Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Technology and Our Universe Experiences Extending the Senses

Extending the Senses 
Technology and Our Universe Experiences
Above: Telemedicine allows doctors to transmit real-time data, such as as a child's heartbeat, to consulting physicians hundreds of miles away. 

 Above: Using virtual reality, scientists can interact with microscopic
structures such as the gravity sensors of the inner ear.

 Above: Scientists used virtual reality technology during the Mars Pathfinder mission to better understand the Martian environment.

Most of us take our senses for granted. As we walk down the street, we see buildings and people, hear traffic, and feel the sidewalk under our feet without considering that everything we can experience of the universe comes to us through our five senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.

While our senses are quite remarkable and generally adequate to get us through the day, they’re not all they could be. Compared to many animals, we seem downright impaired. Birds of prey can spot a mouse from hundreds of feet in the air. Sharks can sense blood and motion from over a mile away. Dogs can hear sounds inaudible to human ears and track for miles a scent too faint for us to perceive.

For humans, having an "eagle eye" or the "nose of a blood hound" is only a metaphor, but NASA technology is helping humanity push beyond its limits to experience the universe in entirely new ways.
Look at It This Way

To start with the most obvious example, the Hubble telescope lets us look out from the Earth farther than ever before. We can watch galaxies form on the far edges of existence, and since the light from those distant stars has traveled billions of years to reach us, we can, in essence, look back in time.

Remote sensing and satellite technologies let us see our own world in new ways. Not only can we view the entire planet at a glance, we can see it as our eyes couldn’t possibly perceive it. These technologies, developed to better understand the workings of the Earth’s systems, let us look at the planet as lit by microwaves, see its surface temperature, or look at the chemical composition of its atmosphere.
There’s Something in the Air

The human body is unable to sense many potentially harmful substances in the air we breath. In a closed environment, such as a space craft, detecting such colorless and odorless contaminants is critical to crew safety. To provide a warning system, NASA has built an electronic nose to smell what the astronauts can’t. Inspired by the human olfactory system, the electronic nose is endowed with ultra-responsive sensors and a neural net to rapidly recognize any dangerous elements in the air. Industrial, medical, and safety applications are also likely.

In some cases, seeing invisible contaminants is better than sniffing them out. For these situations, NASA has developed a composite glass that changes color in the presence of airborne pollutants. The color of the glass varies depending on the compound detected. Users will be able to see such invisible and harmful gases as nitrous oxide and ammonia before they can damage lung tissue.
Virtual Doctors and Space-bound Patients

In the medical arena, NASA technologies provide new ways to visualize the body’s internal structures. Using high-speed computing and mathematical modeling, scientists can generate high-resolution, three-dimensional reconstructions of microscopic structures, such as the gravity sensors of the inner ear. These 3-D models show how individual neurons connect these sensors to the neurological system, providing a new understanding of how our brains react to changes in gravity. When you introduce virtual reality into the equation, scientists can in effect hold these microscopic structures in their hands and examine them the way an archeologist would a piece of pottery.

The increased resolution and interactive capabilities make this technique useful in surgical settings. A physician wearing 3-D glasses can view a dangerously placed tumor from every angle on her computer screen, and plan the surgery accordingly. This method is also being used to plan complex reconstructive surgeries.

When things get too delicate to trust to human hands, pairing technologies that extend the senses with virtual reality helps make risky eye or brain surgery a safer prospect. Surgical workstations equipped with robotic arms can accurately perform motions as minute as 20 to 30 millionths of a meter. Working by teleoperation, the physician uses a joystick-like controller that scales down his hand motions, allowing for precision never before possible. Pressure encountered by the robot arm is transferred back through the controller, allowing the surgeon to feel what the robot encounters.

With telerobotic surgery there is no need for doctor and patient to actually be in the same room, building, or city. The eventual goal is for an Earth-based doctor to perform surgery on a Moon- or Mars-based patient. While this is an extreme scenario-one dependent on future technological advances-remote medical care is a reality. Videoconferencing combined with Internet transfer of medical data lets specialists in urban areas provide diagnoses and treatment to patients across the globe. This method will one day be applied to astronauts in orbit.
NASA’s work in the field of telepresence not only extends the reach of the senses. We are approaching the point where we can extend the self, virtually placing people into actual remote environments. Many sites of interest to scientists, such as active volcanoes, the ocean floor, and the surface of Mars, are difficult to reach and hazardous to explore. Robotic vehicles with the ability to convey visual and tactile information will allow us to step into these far off and dangerous places, opening up new worlds of experience and knowledge.

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