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FIFA to retest nine goal-line technologies

It was England footballer Frank Lampard that did it. His infamous disallowed goal against Germany at the last World Cup in 2010 reignited the debate about whether goal-line technology has a place in football.

Now FIFA, the sport's world governing body, has announced that it is to test the nine best candidates to see which (if any) could be in place in time for the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil, according to the Associated Press.

However, the demands placed by FIFA on the candidate technologies - which have not been named but are all based in Europe - are pretty onerous. The referee must know within a second what the verdict is, either with a vibration or visual signal sent to something he wears on his wrist. Crucially, the verdict must be 100 per cent accurate, a condition that current systems have so far found difficult to meet.

The two main technologies involved include vision-based system like Hawk-Eye - already used in cricket and tennis at the highest level - which uses six high-speed video cameras to track the ball's flightpath. A second approach is to install a microchip in the ball which senses a magnetic field as it crosses the goal line, sending a signal to the referee.

The last series of tests in March were rather underwhelming: none of the nine technologies tested at Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Research managed to reach FIFA's required benchmarks. The new tests, at the same location, will take place between September and December this year.

A web browser for your calculator

Smartphones, tablets, televisions and of course, the trusty old PC - these days you've got a lot of options when choosing how to access the web. Now there's a new option: the graphics calculator.

Gossamer is a web browser for Texas Instruments calculators created by Christopher Mitchell, a computer scientist at New York University. Websites are formatted and sent to the calculator by an external server. At the moment the browser can only access sites on a pre-defined list, but Mitchell is working on a new version that will let users input any URL.
As you might expect, the retro-browser isn't Mitchell's first venture into programming graphics calculators. He claims on his website to be the "world's most prolific graphing calculator programmer". He very well may be: He previously developed networking software that allows calculators to connect to other devices, an essential pre-requisite to a web browser, along with other programs including a media player and video games.

Dizzy moon lander misses public debut

(Image: NASA)

It was billed as the beginning of a "new era" of private companies racing to reach the moon, timed seamlessly to coincide with the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program and toasted with champagne, violinists, moon-shaped biscuits and even a song. But what was supposed to be the first public flight test of a commercially developed robotic lunar lander  - an entrant to the Google Lunar X Prize  - ended last night with a good dose of sod's law and more fizz than bang.

The flight test of the $40 million lander  - developed by the one-year-old Silicon Valley based start-up, Moon Express, and scheduled for demonstration in front of a crowd of luminaries, investors, and journalists - was called off at the last minute after engineers couldn't fix a problem with a new gyroscope. It meant the lander was convinced it was spinning in the opposite direction to the one it was actually turning. The expectant audience had to make do instead with video footage of the lander being privately tested last month.

The hiccup is a little disappointing admits Barney Pell, the former NASA research and development manager who co-founded the company and is its chief technology officer. But it is also not wholly unexpected given just how fickle high-tech projects can be, he says. The lander is supposed to be more precise, better able to avoid hazards when it lands and have more thrust for its lighter weight than any previous landers.

"It would have been nice to share with everyone," says Pell, "But the reality of engineering is that things take a while and whenever you are about to demo something it will break just at that moment."

The demonstration comes as the Google Lunar X Prize  - a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon - heats up. The 29 teams currently in the race have until 2015 before the money disappears.

Many are trying to create entries that will have a use and market beyond the contest and Moon Express doubtless has one of the most ambitious long term aims: to mine the moon for rare metals. There is more platinum on the moon than all of planet earth, notes Pell, adding he believes moon mining could be economical, in some cases now, and it has the added bonus of being environmentally benign because "nothing lives there".

Engineers plan to fix and re-test the lander today. We will make it to the moon, insists Pell.

Spotting the flaws in casino card-shuffling machines

(Image: Etienne Ansotte/Rex Features)

Ever feel like others at your poker table seem to have an unfair advantage? Like you were up against a team of expert card counters like the notoriously successful MIT Blackjack team?

Well, you might be, but at least you can take comfort in the fact that a team of statisticians from Stanford University, US, are now making things fairer. They recently discovered that cards dealt by an automated huffling machine  - designed to deal a random set of cards - were more than twice as easy to predict than a human-shuffled pack.

Automated card shufflers have been helping inept - and unlawful - dealers since the 19th century, though it's only in the last 50 years that they have been widely adopted by casinos. Now, though, the machines are sophisticated devices, rented to casinos for around $500 per month per machine - and with one on every card table, that makes for a profitable industry.

Statisticians help casino equipment manufacturers ensure that their shuffling machines spit out cards that are entirely randomly ordered to help foil cheats - and give the average punter like you or me a passing chance at winning a hand.

But, like poker hands, not all automated shufflers are alike, and, like most of my poker hands, some don't work as well as others. The latest trend in card-shuffling circles is the shelf shuffler: a machine which replicates the human riffle shuffle by randomly placing cards on one of a number of shelves, before re-assembling the deck by taking piles from the shelves, again in random order.

The team of Stanford statisticians was contacted by a manufacturer of casino equipment to test a new shelf shuffler, which was already designed and built. The basic tests to ensure randomness of cards coming out of the machine had, apparently, been carried out by the engineers, and the results seemed satisfactory. All the manufacturers wanted to do was double-check that a deck could be passed through the machine and then be used without concern in the casino.

They did not, however, bank on getting the hand they were dealt.

The high-rolling statisticians at Stanford took the task seriously. They set about testing the statistics on which the machine was based, and performed tests to measure how random the machine's results were. They found that a knowledgeable player could guess about 9.5 cards correctly in a single run through a 52-card deck from the machine, compared to 4.5 for a properly shuffled deck.

That boiled down to some cold, hard advice for the manufacturers: their machine's shuffling was not random enough to be used in a casino. In fact, the statisticians have reported that the the president of the company responded "We are not pleased with your conclusions, but we believe them and that's what we hired you for."

Whatever your game, stopping crooked dealers and card-counting players has to be a good thing. Just make sure that, next time you visit the casino, you sit at a table with Stanford statisticians - and steer clear of those MIT card counters.

Computers understand hand-waving descriptions

DESCRIBING objects is so much easier when you use your hands, the classic being "the fish was this big".
For humans, it's easy to understand what is meant, but computers struggle, and existing gesture-based interfaces only use set movements that translate into particular instructions. Now a system called Data Miming can recognise objects from gestures without the user having to memorise a "vocabulary" of specific movements.
"Starting from the observation that humans can effortlessly understand which objects are being described when hand motions are used, we asked why computers can't do the same thing," says Christian Holz of the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany who developed the system with Andy Wilson at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington.
Holz observed how volunteers described objects like tables or chairs using gestures, by tracing important components repeatedly with their hands and maintaining relative proportions throughout their mime.
Data Miming uses a Microsoft Kinect motion-capture camera to create a 3D representation of a user's hand movements. Voxels, or pixels in three dimensions, are activated when users pass their hands through the space represented by each voxel. And when a user encircles their fingers to indicate a table leg, say, the system can also identify that all of the enclosed space should be included in the representation. It then compares user-generated representations with a database of objects in voxel form and selects the closest match.
In tests the system correctly recognised three-quarters of descriptions, and the intended item was in the top three matches from its database 98 per cent of the time. Holz presented his findings at the CHI 2011 meeting in Vancouver, Canada, in May.
The system could be incorporated into online shopping so users could gesture to describe the type of product they want and have the system make a suggestion. Or, says Holz: "Imagine you want a funky breakfast-bar stool. Instead of wandering around and searching Ikea for half an hour, you walk up to an in-store kiosk and describe the stool using gestures, which takes seconds. The computer responds immediately, saying you probably want the Funkomatic Breakfast Stool-o-rama, and it lives in row 7a."