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Tripping grad students over and over for science (and better prosthetic limbs) – TechCrunch

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Prosthetic limbs are getting better, but not as quickly as you’d think. They’re not as smart as our real limbs, which (directed by the brain) do things like automatically stretch out to catch ourselves when we fall. This particular “stumble reflex” was the subject of an interesting study at Vanderbilt that required its subjects to fall down… a lot.

The problem the team is aiming to help alleviate is simply that users of prosthetic limbs fall, as you might guess, more than most, and when they do fall, it can be very difficult to recover, because an artificial leg — especially for above-the-knee amputations — doesn’t react the same way a natural leg would.

The idea, explained lead researcher and mechanical engineering Professor Michael Goldfarb, is to determine what exactly goes into a stumble response and how to recreate that artificially.

“An individual who stumbles will perform different actions depending on various factors, not all of which are well known. The response changes, because the strategy that is most likely to prevent a fall is highly dependent on the ‘initial conditions’ at the time of stumble,” he told TechCrunch in an email. “We are hoping to construct a model of which factors determine the nature of the stumble response, so when a stumble occurs, we can use the various sensors on a robotic prosthetic leg to artificially reconstruct the reflex in order to provide a response that is effective and consistent with the biological reflex loop.”

The experimental setup looked like this. Subjects were put on a treadmill and told to walk forward normally; a special pair of goggles prevented them from looking down, arrows on a display kept them going straight, and a simple mental task (count backwards by sevens) kept their brain occupied.

Meanwhile an “obstacle delivery apparatus” bode its time, waiting for the best opportunity to slip a literal stumbling block onto the treadmill for the person to trip over.

When this happened, the person inevitably stumbled, though a harness prevented them from actually falling and hurting themselves. But as they stumbled, their movements were captured minutely by a motion capture rig.

After 196 stumbling blocks and 190 stumbles, the researchers had collected a great deal of data on how exactly people move to recover from a stumble. Where do their knees go relative to their ankles? How do they angle their feet? How much force is taken up by the other foot?

Exactly how this data would be integrated with a prosthesis is highly dependent on the nature of the artificial limb and the conditions of the person using it. But having this data, and perhaps feeding it to a machine learning model, will help expose patterns that can be used to inform emergency prosthetic movements.

It could also be used for robotics: “The model could be used directly to program reflexes in a biped,” said Goldfarb. Those human-like motions we see robots undertaking could be even more human when directly based on the original. There’s no rush there — they might be a little too human already.

The research describing the system and the data set, which they’re releasing for free to anyone who’d like to use it, appeared in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

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Still can’t buy a Raspberry Pi board? Things aren’t getting better anytime soon

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Raspberry Pi Foundation

Shortages for lots of tech components, including things like DDR5 and GPUs, have eased quite a bit since the beginning of 2022, and prices have managed to go down as availability improves. But that reprieve hasn’t come for hobbyists hoping to get a Raspberry Pi, which remains as hard to buy today as it was a year ago.

The most recent update on the situation comes from Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton via YouTuber Jeff Geerling—Upton told Geerling that Pi boards are subject to the same supply constraints since the last time he wrote a post about the situation in April. Around 400,000 Pi boards are still produced per month, and some of these are being earmarked to be sent out to consumer retail sites. But Upton says that most of these are still being reserved for and sold to commercial customers who rely on Pi boards to run their businesses.

In short, the update is that there is no update. Upton said in April (and nearly a year ago, when the company raised the price for a Pi board for the first time) that the Broadcom processors at the heart of older Pi boards have been particularly difficult to source, but that high demand had been just as big an issue. Demand for Pi boards increased during the pandemic, and there was no more manufacturing capacity available to meet this demand. Upton said a year ago that there were “early signs that the supply chain situation is starting to ease,” but backed-up demand could still explain the short supply even if the Pi’s components have gotten easier to buy.

If you’re trying to buy a Raspberry Pi in the US or other regions, the rpilocator spreadsheet can be a valuable resource, letting you know when various models are in stock for ordering at most common Pi retailers. According to the tracker, few Pi 4 boards of any stripe were available to buy through September, though, and if you’re looking for a specific RAM capacity, you will be stuck waiting even longer. Businesses that want to inquire about buying Pis are still encouraged to contact the business@raspberrypi.com email address to make their case.

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Google prototypes, open sources an extra-long keyboard with one row of keys

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Enlarge / Google Japan jokes that you can increase productivity by having two people type on the keyboard simultaneously.

Google Japan has a history of joke keyboard concepts that challenge common notions of computing input. The latest concept, the Gboard Stick Version, places every key in the same row, so hunting and pecking can take a more linear approach.

As shown in Google Japan’s YouTube video below, it appears Google Japan actually prototyped the lengthy keyboard. Google will not be mass-producing or selling it, but there are GitHub files available with open source firmware, circuit diagrams, and design drawings to build the keyboard yourself. The GitHub page is careful to note that “this is not an officially supported Google product.” Google Japan’s blog post from Saturday said you could make the Gboard Stick Version with a 3D printer.

Google Japan’s video for the Gboard Stick Version.

As designed, the keyboard is an extraordinary 5.25 feet (1,600 mm) longIf you think that’s lengthy, the company said the original prototype was 7.87 feet (2,400 mm) long. The keyboard uses 17 boards total, including 16 for mounting the keys and a control board.

Google Japan jestingly argues that this design is more convenient for cluttered desks, storage, and finding the right keys when typing. Google Japan’s video shows the keyboard with an alphabetical layout, as a user initiates touch typing by memorizing the distance of individual keys from the left border. Alternatively, it’s ‘easy’ to find P, for example, knowing that it’s the 17th key in from the left (the first key from the left is a search button, not A). Surely, this is all simpler than hunting and pecking up, down, left, and right on a traditional keyboard layout.

Google Japan’s page for the keyboard also suggests you can use it with a QWERTY or ASCII code layout.

Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard's single row simplifying cleaning.
Enlarge / Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard’s single row simplifying cleaning.

Many detailed use cases for this one-row keyboard are clearly jokes, from using it to measure your kid’s height and get items dropped behind the couch, to using it as a walking stick, or the “bug-fixing module,” aka net, that turns the keyboard into a bug catcher in case you encounter bugs when coding (get it?).

But one purported benefit we could actually get behind is how much personal space the keyboard naturally enforces in the office and beyond:

The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.
Enlarge / The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.

Google Japan’s outlandish keyboard concepts have been going on for years as a way to promote Google’s Gboard keyboard app. Past iterations have included the Gboard Teacup Version and Gboard Spoon Bending Version.

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The Pixel 6a for $350 ($100 off) makes for an incredible deal

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The Pixel 7 might be arriving this week, but if you’re not interested in any of that newfangled flagship stuff, have we got a deal for you! The Pixel 6a, Google’s cheaper, simpler smartphone, is on sale at Amazon and Best Buy for $100 off. That makes for a pretty incredible $349 price tag instead of the normal $449. If you don’t count bundling deals that require signing up for a new phone line, this is the lowest price we’ve seen the phone at.

The Pixel 6a is a dead simple 6.1-inch phone that covers all the basics. It has a 6.1-inch 1080p, 60 Hz display, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4410 mAh battery. The phone has nearly every feature you could want, including an in-screen fingerprint reader, IP67 dust and water resistance, NFC, and Wi-Fi 6e compatibility. The biggest downside is that there’s no wireless charging. The headline feature is the flagship-class SoC, the same Google Tensor chip you get in the Pixel 6, but for a low (and now even lower) price. The Tensor won’t win any benchmark wars, but at this price, the only other comparable device is the iPhone SE.

As for why you might hold out a bit and get the Pixel 7 instead, you’d be getting a major screen upgrade if you buy the (probably $900) Pixel 7 Pro, which will pack a 6.7-inch 120 Hz display. You’d also be doubling the RAM (12GB) and upgrading the camera setup from the ancient IMX 363 sensor that powers the Pixel 6a. That would be more than double the price of this phone. though. Like we said in our review, if you’re not a phone snob (guilty), the Pixel 6a is the perfect phone for normal people.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

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