wojcicki’s Menlo Park, California home in September 1998, around the time they incorporated the company.

    (Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic, Editing by Tom Brown)

  • Samsung inks patent cross-licensing pact with Cisco
    The agreement marks the latest collaboration among tech giants. In the past weeks, Samsung also reached deals with Google and Ericsson.
  • Should Barcodes Be Penguin-Shaped? (We Think The Answer Is Clear)
    Maybe they didn’t stand out so much when their primary purpose was to line the shelves of supermarkets, but with the advent of smartphones, barcodes and QR codes became much more integrated with visual media and our world as a whole.

    Trouble is, they’re not particularly appealing to look at. The solution? Penguin-shaped barcodes, clearly.

    For barcodes to work, according to the University of Nottingham’s Professor Steve Benford in the video above, all they require is “a certain number of regions that contain a certain number of blobs within them, and if I get that number right, then the shape of them doesn’t actually matter.”

    Once those requirements are met, the design possibilities for these codes are endless. If some of them just happen to take the shape of a certain flightless bird, we’ll call it a success.

    Although the issue of barcode aesthetics might seem rather small and industry-specific, the developers’ discussion at its heart is both fascinating and ongoing: should we adapt the environment to meet the needs of computers? Or should computers themselves adapt?

  • Jonny McGovern Releases New Episodes Of 'Whoa, Dude!' Web Series (NSFW)
    When Jonny McGovern‘s new series “Whoa, Dude!” hit the Internet last week, viewers ate up the scantly clad men and “Tosh.O”-esque format of the show.

    Now, McGovern has released two new episodes in the series, and they’re even more NSFW that the premiere episode!

    “Whoa, Dude” takes a look at some of the most unintentionally (or intentionally…) homoerotic viral videos that make the viewer say, “Whoa, dude!” Check out the third episode above the fourth below.

    Curious to see more from the series? Head over to the “Whoa, Dude!” YouTube stream.

  • New 'Wingman' App Lets You Find Love (Or Casual Sex) On Any Flight In America
    The mile-high club could have more members in the very near future.

    Wingman is a forthcoming app that “connects you with attractive people on your flight, all before you touch down.” Similar to Tinder, the app allows users to create a profile including pictures, first name, age and occupation. The difference however, is that Wingman will include a list of travelers on the same flight who are also using the app. Using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth accessibility, the app lets you flirt your way through any flight.

    Buzzfeed copywriter and creator of Wingman, Gabe Whaley, discussed his thought process in an interview with ANIMAL on Jan. 30: “I’m pretty sure that at some point, anyone who’s flown has had a thought like, ‘I wonder what it would be like to talk to that person. Too bad it’s never going to happen, because the seating arrangement didn’t provide for that.’”

    Although it’s still being developed and has not yet been approved by Apple, people can sign up for notifications about Wingman’s development to follow its progress and participate in the beta launch.

    While there is a surplus of both practical and bizarre online dating sites, Wingman is definitely taking cyberspace mingling to a whole new level — 30,000 feet higher, to be exact.

    [h/t Jezebel]

  • Asteroid's Internal Structure Glimpsed For First Time Ever (VIDEO)

    The innards of an asteroid have been measured for the first time.

    Scientists using a European Southern Observatory telescope have made precise measurements of Asteroid Itokawa’s density. They discovered that different parts of the asteroid have different densities, giving the scientists clues about the asteroid’s formation in the solar system. The researchers explain the strangely shaped asteroid Itokawa in a new video.

    Itokawa is a stony composite asteroid. The peanut-shaped space rock is about 1,755 feet (535 meters) long on its longest side and takes about 556 days to orbit the sun. Scientists measured the density by studying images of Itokawa taken by the New Technology Telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, as well as by other telescopes, from 2001 to 2013. Stephen Lowry, a researcher at the University of Kent, and his team measured how the brightness of the space rock varies during its rotation, ESO officials said. [See more photos of asteroid Itokawa]

    asteroid interiorMeasurements taken by ESO’s New Technology Telescope combined with a model of asteroid Itokawa’s surface topography reveal that different parts of this asteroid have different densities. The shape model used for this view is based on the images collected by JAXA’s Hayabusa spacecraft.

    “This is the first time we have ever been able to determine what it is like inside an asteroid,” Lowry said in a statement. “We can see that Itokawa has a highly varied structure — this finding is a significant step forward in our understanding of rocky bodies in the solar system.”

    By looking at the change in Itokawa’s brightness over time, the researchers tracked how the asteroid’s spin period changed over time. By understanding that information plus its shape, the astronomers could also map the asteroid’s interior density, ESO officials said.

    Lowry and his colleagues found that sunlight was actually affecting the way the asteroid spins. Thanks to some very precise measurements, the team found that Itokawa’s rotation period changes by 0.045 seconds per year, ESO officials said. While this may seem like a miniscule amount, it’s something that can only happen if the two halves of the peanut-shaped space rock have different densities.

    Until now, scientists had estimated asteroid interior properties through overall density measurements, ESO officials said. Now that they know the internal structure of an asteroid can vary, scientists can try to work backward to see how the space rock formed. Scientists now think it’s possible that two parts of a double asteroid crashed together and merged to create Itokawa, ESO officials said, although no one is sure exactly how it formed.

    “Finding that asteroids don’t have homogeneous interiors has far-reaching implications, particularly for models of binary asteroid formation,” Lowry said in a statement. “It could also help with work on reducing the danger of asteroid collisions with Earth, or with plans for future trips to these rocky bodies.”

    Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft collected tiny dust grains from Itokawa in 2005 during a 1.25 billion-mile (2 billion kilometers) mission that took seven years to complete. The probe returned to Earth with the space rock samples in 2010. The unmanned Hayabusa arrived at Itokawa when the asteroid was about 180 million miles (290 million km) from Earth.

    Scientists in Japan are also considering a follow-up to the Hayabusa mission called Hayabusa 2. The new probe would launch to and sample 1999 JU3, a carbonaceous asteroid.

    Follow Miriam Kramer @mirikramer and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

    Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Makers Are Radically Changing the World…Already
    2014-02-05-Mark_Hatch.png
    By Singularity University adjunct faculty Mark Hatch, who is CEO and Co-Founder of TechShop and author of the Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers from McGraw-Hill.

    Driven by the exponentially increasing power, ease of use and reduced costs of “making,” along with a renewed interest in experiencing making, the Maker Movement is beginning to have a surprising impact in the US and around the world.

    2014-02-05-Embrace_2300x202.jpg

    How, one might ask, does this Maker Movement, emerging out of the left coast, with its eclectic “Maker Faires,” change the world in a meaningful way?

    Though a more complex topic, the Maker Movement can be reduced to this simple reality: it is democratizing making. Sure, making includes simple electronics, quilting, all the handmade things one can buy on ETSY.com or download from Thingiverse.com and print on a home 3D printer … but it also includes creating access to industrial manufacturing tools used to prototype and manufacture world class innovations.

    As the CEO of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, I sit at the apex of activity that is not only creating interesting art, t-shirts, bracelets and other small personally produced items one might see at a typical swap meet, but I have seen the development of many new products that have begun to change the world. Each of them was started because of cheap access to the powerful tools of the industrial revolution combined with a platform (makerspace) designed to encourage their success.

    Briefly, a very well equipped makerspace, like TechShop, has all the tools you need to make almost anything in the world. These include 3D printers, laser cutters, mills, lathes, computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, a complete metal shop, wood shop, plastics and electronics labs, textiles lab and the space, training, and environment designed to enable you to make whatever you want.

    Leveraging the technology driving CNC tools, robotics, and easy-to-use software like 123D Make from Autodesk, along with a renewed interest in hardware, an explosion of new hardware startup companies have become successful. Here are a handful I’m aware of that have either come out of TechShop or another makerspace.

    Have you heard of Square? The little white fob you put on your smart phone or iPad to turn it into a credit card terminal? The original prototypes were all done at TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif. In fact, Jack Dorsey (of Twitter fame) and his partner, Jim McKelvey, were turned down by the VCs in the Silicon Valley until they had a functioning prototype. Square will do more than $15 billion in transactions in 2013. The business has over 400 employees and was valued in September of last year at $3.2 billion. Most importantly, Dorsey and McKelvey opened up the merchant banking system (the ability to take credit cards) to a huge underserved population of merchants and sole proprietors across the US.

    Have you heard of Embrace? It is an infant incubator blanket on track to save 100,000 babies around the world in the next five years. Jane Chen and her team, as part of a student project at Stanford, used our location to do the design and fabrication work needed to prepare for commercialization. Embrace now counts GE as a distribution partner, and Jane was named a top social entrepreneur by the World Economic Forum.

    Coming out of the 3D printing trend, Bre Petis launched MakerBot, a line of affordable desktop 3D printers, out of a hackerspace in New York. Five years ago, Bre was a junior high art teach in Seattle. Just recently, he sold MakerBot to Stratysas for over $400 million.

    More examples? Clustered Systems launched the world’s most efficient data-cooling center system and licensed it to Emerson Electronics; Solum has raised close to $20 million in VC funding with a system that will help reduce the amount of fertilizer farmers use (and was named a top five agricultural startup this year). BioLite launched an incredibly efficient wood-burning stove that won an industry award for reducing the amount of CO2 these types of stoves tend to emit. DripTech launched the world’s cheapest drip irrigation system designed for poor arid parts of the world.

    Any one of these innovations would be considered an amazing success. Combined, they demonstrate the hugely disruptive nature of democratizing access to tools, training and knowledge that is at the cornerstone of the Maker Movement.

    The question is no longer, “Will the Maker Movement change the world?” Rather, “How will it change it next?” and “How do you want to change the world?”

    Visit XPRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

    This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

  • Scientists Create Robotic Hand That Includes Sense Of Touch
    WASHINGTON (AP) — To feel what you touch — that’s the holy grail for artificial limbs. In a step toward that goal, European researchers created a robotic hand that let an amputee feel differences between a bottle, a baseball and a mandarin orange.

    The patient only got to experiment with the bulky prototype for a week, and it’s far from the bionics of science fiction movies. But the research released Wednesday is part of a major effort to create more lifelike, and usable, prosthetics. “It was just amazing,” said Dennis Aabo Sorensen of Aalborg, Denmark, who lost his left hand in a fireworks accident a decade ago and volunteered to pilot-test the new prosthetic. “It was the closest I have had to feeling like a normal hand.”

    This isn’t the first time scientists have tried to give some sense of touch to artificial hands; a few other pilot projects have been reported in the U.S. and Europe. But this newest experiment, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, shows Sorensen not only could tell differences in the shape and hardness of objects, he also could quickly react and adjust his grasp.

    “It was interesting to see how fast he was able to master this,” said neuroengineer Silvestro Micera of Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, who led the Swiss and Italian research team. “He was able to use this information immediately in a quite sophisticated way.”

    Scientists have made great strides in recent years in improving the dexterity of prosthetics. But the sense of touch has been a much more difficult challenge, and is one reason that many patients don’t use their prosthetic hands as much as they’d like.

    Consider: Grab something and your own hand naturally grasps with just enough force to hang on. Users of prosthetic hands have to carefully watch every motion, judging by eye instead of touch how tightly to squeeze. The results can be clumsy, with dropped dishes or crushed objects.

    “You always have to look and see what’s going on, so that’s what is so much different from this new hand that I tried,” Sorensen, 36, said in a telephone interview.

    First, doctors at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital implanted tiny electrodes inside two nerves — the ulnar and median nerves — in the stump of Sorensen’s arm.

    Those nerves normally would allow for certain sensations in a hand. When researchers zapped them with a weak electrical signal, Sorensen said it felt like his missing fingers were moving, showing the nerves still could relay information.

    Meanwhile, Micera’s team put sensors on two fingers of a robotic hand, to detect information about what the artificial fingers touched.

    For one week, cords snaked from a bandage on Sorensen’s arm to the artificial hand, and the electrodes zapped the nerves in proportion to what the sensors detected.

    They essentially created a loop that let the robotic hand rapidly communicate with Sorensen’s brain.

    “It is really putting the brain back in control of the system,” said biomedical engineer Dustin Tyler of Case Western Reserve University, who wasn’t involved with the European work but leads a team in Ohio that recently created and tested a similar touch-enabled hand. “That’s an important step.”

    Added neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh: “It shows with a few sensors and some pretty elementary technology, that they can recover a fair amount of functionality.”

    To be sure Sorensen used touch, and didn’t cheat by looking or hearing telltale sounds, he wore a blindfold and headphones as Micera’s team handed him different objects.

    “Suddenly I could tell if it was a hard object,” Sorensen recalled, describing sensations that changed along with his grip. “The response, the feedback from the arm to my nerves and to my brain, they came very strong.”

    Micera cautioned that it will take several years of additional research to create a first-generation artificial hand that can feel, and looks more like a traditional prosthetic. First, they have to prove these nerve implants can last; for safety reasons, Sorensen’s were surgically removed after the experiment.

    But a lot of work is under way.

    In Ohio, Tyler’s team recently issued video showing a blindfolded man gently pulling stems from cherries without crushing them, thanks to similar implanted nerve stimulators and a sensor-equipped prosthetic hand. The main difference, said Switzerland’s Micera, is in how the nerve electrodes are implanted. The European approach puts them inside the nerve rather than around it for better control, but that’s more invasive and some researchers worry it could damage the nerve over time.

    In Pittsburgh, Schwartz’s team is about to test another approach — a brain-controlled robotic hand for the paralyzed that would “feel” through electrodes implanted in a brain region known as the sensory cortex.

    Whatever the approach, touch is a complex sense and these are all basic first steps involving how someone grasps, not more sophisticated sensations such as texture or temperature.

    “There is definitely tremendous value to having a sense of touch, a sense of feeling from the hand,” said Case Western’s Tyler. “What that feeling is, how we use it — that’s yet to come.”

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