This Software Makes You Forget You’re Wearing Headphones — My article about 3D audio

Photo by John T. Consoli

I got a chance to write another longer piece, this one about 3D audio and how it can make headphones sound more like real life, particularly important for virtual reality and augmented reality. It’s been a while since I last wrote a tech-focused article, and this was also my first piece for Wired’s Backchannel publication.

It was a fun one to report–I got to visit a local startup called VisiSonics based out of the University of Maryland and try out their 3D audio tech demos. This included my first experience of the new Oculus virtual reality headsets, which was exciting.

The last time I tried any VR was back in the early 90s, when I played some Virtuality arcade games (What I like to call the “Lawnmower Man” era of VR…). Needless to say, VR has definitely come a long way since then.

One of the nice parts of writing this piece was getting to know DC’s virtual reality startup scene. There are a lot of interesting startups and developers working on some exciting ideas (of course, there are far more in Silicon Valley and other large tech hubs). It’s one of the reasons I think it’s an exciting time for VR, there’s so much innovation happening around both hardware and software and so many smart people excited about it that I figure it will make some sort of an impact, even if no one’s quite sure what the consumer market will actually look like. But with the first consumer VR headsets expected within the next year, I guess we’ll find out soon.

A foggy feature

Coastal fog along California's Pacific Coast Highway. Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

Coastal fog along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

Here’s a longer feature article that I wrote for The Verge, a science and technology site that I read fairly regularly.

The article is about researchers who are developing more efficient methods to harvest water from fog. In particular I focused on a new fog collector based on the beaks of shorebirds, but I also provided a broad overview of existing techniques to collect fog water, where they can be useful, and whether such techniques could help supplement our water supply. Check it out here, I like how it’s laid out with nice images and videos.

When it comes to echolocation, some bats just wing it

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

My latest piece for NationalGeographic.com is about scientists discovering that some bats can echolocate using sonar clicks from their wings.

In every previously known example of echolocation, animals such as bats, dolphins, some birds and even some shrews use some sort of vocal organ (larynx, tongue, ‘sonar lips’ etc) to produce high-frequency sounds that they then detect bouncing off of surrounding objects.

Even more surprising, the researchers discovered this ability in bat species that were thought not to be able to echolocate at all (they have large eyes and seem to mostly rely on vision). Scientists now think that this kind of echolocation might be more widespread than they had suspected.

You can read all the details here. Interestingly, although they figured out that the clicks were coming from the wings, they still don’t know exactly how the wings are creating this sound.

There was a lot about the work that was really interesting, including details that I couldn’t include in the piece due to space constraints. For example, of the 3 species they tested, the one that lived in dark caves seemed to generate the most wing clicks, while the one that lived in trees and flew slowly had the least. So maybe how much different fruit bats rely on this ability depends on where and how they live, which makes sense.

And the experiments sounded quite challenging…it turns out bats aren’t the easiest to work with, and to test their ability to echolocate the experiments had to be done in complete darkness. In addition, the researchers were from Tel Aviv University in Israel, but did their experiments in Thailand because that’s where these bats were, and they had a limited amount of time to design and run all their experiments.

That meant very little sleep, and no time to do anything other than bat experiments (One of the researchers told me after multiple trips there they still haven’t seen the sea, or Bangkok!) And most of the work involved standing all night in a pitch-dark room, in temperatures of around 38 degrees celsius (100 degrees fahrenheit), occasionally getting pissed on by bats…

But despite the challenges, they stuck with it, and discovered something really cool and interesting. Although they must have been quite relieved when the experiments worked 🙂

P.S.
I realize I haven’t posted much recently. That’s partly because I traveled a bunch, and partly because all the articles I’ve worked on during this time have yet to be published, but I’ll update with links to them whenever they’re up.

Article about an insect-sized flying robot for Motherboard

Robotic fly with pyramidal onboard sensor on top

Robotic fly with pyramidal onboard sensor on top

I wrote my first piece for Motherboard, Vice magazine’s online science & technology site. I just happened to find a pitch that worked well for them, and it was fun to write a more technology-related article after a while.

The article is about the first bee-sized robot that can fly using feedback only from an onboard sensor, an important step in creating fully-autonomous insect-sized flying robots.

Like many advanced fighter jets, the researchers’ flying robot requires constant corrective maneuvers to stay upright, and the researchers created an onboard sensor inspired by the light sensors of flying insects. This sensor was able to provide the feedback necessary for their robot to fly stably.

Cool stuff, and it was fun to report on and write 🙂

The same research group is working on many different parallel projects to create all the components necessary to eventually make fully autonomous insect-sized flying robots. As you can imagine, they’re often inspired by flying insects.

Here’s a video of their flying robot, although this was before they developed the onboard sensor:

I’ll include a video of the robot using their new onboard sensor once they’ve posted it on Youtube.

[Updated on 7-22-14]
Here’s their new video:

A science story from The Hindu that I sent in to the Science Journalism Tracker

The Hindu, the venerable Indian newspaper that I grew up reading (and that first introduced me to science journalism), still continues to publish plenty of science stories both online and in print. I found out about one of their recent stories on turning “light into matter” not from the story itself (which was quite confusing) but due to a response from The Hindu’s Reader’s Editor.

In his post, the Reader’s Editor A.S. Panneerselvan (whose name is misspelled in the post itself…) mentioned a bad example used in the science story and went on to state that there was some “fundamental distinction between writing about social sciences and science.” To quote:

“The fundamental difference between writing about social sciences and science and technology is in the use of analogous examples to explain and elucidate a point or a view. While employing an analogous example enriches our understanding in social sciences, it may backfire as in the case of Subashree’s report because of extreme specificity of each subject. An analogy in a science story forces the writer to add annotations and afterwards to explain the intended meaning. Being a science journalist is demanding. It is not easy to explain Albert Einstein’s work in the language of Ernest Hemingway.”

I took objection to this, and commented as much:

“…to me the issue is less about some fundamental difference about writing about science versus social science, and more of using an inaccurate or unclear analogy rather than one that clarifies a complex subject. I think a badly-picked analogy could be just as confusing in a complicated social science story, and there are certainly no dearth of science stories where a well-chosen analogy clarifies rather than confuses.”

I also sent it to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which tracks and comments on science stories, as I thought it’d be interesting to get their take on it.

The Tracker’s Charlie Petit does an excellent job commenting both on the original story and the Reader’s Editor’s response.

Curious Bends: a curated weekly list of India-related science and technology

Related to Indian science news, a couple of Indian science journalists (Akshat Rathi and Vasudevan Mukunth) have started Curious Bends, a weekly curated list of stories about India-related science and technology. They’ve been doing a great job so far, and I highly recommend you sign up here if you’re at all interested.

I’ve enjoyed Akshat Rathi’s stories at places like Ars Technica, and I applaud their attempt to “set the information balance right”, in his own words.

As an aside, I sent in my fig wasp story since it involved Indian research, and they linked to it in their second newsletter, which was exciting. I didn’t really care whether they linked to my particularly story on the study, but I did feel it merited inclusion in Curious Bends—it turns out the study was already on their shortlist.

Boring wasp not so boring

A parasitic wasp prepares to drill into a fig. Photograph by Lakshminath Kundanati

A parasitic wasp prepares to drill into a fig. Photograph by Lakshminath Kundanati

I’ve been a little slow to post these past few weeks, just busy with summer activities. I wrote another story for National Geographic’s “Weird & Wild” blog, about the parasitic fig wasp’s metallic ovipositor tip. The wasp uses its ovipositor to pierce the tough skin of unripe figs to lay its eggs, and having a zinc-enriched tip seems to be a way to make it harder and more resistant to wear and tear.

It’s definitely interesting biology, and I enjoyed writing this one because the researchers were actually based in India, at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. It’s not too often that I get to talk to Indian researchers, and I got to find out about some particularly resourceful ways they tackled this topic, including using fig wasps from 2 trees on their campus, and jury-rigging a video camera with a microscope objective to capture videos of the wasps. They still used electron microscopy and atomic force microscopy to study the ovipositor tip in detail, of course.

Be sure to check out the comment on the article for a link to a video and an electron microscope image of the tip as well.

Washington State mudslide’s speed may have made it particularly deadly

Wrote a quick turn-around piece for NationalGeographic.com on the devastating mudslide that hit rural Washington State last Saturday.

While mudslides are fairly common in the US, and cause a lot of property damage, they rarely have this large a death toll: 25 dead so far, and 90 people still missing. This mudslide’s speed may have made it particularly deadly, and unfortunately, the size of the mudslide has made rescue operations challenging and is likely to hamper cleanup efforts.

NationalGeographic.com also had a good explainer on mudslides (which are just a kind of landslides), and this interactive image at the Wall Street Journal really shows the extent of the devastation.

It’s a real tragedy, and one can only hope search teams are able to find and rescue many more of those who are still currently missing, I can’t imagine what their families must be going through…