Weekend News Round-up: Microsoft takes on the iPad, colour-changing robots, girls love science

20 Aug 2012

In our trawl through some of the best tech reporting at the weekend: Microsoft wants to take on the iPad with Surface, it’s karma chameleon as scientists create colour-changing robots,turn your iPad into a telepresence robot, will robots replace humans in jobs and what will Facebook’s poor stock performance mean for its employees?

Microsoft has the iPad in its sights

CNET reported at the weekend that with its new Surface Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro devices Microsoft has Apple’s iPad in its sights. Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet will be priced to compete with the market-leading iPad — $199 Android rivals notwithstanding, it reported.

CNET’s Brooke Crothers wrote: “Microsoft conceived Windows RT and Surface to compete with the iPad. And IDC’s Bob O’Donnell believes that will dictate pricing. For both Microsoft-branded Surface RT and other Windows RT products from companies like Asus and Dell.

“The 32GB iPad (currently $599) has a big bull’s eye on its back. For both Surface and RT devices from Microsoft partners. And throw Windows 8 Pro devices based on Intel’s power-efficient system-on-a-chip, aka Atom, into that mix too, said O’Donnell.

“Remember, RT tablets use power-frugal ARM chips and come with a version of Windows 8 that is not compatible with older Windows software. Windows 8 Pro tablets, on the other hand, are powered by Intel chips and can run the millions of older Windows programs out there.”

Karma chameleon

The Verge reported how DARPA has developed a chameleon silicone robot that can change colors and disappear in front of your eyes.

A current developed by Harvard University’s Dr. George Whitesides and Dr. Stephen Morin, is equipped with a layer of capillaries that are used to circulate fluids or air throughout the unit. In the video below, the robot uses a dark-colored dye to blend in with its environment. DARPA says that fluids can be also be used to make the robot change its apparent shape and temperature, or glow in the dark.

In its current form, the robot is attached to an operator through a series of tubes that are used to pump the dye and air for movement. The advantage of using a silicone-based robot comes down to its durability and the low cost of manufacturing. DARPA has stated that a model like the one seen below can be made for less than US$100, and is hopeful that the price can drop down to just a few dollars each in the future.

Turn your iPad into a telepresence robot

Staying on a robotic theme Digital Trends reported that California-based Double Robotics has come up with a piece of kit, called Double, that turns your iPad into a telepresence robot. Cost? US$1,999.

“Imagine you’re at your company, seated at your desk, when this iPad perched on a kind of pared-down Segway rolls up beside you. On the screen is the face of one of your co-workers located in another country who today is poking about your office, getting to know the layout, meeting some new people, asking a few questions. After a brief chat, it rolls off to the other side of the office. You look up five minutes later and do a double-take as you notice two of these devices having a conversation with each other by the water cooler.”

Will robots replace humans in jobs?

The New York Times was also infused with an enthusiasm for all things robotic. Contrasting the assembly of devices like the iPhone by hundreds of workers in China with sophisticated assembly robots in the Netherlands, it reported how robots aren’t really just about the future, they are about now.

It reported that a new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.

Toys could encourage more girls to study science

Venture Beat had an interesting report that suggests ways of encouraging more girls to take up science.  It reported on three scientists who have developed new toys aimed at fostering a love of science in young girls.

“When Alice Brooks was a little girl, she asked her father for a Barbie doll. He gave her a saw, which she used to hack a dollhouse.

“Alice, now 24, excelled at school and went on to study mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This summer, while enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University, a project has been brewing: can a toy inspire the next generation of young girls to love science, technology, engineering and math? Convinced of the merits of the idea, Alice teamed up with two fellow grad students, Bettina Chen and Jennifer Kessler, to form a ‘toys for girls’ company known as ‘Maykah’.

Facebook’s stock crash will be painful for its employees

Business Insider wrote an open letter to Facebook employees proclaiming it knows the truth about their stock options.

Pointing out Facebook’s stock crash is also hurting morale at the company, and damaging perception of the company’s business and brand, Business Insider surmised the impact is big enough that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has been crystal clear about his desire to ignore the stock price, admitted at a company meeting that the stock crash has been “painful” for everyone.

With the Facebook employee lock-up releases coming in October and November, this isn’t just an issue of morale and “paper net worth.” Current and former Facebook employees have been counting on the stock to buy things (houses, for example). So it’s a matter of near-term financial planning, Business Insider said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years