Rescue robots help showcase Aussie innovation

Autonomous rescue robots, immersive audio environments, low-cost deployment for fibre-optics and more are on display at the Australian Technology Park
Written by Kristyn Maslog Levis, Contributor

The Australian Technology Park in inner Sydney this week opened its doors to the public and media, showcasing Australian innovations.

ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet Australia picked out some of the most interesting offerings from more than 70 exhibitors at the open day on Thursday.

NICTA's rescue robot
National ICT Australia (NICTA) plans for the first time to join the global Robot Rescue competition, to be held in Japan next year. NICTA researcher Tom Vogel said the organisation's own Robot Rescue project entailed creating an autonomous rescue robot that can map out and enter disaster areas and locate victims.

Vogel said NICTA was at the early stages of creating a robot that could operate independent of human intervention.

"Most of the rescue robots are completely controlled by humans. We plan to be the first team to send out a fully autonomous robot, totally on its own, that can go into disaster areas dangerous to humans and come back out with the needed information," Vogel said.

The NICTA researchers are working on resolving three of the key issues for a robot: locomotion, mapping and vision. The device needs to be able to traverse through any terrain, map walls and take in visual cues to detect where the humans are.

"If we get something up and running, we have a great chance of getting higher points since you get bonus points for being autonomous. The more human operators the robot has, the more the points get divided," Vogel said.

Vogel added that NICTA aimed to have its robot's vision on par with human vision to allow the device to adjust to different lighting conditions. NICTA started planning in July this year and is assessing the hardware and software requirements for its entry into the competition.

NICTA will be competing with more than 20 universities and research institutions from around the world.

DICE up your gaming experience
Smart Internet is working on delivering an audio system designed to allow game players to hear and talk to other players in virtual spaces online. The effort is known as the Dense Immersive Communications Environment (DICE) project.

Smart Internet's Technology Cooperative Research Centre, an incorporated joint venture between industry, academia and the government, is planning to start a network-based system for processing and delivery of complex audio scenes.

DICE is an audio communication system that enables players in crowded virtual spaces, such as the multiplayer game Wolfenstein Enemy Territory, to experience group conversation as close to reality as possible.

The enhanced audio capability will be available to game players by downloading an applet and using a DICE enabled game server. The software will enable players to hear a spatially accurate rendering of the voice of others in their virtual vicinity as they happen. The voices are adjusted based on orientation and distance from the listener, as well as their loudness (whispering versus shouting).

"While rapid increases in computational power has led to highly detailed and realistic graphics, communication between participants in these environments has so far been lagging behind, often limited to a text-based 'chat window' or a single audio channel for everyone to share," said Farzad Safaei, Smart Networks program manager.

With DICE, the voices in one's virtual vicinity are heard in harmony with their visual representation (location, distance and spatial placement with respect to the listener). Each participant can hear a realistic and personalised mix of voices in their "hearing range" and this mix is dynamically changed as people move within the virtual environment (and consequently in and out of each other's hearing range).

Preliminary research into immersive audio communication over a network started over two years ago when Safaei and his team looked into ways to improve teleconferencing. As the idea evolved, the team researched ways to add natural voice communication to network games in a bid to enhance the players' experience and to make playing the game a lot more fun.

Darrell Williamson, the chief executive officer of Smart Internet, claims immersive audio communication delivers enhancements not only to network game players but possibly to other applications where a large number of users in a distributed environment are involved.

The infrastructure can support hundreds of players and is expected to be used in other mainstream games in the future such as The Sims. As of the moment, Smart Internet is having a few discussions with game developers.

"At the moment DICE is just a research type of technology, but if game developers knew of the capabilities that would be a different story. We can easily have lip synch added to the game and you can equally make environments suitable for meetings. The team also have the option of breaking into small teams and going into different parts of the virtual environment," Williamson said.

"We are looking at how to create games or virtual environments which allow personal interaction to make things more personal. We want to add a lot more real time interaction and give it a much more realistic use. We want the avatars to have more actions and facial expressions to be more socially usable," he added.

Live trials of Project DICE are expected to start later in the year at the Telstra Launceston Broadband e-Lab, involving local game players who are members of the Launceston Broadband Project.

Project Nightingale
This one is for Australia's "aging population".

Project Nightingale is a joint research effort between Smart Internet and NICTA which explores the needs of Australia's aging population and the role of Internet technologies in "reminiscing and memory sharing".

The project's goal is to develop non-desktop interfaces through which a user can access, organise and interact with their own virtual personal space within a pervasive computing environment.

Two prototype applications have been developed under Project Nightingale. The first involves a pen and paper scrapbook application scenario, using a personal server and intelligent digital pens. The interface of a digital scrapbook is just like a real scrapbook.

The scrapbook can consist of a number of pictures, written notes and user-drawn application markers, with the markers read and interpreted by the individual's personal server. The pen and paper is used for inputting data and controlling access to information with the system, with the various controls defined by the user. For instance, ticking a hand-drawn marker relating to an audio clip can replay that particular audio clip.

A second demonstration application utilises a tabletop user interface called Diamondtouch, from Mitsubishi Electronic Research Laboratory (MERL) in the US. This user interface passes a small electric current through the user's body to determine their interaction with the surface of the interface. This allows a person to use simple physical gestures to share and manipulate media items, such as digital pictures, and to create relations between items that can be stored in a virtual personal museum. These photos can then be stored, printed or emailed by the users for a small price.

Eric Whitehouse, business development manager for the Australian Centre for Advanced Computing and Communications, said they are expecting to have Diamondtouch available in Internet cafés, coffee shops, photo booths and other outlets in two years.

He added that they are hoping to use short-range Bluetooth wireless data communication to send messages between personal server and other Bluetooth equipped devices in the vicinity such as a display screen, MP3 player, pen, headset or mobile phone.

Fibre up your home
One open day participant claims they have a cheaper solution -- that fulfils all necessary technical requirements -- for deployment of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH).

The plastic fibre group of the Optical Fibre Technology Centre (OFTC) claims that its polymer fibre solution solves a critical problem confronting FTTH.

Simon Fleming, Australian Photonics CRC director, said price was the single biggest determinant of whether domestic FTTH applications will work.

"In fibre systems, the issue more often than not is the cost of actually deploying the fibre to each individual premise. One of the major costs is the labour and the equipment to actually terminate the fibre to the home. There are existing solutions to this but in those solutions you take away the advantage of high data rate," Fleming said.

"What we've come up with is a particular type of microstructured polymer optical fibre which is made cheaply from one single material but can retain the very large bandwidth whilst also having a reasonably large core size. In principle it is cheap to deploy but still provide the sort of data rate for the next generation application like video on demand," he added.

Fleming said that they are currently in negotiations with a global company that has the market position to be able to commercialise the fibre and have the resources to solve the remaining manufacturing problems and make the fibre in huge volumes.

"I believe it's the right technical solution but history shows that sometimes the right technical solution is not the one that's adopted. The time to market is an important issue. There is a window of opportunity here, at the moment the world is looking at deployment of fibre to the home. However, the product needs to be there in the market place in the very near future, otherwise another second rate solution will be deployed and then there's going to be a standards issue. It will then be much harder to break in later on with a stronger technology if another one is already in place," Fleming said.

He added that they were careful to partner with a company that had the right market position and size to develop the technology.

ZDNet Australia's Kristyn Maslog-Levis reported from Sydney. For more coverage from ZDNet Australia, click here.

Editorial standards