Category Archives: Technology

Ideas and musings on all things technology.

Probably one of the most genius uses of a single bit of plastic ever.

I wasn’t sure if this was really even worthy of a blog post but you know what, I think it is. Every pet owner needs one of these things. They could save you a load of money and hassle, and keep both you and your pets safe and healthy. They are easy to use, cheap, and once you get used to them (which takes moments) are actually quite fun, in a weird way I guess, to use.

What on earth am I yabbering on about? A tick hook. Brilliant bit of ‘tech.’

Did you hear the one about the haptic cow?

Haptic Cow, bovine simulator
The classic veterinary image

We’re all aware of the classic premise of virtual reality and the principle of experiencing a visual virtual world. But what about haptic technology? What does that mean to you? I had a unique opportunity to see this technology in action last week when I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at Bristol Veterinary School and met with Professor Sarah Baillie, Chair in Veterinary Education at the University and inventor of the famed ‘Haptic Cow.’

I first became aware of the Haptic Cow when I was an undergraduate at Bristol myself, and found the idea simply incredible: using a computer programmed device to realistically simulate the tactile experience of pregnancy diagnosing cows, something that some vet students get immediately whilst others struggle with perpetually. I place myself in the latter category. No matter how many cows had the (dis)pleasure of me rummaging away fruitlessly in their general pelvic region, I simply could not make the link between the random ‘mush’ that I was feeling – or rather, gradually not feeling, as the blood in my arms was systematically squeezed out – and the textbook picture of ovaries, follicles and the various forms of the bovine uterus. The problem was that there was no way for the lecturer to help other than to tell you what you should be feeling and where. Most of us simply ended up nodding knowingly and feigned a sudden reversal in our ignorance. The truth was that it was easier to pretend that we could feel what we were supposed to, thus hastening our exit from said cow’s rectal area, than to battle on. After all, the cows don’t thank a trier!

Enter the Haptic Cow. The idea is that you, the user, reaches into a fake cow (a black and white fibreglass shell with a specially designed robotic arm inside) and attach the end of the aforementioned arm to the end of your middle finger – the one you would use as a ‘friendly’ greeting to someone you didn’t much care for – via a small thimble-like attachment that fits snugly on the end of your digit. The magic then happens when the computer program is launched and the ‘model’ of the cow is run. On the screen you are able to see some simplified representations of various structures, such as ovaries, and this is matched by what you are able to ‘feel’ in the simulator. It’s a very bizarre sensation but the truth is that using this technology, which relies on the computer program outputting to three motors controlling the robotic arm in three planes, it is possible to haptically simulate all manner of structures, textures and body systems. I was given the chance to ‘PD’ a cow, diagnose an ovarian follicular cyst, and even experience the sensation of rectally examining a horse, something that is an important part of a colic investigation, yet which is notoriously risky to the horse, and subsequently to the vet’s professional indemnity cover! Using the Haptic simulator removes all of the risk associated with learning these techniques and after just one short session I would feel confident going out tomorrow and diagnosing colic or telling a farmer if their cow was in calf. That’s incredible considering I didn’t manage to achieve that in an entire year at vet school.

The potential for such sophisticated technology in dramatically improving the standard and effectiveness of medical training is huge, with the technology already having been applied to modelling a cat’s abdomen for training in abdominal palpation, to teaching human doctors the fine intracacies of prostate examination – the model human a@*e was hilarious! I can easily see haptics being combined with augmented reality, or other such technological advancements, in forming sophisticated surgical training programmes, dramatically advancing career development and patient care, in all species.

Professor Baillie’s career is as equally incredible as her invention, having graduated from Bristol vet school with an additional intercalated degree, and then spending a number of years in clinical mixed practice. A forced break from the physical rigours of being a vet in practice led Professor Baillie to complete a Master’s degree in computing, in spite of no prior experience of the field, and led to the start of her work with haptic technology and a subsequent PhD and the Haptic Cow. After time teaching at London Vet School, Professor Baillie is now back at her Alma Mater, Bristol, providing students with the incredible opportunity to train with her amazing inventions.

Affordable Genome Sequencing

Nanopore technology

Okay, so not the most exciting of blog post titles but hear me out because this is some pretty amazing technology that I am about to talk about here…

Imagine a day when it will be possible to pick up a small, handheld device and with it rapidly and reliably sequence your entire genetic code, or even that of your favourite pet. “To what end?” I hear you say. Well, the promise of personalised medicine is one that has been on the horizon for many years and the technology that one Oxford company and team of researchers is engaging in is casting some light on the very exciting future that we may be facing. The principle of personalised medicine, as I understand it, is to use the information that is unique to you, ie your DNA, or genetic code, in order to identify the risks of you developing certain conditions or diseases and either specifically intervening to halt or manage such eventualities or, in the case of a disease state developing, such as cancer, using both your own genetic blueprint and that of the disease causing entity in order to select, or even design, tailored, targeted and ultimately more effective and reliable treatments. The prospect of being able to take a cancer cell, sequencing it’s DNA and identifying which drugs are most likely to be highly effective at eradicating the tumour, whilst drastically reducing, or possibly even eliminating, side-effects is one that is simply too important to ignore. But how could this be possible?

One company based in Oxford, and borne out of the research efforts of Professor Hagan Bailey of Oxford University, is leading the field in the development and application of nanopore technology to sequence individual molecules, such as DNA, and determine their exact composition. This is achieved through the use of a specially engineered protein nanopore set into a layer, either of lipid (like our own cells), or a synthetic material, such as graphene, and through which a molecule such as DNA is passed. This is a little like a train passing through a mountain by way of a tunnel. The really clever part is the way this apparently simple process of passing the DNA through the pore can sequence the strand and tell us the exact order of bases.

Nanopore DNA sequencing
Nanopore in membrane

A current flows through the layer containing the nanopore and the passing of the DNA molecule causes disruptions in the current flow, with specific, characteristic disruptions attributable to each of the four bases making up the DNA sequence. By recording these unique current disruptions the technology is able to identify the bases and the exact order in which

Nanopore DNA sequencing
DNA strand passing through nanopore

they pass through the pore, and thus sit within the DNA strand. In other words, it is possible to sequence DNA in real-time. Very exciting!

What about veterinary applications? Of course the main uses of this promising new technology would be expected to be applied in human medicine initially but it is highly likely that veterinarians will be able to make use of it as well. Potential applications obviously include veterinary research, disease monitoring, therapeutic uses, such as treatment selections in cases of disease states such as cancer, and much more besides. Rapid and reliable ‘kennel-side’ analysis using a simple handheld device like the one alluded to in the opening paragraph may very well be a reality in the not too distant future. Exciting times indeed!

For more information on Oxford Nanopore Technology and their exciting work visit their website at www.nanoporetech.com.

This is a good blog by someone who really knows what they’re talking about – a real life geneticist. Click here to read.

I wish I was there!

I am officially jealous! One place I would absolutely love to be right now is at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Widely regarded as the key technology show in the world, where the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Apple tend to showcase their latest cool gadgets, it represents every tech enthusiasts’ fantasy setting.

Just because I can’t be there (it isn’t actually open to the general public) doesn’t mean I can’t get excited about some of the futuristic technology being showcased. One idea that I find especially interesting is a technology being demonstrated by a UK firm, Blippar, who produce Augmented Reality (AR) apps for smartphones and tablets. Augmented Reality is the process by which digital content is overlayed onto a view of the ‘real world,’ for example, by viewing a bottle of juice on your iPad using the in-built camera, AR would recognise that product and thus overlay the ‘real’ image with additional content, that moves and changes with the view of the product. This offers incredible opportunities for providing value-addition to all sorts of products, for example, by showing video demonstrations, or providing e-vouchers linked to the specific product being viewed. The potential is one that has been recognised and Blippar are being sponsored by the UK Government to showcase their technology at CES – very exciting!

Being a vet I am naturally interested in the vetty and animal applications for Augmented Reality, of which there are clearly loads. Imagine, if you will, such applications as…

  • Waiting Room – reveal interesting and informative content about your vet practice, such as a ‘view behind the scenes’ or educational advice about preventative healthcare, such as lungworm control, simply by holding your phone up to the poster on the wall. Waiting for your appointment will suddenly feel like a pleasure as you have so much interactive content just there “in front of you.”
  • Clinical – not quite sure what your vet means by your dog’s cruciate injury? Well how about if the vet were able to hold up a tablet over your dog’s leg and show you a cool, biological view of where the ligament is, how it works and what happens when it goes wrong? I reckon that would be pretty interesting!
  • Surgery – So many applications…. so very many!
  • At home – Not quite sure exactly when your pets’ vaccinations are next due? Looking after your parents’ cat and can’t quite remember what medication he is on? Imagine just holding up your phone to your pet and seeing all of their relevant information displayed there in front of you. Would work well in an app, don’t you think 😉

New Toy – Simple but Cool

Okay, so part of me sort of feels like I have been had whilst another part of me actually feels like my recent purchase is pretty cool. What is it? Well, I will start by saying that it is something to be used with the iPad – which I actually love, by the way – and is a very simple peripheral but one I had actually been looking for and then chanced upon it at a local branch of Curry’s.

So, my new toy is a Wacom Bamboo Stylus. A what?! It is basically a ‘pen’ with a specially designed spongy, soft tip where the nib would be on a normal pen, and is intended primarily to be used with their free app ‘Bamboo Paper.’ The app itself is a simple notebook app but the pen makes it feel so realistic that for someone who loves jotting notes, or doodling crazy designs etc it’s great to have a digital equivalent to real paper. The main reason I was even looking for a pen, however, was that I wanted something to use with another app I have (Sketchbook), which is an art app and which I couldn’t help feel like a five year old child finger-painting whilst using it.

Anyway, needless to say I am looking forward to getting creative with the new pen and posting more nerdy designs right here. Watch this space 🙂

Caesarian Companion

Over the Christmas period I found myself performing a caesarian section on a Pug, with the result being four healthy young pups. Thankfully the anaesthetic was stable and we had more than one nurse who was able to step in and help to receive and revive the puppies as I delivered them. It did, however, get me thinking about those situations where you might find yourself with just you, the surgeon, and one nurse – a common situation in out-of-hours (OOH) emergency work. What would happen if the anaesthetic was unstable or there were simply more puppies than the nurse could manage on their own?

Rough sketch for 'Caesarian Companion'

The idea for the Caesarian Companion thus came to mind. The principle is that the surgeon can drop the newly delivered puppy/ kitten into one of the flexible ‘slings’ (flexible and clear to allow easy breathing, be comfortable and enable close visual monitoring), which can be detached, replaced and even come in different sizes, depending on the expected size of the delivered babies. The slings could be suspended within a frame that is gently vibrating to encourage tactile stimulation of the new pup/ kittens, with their heads poking out of the end into a chamber delivering the optimal amount of oxygen. The chamber would be heated to keep the puppies warm and made out of a clear, easily cleaned material to maximise hygiene. The idea behind carefully suspending and ‘agitating’ the newborns is to help any fluid that may be present on their chests to drain and to gently stimulate the newborns to start breathing on their own. Once suitably awake and when the nurse, or other staff member, is free then the newborns could be removed and transferred to a standard heated incubator, with the Caesarian Companion potentially doubling as one, with the newborns being placed on a heated, padded mat inside.

NB: This is simply an idea & the design is certainly not complete. Please feel free to comment/ suggest changes/ improvements.

Ultimate Home Decor

I have, as usual, found my mind wandering onto great ideas for where technology may take us in the future and something that some friends and I have been talking about recently is the idea of paper-thin HD screens that can literally be used in the home (or wherever) as wallpaper. The result being to turn your walls – whether you choose to paper just one or multiple walls and surfaces – into a giant screen.

Why would you want this?

Well, imagine the endless possibilities for interior decor and mood-changing of your direct environment. Having a house-party with a jungle theme? Well why not download a rainforest theme directly to your walls and you have an instant jungle-themed room, either with static images or, if you want a bit more pizazz and wow, with moving content, such as wildlife or plants being moved gently by a breeze. The possibilities literally are endless!

From a more domestic viewpoint, it could also do away with the need to even have a TV set, as you could simply view shows and other content directly on the wall, perhaps even combining the technology with gesture controls to adjust the screen size with simple movements of your arms. This kind of stuff really does get me excited!

So, what are some of the applications for this idea. Here are a few:

  1. Parties – instant themes & amazing decorations
  2. Home decoration – want a Picasso hanging in the living room beside those favourite family snaps? This would be easy with such technology!
  3. Content viewing – fully immerse yourself in your favourite TV show or film, or play that awesome game on a screen the size of your living room wall.
  4. Simple mood changes – feeling a little blue today? Well, you could change the colour of your walls to a more upbeat, sunnier colour, like yellow, instantly. This could even be an automatic feature of the ‘Smart House.’

So many amazing possibilities…..