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This tiny sensor could sleep for years between detection events

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It’s easy enough to put an always-on camera somewhere it can live off solar power or the grid, but deep in nature, underground, or in other unusual circumstances every drop of power is precious. Luckily, a new type of sensor developed for DARPA uses none at all until the thing it’s built to detect happens to show up. That means it can sit for years without so much as a battery top-up.

The idea is that you could put a few of these things in, say, the miles of tunnels underneath a decommissioned nuclear power plant or a mining complex, but not have to wire them all for electricity. But as soon as something appears, it’s seen and transmitted immediately. The power requirements would have to be almost nil, of course, which is why DARPA called the program Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operation.

A difficult proposition, but engineers at Northeastern University were up to the task. They call their work a “plasmonically-enhanced micromechanical photoswitch,” which pretty much sums it up. I could end the article right here. But for those of you who slept in class the day we covered that topic, I guess I can explain.

The sensor is built to detect infrared light waves, invisible to our eyes but still abundant from heat sources like people, cars, fires, and so on. But as long as none are present, it is completely powered off.

But when a ray does appear, it strikes a surface is covered in tiny patches that magnify its effect. Plasmons are a sort of special behavior of conducting material, which in this case respond to the IR waves by heating up.

Here you can see the actual gap that gets closed by the heating of the element (lower left).

“The energy from the IR source heats the sensing elements which, in turn, causes physical movement of key sensor components,” wrote DARPA’s program manager, Troy Olsson, in a blog post. “These motions result in the mechanical closing of otherwise open circuit elements, thereby leading to signals that the target IR signature has been detected.”

Think of it like a paddle in a well. It can sit there for years without doing a thing, but as soon as someone drops a pebble into the well, it hits the paddle, which spins and turns a crank, which pulls a string, which raises a flag at the well-owner’s house. Except, as Olsson further explains, it’s a little more sophisticated.

“The technology features multiple sensing elements—each tuned to absorb a specific IR wavelength,” he wrote. “Together, these combine into complex logic circuits capable of analyzing IR spectrums, which opens the way for these sensors to not only detect IR energy in the environment but to specify if that energy derives from a fire, vehicle, person or some other IR source.”

The “unlimited duration of operation for unattended sensors deployed to detect infrequent but time-critical events,” as the researchers describe it, could have plenty of applications beyond security, of course: imagine popping a few of these all over the forests to monitor the movements of herds, or in space to catch rare cosmic events.

The tech is described in a paper published today in Nature Nanotechnology.

Featured Image: DARPA / Northeastern University

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How to watch the live stream for today’s Apple iPhone keynote

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Apple is holding a keynote today at the brand new Steve Jobs Theater on Apple Campus, and the company is expected to unveil new iPhone models, a new Apple Watch as well as a new Apple TV. At 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris), you’ll be able to watch the event as the company is streaming it live.

You know what September means. It means that Apple is about to unveil a new iPhone. But this year is going to be different as the company should unveil not one, not two but three different models. There should be a new iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus as well as a mysterious iPhone X. There were many leaks already, but some details are still unclear. Also, you can count on a new Apple Watch as well as a much more powerful Apple TV. It’s going to be a packed event.

If you have the current Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old events. Users with old Apple TVs can simply turn on their devices. Apple is pushing out the “Apple Events” channel so that you can watch the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed only works in Safari and Microsoft Edge; the good news is that it works on macOS, iOS and Windows 10 – chances are you have at least one device running Safari or Edge.

So to recap, here’s how you can watch today’s Apple event:

  • Safari on the Mac or iOS.
  • Microsoft Edge on Windows 10.
  • An Apple TV gen 4 with the Apple Events app in the App Store.
  • An Apple TV gen 2 or 3, with the Apple Events channel that arrives automatically right before the event.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you’re stuck at work and really need our entertaining commentary track to help you get through your day.

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Two new handhelds will help you relive the golden age of gaming

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Whether you’re an older gamer who remembers the Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis with great fondness or a doting grandparent who doesn’t remember exactly what the grandkids wanted (the Nintendo Swamp or something?), the new AtGames portable consoles will either excite you to no end or cause deep disappointment.

These crazy little consoles contain dozens of Atari or Genesis games. The Atari version includes more than 70 games, including Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Pitfall and Frogger. The Ultimate Portable Game Player supports SD card side-loading of games and includes 85 Sega Genesis and Mega Drive games, including Phantasy Star.

AtGames has been making these things for a while, but for the first time the systems support HD video and can connect to your TV via HDMI. Further, the new portables include more games. The new models will appear next month and cost a measly $60.

I’ve tried the “console-style” versions of these games, including the new “Atari Flashback 8 Gold Activision Edition,” which features 29 Activision games, and I found myself quite pleased with the speed, quality and fun. Arguably you can hop on Alibaba and get a PSP-looking retro gaming handheld that plays all of these games and more, but if you’re looking for something quick, dirty and fun (or if you want to disappoint the 14-year-old in your life who wants to play these games like she wants a hole in the head), give them a try. There’s nothing like the pixelated Tarzan yell of Pitfall Harry to bring tears to eyes of a gamer of a certain age.

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