Runbot can adapt to changes in the terrain

Runbot in action
Roboticists are using the lessons of a 1930s human physiologist to build the world’s fastest walking robot.

Runbot is a self-learning, dynamic robot, which has been built around the theories of Nikolai Bernstein.

“Getting a robot to walk like a human requires a dynamic machine,” said Professor Florentin Woergoetter.

Runbot is a small, biped robot which can move at speeds of more than three leg lengths per second, slightly slower than the fastest walking human.

Bernstein said that animal movement was not under the total control of the brain but rather, “local circuits” did most of the command and control work.

The brain was involved in the process of walking, he said, only when the understood parameters were altered, such as moving from one type of terrain to another, or dealing with uneven surfaces.

The basic walking steps of Runbot, which has been built by scientists co-operating across Europe, are controlled by reflex information received by peripheral sensors on the joints and feet of the robot, as well as an accelerometer which monitors the pitch of the machine.

These sensors pass data on to local neural loops – the equivalent of local circuits – which analyse the information and make adjustments to the gait of the robot in real time.

How does Runbot walk?

Information from sensors is constantly created by the interaction of the robot with the terrain so that Runbot can adjust its step if there is a change in the environment.

As the robot takes each step, control circuits ensure that the joints are not overstretched and that the next step begins.

But if the robot encounters an obstacle, or a dramatic change in the terrain, such as a slope, then the higher level functions of the robot – the learning circuitries – are used.

About half of the time during a gait cycle we are not doing anything, just falling forward
Prof Florentin Worgotter

The latest findings of the robot research study are presented in the Public Library of Science Computational Biology journal.

Four other scientists – Poramate Manoonpong, Tao Geng, Tomas Kulvicius and Bernd Porr – are also involved in the project, which has been running for the last four years.

Professor Woergoetter, of the University of Gottingen, in Germany, said: “When Runbot first encounters a slope these low level control circuits ‘believe’ they can continue to walk up the slope without having to change anything.

“But this is misguided and as a consequence the machine falls backwards. This triggers the other sensors and the highest loop we have built into Runbot – the learning circuitry – and from that experience of falling the machine knows that something needs to be changed.”

Dynamic process

He said human walking was a dynamic process.

“About half of the time during a gait cycle we are not doing anything, just falling forward. We are propelling ourselves over and over again – like releasing a spring.

“In a robot, the difficulty lies in releasing the spring-like movement at the right moment in time – calculated in milliseconds – and to get the dampening right so that the robot does not fall forward and crash.

“These parameters are very difficult to handle,” he said.

All these big machines stomp around like robots
Prof Florentin Worgotter

Runbot walks in a very different way from robots like Asimo, star of the Honda TV adverts, said Prof Woergoetter.

“They are kinematic walkers – they walk step by step and calculate every single angle, every millisecond.

“That can be handled through engineering but it is very clumsy. No human would walk like that. All these big machines stomp around like robots – we want our robot to walk like a human.”

The first step in building Runbot was creating a biomechanical frame that could support passive walking patterns.

Passive walkers can walk down a slope unaided, propelled by gravity and kept upright and moving through the correct mechanical physiology.

Prof Woergoetter said: “Passive walking looks pretty realistic – but that’s level one. On top of this we have local circuits, nested neural loops, which operate between the muscles (the joints of the robot) and the spinal cord (the spinal reflex of Runbot).”

He said Runbot learned from its mistakes, much in the same way as a human baby.

“Babies use a lot of their brains to train local circuits but once they are trained they are fairly autonomous.

“Only when it comes to more difficult things – such as a change of terrain – that’s when the brain steps in and says ‘now we are moving from ice to sand and I have to change something’.

“This is a good model because you are easing the load of control – if your brain had to think all the time about walking, it’s doubtful you could have a conversation at the same time.”

Nervous system

The principle was first discussed in the human nervous system by Russian physiologist Nikolai Bernstein.

Prof Woergoetter said: “He said it made sense that local agents, local networks, do the basic job, but the brain exerted control whenever necessary.”

So using the information from its local circuits Runbot can walk on flat surfaces at speeds of more than three leg lengths per second.

Prof Woergoetter said Runbot was able to learn new walking patterns after only a few trials.

“If walking uphill, the gait becomes shorter, the robot’s upper body weight shifts forward,” he said.

The key lesson from the study, he said, was that the nested loop design first proposed by Bernstein more than 70 years ago “worked and was efficient”.

He said the challenge was now to make Runbot bigger, more adaptive and to better anticipate situations like change of terrain.

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Runbot frame analysis

# Frames 1 – 3: The robot’s momentum causes the robot to rise on its standing leg and a motor moves the swinging leg into position
# Frame 3: The stretch sensor of the swinging leg is activated, which triggers the knee joint to straighten
# Frames 3-6: The robot falls forward naturally, with no motor functions being used, and catches itself on the next standing leg
# Frame 6: As the swinging leg touches the ground, the ground contact sensor in the foot triggers the hip extensor and the knee joint of the standing leg and the hip and knee joints of the swinging leg to swap roles

Two people reading papers in a park
Experts say people still find time to read amid busy lives

Contrary to popular belief, Britain may not be a nation of dumbed-down MP3-toting philistines who prefer computer games to the mind-expanding delights of a good book.

Instead, according to the latest research, people in the UK are reading more than they did a quarter of a century ago.

A team at the University of Manchester has found that, while Britons spent just three minutes a day on average reading a book in 1975, by 2000 this rose to seven minutes.

And when magazines and newspapers were taken into account, Britons were reading five minutes more every day in 2000, compared to their 1970s counterparts. Women in particular increased their page-turning time.

The new findings fly in the face of many people’s assumptions about modern Britain.

If your day is more fragmented, you are more likely to have gaps, and reading is a particularly useful way of filling in the gaps
Dr Dale Southerton

Victoria Beckham, often quoted as telling a Spanish journalist she had never finished reading a book, has been held up by many as representative of a new breed of literature phobes.

Research by the Office for National Statistics, commissioned by the National Reading Campaign in 2001, seemed to back up the idea. It found a quarter of adults had not read a book in the previous 12 months.

But the latest study suggests Britain is not as literature-unfriendly as many first thought.

The education factor

According to Dr Dale Southerton, a member of the University of Manchester research team, people now have more time for books. And the increase in reading can be explained by the changes in how people organise their lives and better access to education, he says.

In seems that increased time spent commuting and waiting for friends is seen by modern Britons as a good time to catch up on a few chapters.

Victoria Beckham
Victoria Beckham was quoted as saying she had never finished a book

“If your day is more fragmented, you are more likely to have gaps, and reading is a particularly useful way of filling in the gaps,” Mr Southerton says. “Also, reading is not reliant on others to participate.”

He also suggests better access to universities has also influenced reading habits.

“There are so many myths about these eras, such as that we have dumbed down. But more of us are better educated now and are likely to enjoy reading,” he adds.

In fact, according to a study by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council earlier this year, people are even bothered about being seen to be reading the right kind of book.

A third of those asked chose “challenging literature” in order to seem well-read. Top of the list was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Change in habits

Julia Strong, director of the National Literacy Trust, agrees that Britons are reading and writing more than ever before.

And, she suggests, if figures for reading online were taken into account after the year 2000, reading statistics would increase further.

Nobody is writing letters, but people are writing more than they ever did and taking part in written communication
Julia Strong
The National Literacy Trust

“One of the really big changes is the internet,” she says. “People may be reading newspapers less, but they are reading them on the internet more.”

Another big factor in recent years has been the coming of the “freebie” paper.

“I was on the tube the other day and everybody was reading one,” Ms Strong said. “Compare this to when I was in Bangkok – I didn’t see anyone reading.”

People’s choice of reading matter has not changed significantly, according to Ms Strong, with people still enjoying the same “rattling good reads”, such as thrillers and suspense novels. But the way people read and write to communicate with each other has been revolutionised.

“If we are talking about reading for pleasure, people now read on the internet, people read text messages and emails,” she says. “If reading is deciphering symbols, that is all reading.

“This has also changed the nature of writing. Nobody is writing letters, but people are writing more than they ever did and taking part in written communication.”

Commuters reading free papers on the Tube
Free papers encourage people to read while commuting

Rising literacy standards since the 1990s have helped with the appreciation of books, she explains.

But she says modern Britain faces the challenge of an excluded minority which has little experience of books.

“All evidence shows that parents who encourage their children to read and are readers themselves, have children who become readers too and this will open all the doors that reading can open,” says Ms Strong.

Debbie Hicks, director of research and strategy at the Reading Agency, a charity which aims to inspire people to read, says electronic media and traditional forms of reading should both be encouraged. But paper pages will not disappear, she adds.

“Young people are seen to be reading less and playing more computer games – but they are also reading to play these games and creating a narrative of their own.

“But the book will always be there and it is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. It is a very important way of engaging with the arts and creativity as well as a way of gaining knowledge.”

The bonfire at Ballycraigy contains hundreds of tyres Fears are growing that serious health and environmental damage could be caused when a huge bonfire in Antrim is lit on 11 July.

The bonfire on the Ballycraigy estate contains hundreds of rubber tyres and dwarfs nearby houses.

However, loyalists at Stoneyford in Lisburn have exchanged the traditional bonfire for a medieval-style beacon.

Resident Mark Harbinson said the beacon would be lit in a steel basket at the top of a 25ft support column.

Ballycraigy residents said that apart from damage to the environment, they could also suffer from effect of toxic fumes from the burning tyres.

Anne Blacker, of the DoE’s Environmental Crime Team, said the bonfires issue “had caused a lot of frustration”.

She said lack of funding and difficulty in persuading witnesses to come forward “made it increasingly difficult for her organisation to bring people before the courts for burning tyres and pallets on eleventh night bonfires”.

Burning bonfire
The burning of tyres is causing damage to the environment

Ulster Unionist councillor Drew Ritchie said they would work to ensure next year’s fire would be tyre-free.

Councillor Ritchie, who is head of the town’s bonfire committee, said: “I don’t think it would be practical to say there were would no tyres this year in Ballycraigy.”

“We will be re-constituting our committee again in September and we will be working hard to try to ensure that next year, we have a better and safer environment.”

The SDLP’s Thomas Burns said the was extremely dangerous “not only for those in its immediate vicinity but also for the environment”.

“It is even more shocking that certain people are intimidating council workers and those who want to see the bonfire removed,” he said.

Mark Harbinson said the Stoneyford beacon was a “genuine attempt to move away from the traditional bonfire”.

“It’s the only one in Northern Ireland at the moment but I’m hoping the idea will spread in coming years,” he said.

Bonfires are lit on 11 July to celebrate loyalist culture in towns across Northern Ireland.

The E3 show always attracted big crowds
The video game world is gearing up for the E3 Expo – one of the biggest events in the gaming calendar.

Although smaller than in previous years the three-day event will be a showcase of the latest and greatest in the gaming world.

The focus in 2007 has shifted from hardware to games and attendees will expect to see previews and launches of some keenly-awaited titles.

But, despite the revamp, some wonder if E3 is being eclipsed by other events.

Top titles

In 2006 the E3 show attracted more than 60,000 visitors to the LA conference centre where more than 400 companies showed their wares.

In 2007 the event, which runs from 11-13 July, has moved to Santa Monica. Exhibitors are spread around a series of venues and the show has become invitation-only. It is now aimed at the industry’s professionals rather than the game-playing public.

But, said Rob Fahey, editor of, this downsizing may not have had the desired effect.

“The new E3 is a very provincial event,” he said. “Formerly, E3 was the world’s games trade show – now it’s very distinctly North America’s games trade show.

Age of Conan
Assassin’s Creed
Call of Duty 4
Clive Barker’s Jericho
Devil May Cry 4
Dungeon Hero
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Grand Theft Auto IV
Guitar Hero III
Half Life 2: Episode 2
Halo 3
Mass Effect
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
“We’ve been seeing a lot of smaller companies getting squeezed out of the new event,” said Mr Fahey, “and the bigger publishers (including Sony and Nintendo) are focusing their resources elsewhere, on their own private events or on other shows around the world.”

Phil Elliot, UK Editor of GameSpot, agreed that the revamp has changed E3 significantly.

“The idea was sound but the execution is a little unclear,” he said, “and the impact on the industry outside of North America is proving larger than most anticipated.”

Many European game makers would avoid E3, said Mr Elliot, and instead were saving themselves for the Games Convention that takes place in Leipzig in late August.

“It’s a public show which will surely take on the mantle of biggest show on the calendar,” he said.

Mr Fahey said the fact that E3 had shrunk was a good thing. “It will focus more attention on the European show in Leipzig, and the Asian shows in Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, and should hopefully help to emphasise the importance of non-US markets.

Screenshot from Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft
Assassin’s Creed lets people play as a medieval killer
A separate event for the public, called the Entertainment for All Expo, will take place from 18-21 October in LA.

In 2006 the big announcements at the show were about hardware – in particular Sony’s PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii as these next generation consoles had yet to launch.

However, in 2007 with all three next generation consoles now on shop shelves the focus has switched to games.

In particular, this year industry watchers are looking for titles that harness the raw computer power of the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles.

One of the most eagerly anticipated games is Assassin’s Creed from Ubisoft for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

The game, set in the time of the Crusades, is gaining attention for its huge environments, life-like crowds that react to the player’s actions and the acrobatic way the main character gets around towns and villages.

Another PS3/Xbox 360 title that is widely anticipated is Grand Theft Auto IV – the latest instalment in the best-selling franchise that lets players take on the role of a modern-day criminal.

This instalment is based in a revamped Liberty City and follows the fortunes of career criminal Niko Bellic.

Killzone, Guitar Hero III and Rockband are also expected to win attention at the show.

Derry’s Mark Lynch in action against Ciaran McKeever of Armagh
Derry’s Mark Lynch battles with Ciaran McKeever of Armagh
Armagh are out of the All-Ireland Championship after Derry snatched a dramatic and controversial victory in the qualifier at Clones.

Colin Devlin kept his head in a frantic period of stoppage-time to coolly shoot over the decisive point.

Seconds earlier Armagh felt they should have had a free in front of the posts which could have put them ahead.

Paddy Bradley was the top scorer of the match with five points for the victorious Oak Leafers.

Derry boss Paddy Crozier hailed the manner in which his side responded after the defeat by Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final.

“They took servere criticism over the last two weeks but 70 minutes of football does not make them bad players,” he said.

“We showed a lot of character but this is just one qualifying match. We cannot lose the head.

“We have got to get the players back down to earth.

“On our day we can be sensational, then the next we do not turn up. But that is the joy of playing football.”

If you’re running Windows Vista and you want to enjoy EAX-enabled effects from your Creative Audigy sound card, get ready to shell out a ten-spot for the privilege to do so. Although initially reported that Creative was charging $9.99 for Vista drivers in general, a post by ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes was later updated to reflect that the surcharge was to enable the processing of EAX effects.
People seem to be divided on this issue of Creative’s fee. Some say the EAX effects are technically software, while others say that drivers of any kind — enhanced or otherwise — should be free. What I find weird is Creative’s description of the drivers, particularly the last paragraph:

In Windows Vista, Microsoft removed the Vendor Extension mechanism from Vista’s DirectSound implementation. With previous Windows Operating Systems, the Vendor Extension enabled the Sound Blaster Audigy to provide accelerated audio for DirectSound3D games.

Without Creative ALchemy, most DirectSound games running in Vista will be reduced to stereo output without any EAX effects.

Creative ALchemy (Audigy Edition) restores your Sound Blaster Audigy’s ability to process EAX effects, 3D surround sound, sampling rate conversion and hardware audio mixing for DirectSound3D games in Windows Vista.

So in essence, you’re paying for a workaround to re-enable EAX effects in Windows Vista because Microsoft disabled the Vendor Extension mechanism. I’d be a little brassed off if I had to pay $10 more for something to work as advertised. After all is said and done, people might be wise to vote with their pocketbooks when it comes to a matter like this. Creative is pointing the finger at Microsoft and Microsoft’s probably not going to do anything about it. Ultimately, the consumer picks up the tab.

Creative charging $9.99 for Vista drivers? [ZDNet]

The inevitable increase of biofuel production is predicted to have a negative impact on the economy and ecosystems of developing countries according to a key UN study released on 4 July. However, leading fleet management firm, Masterlease, warns that in order to avoid draining any one resource it is critical that a mix of environmentally-friendly fuels are used to ensure the sustainable and long-term success of biofuel.

According to the report, co-written by the UN and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food prices are predicted to rise between 20 and 50 percent in the next decade and the growth of fuel crops – made from grains, sugars and oilseed – will threaten the economies of food-importing countries and take land out of food production.

The report has sparked further scare stories in the media. However, Robert Kingdom at Masterlease says that the UK can learn from this report and previous mistakes in order to keep this fuel sustainable.

Masterlease’s Robert Kingdom said: “We have relied too heavily on fossil fuels for the past 30 or 40 years – this appears to be bringing the environment to its knees while supplies of these fuels are finite. Biofuel represents an excellent alternative to these and is certainly being backed by major manufacturers whose biofuel vehicles are not only cleaner but often more efficient than their petrol or diesel equivalents.

“However, neither domestic energy providers nor vehicle manufacturers should see Biofuel as an end to all their problems as this will create an unreasonable strain on the farmers and nations that are expected to produce them. There is already evidence to suggest that forests are being cleared too quickly to provide land for growing crops. Hopefully we will have learned lessons from the past – approaching the production of biofuels in an unsustainable way won’t benefit anybody in the long-term.

“The same goes for powering the national grid, for example. There is no way that you could rely solely on wind or solar power to provide the nation’s energy, but adding wind, solar and tidal power to the existing set-up will make energy creation cleaner and cheaper. Likewise their benefits should be applied to a range of uses, including both domestic and vehicle energy.

“In environmental terms, there will always be a downside to every form of transport – even charging electric cars will burn fossil fuels at power stations – but by making the most of a variety of approaches, we can ensure that there is no single overbearing drain on one particular resource.”

Speaking at a press launch in central London, he said The Simpsons Movie was “a tribute to the art of hand-drawn animation, which is basically disappearing”.

“All the animated movies these days are computer generated,” he said, adding that his film had been created in “the old-fashioned, clumsy, ‘erase it if you don’t do it right’ way”.

“It’s not a CGI movie with a thousand perfect penguins dancing in unison,” he continued – a reference to Happy Feet, the winner of this year’s Oscar for best animated feature.

Journalists at Wednesday’s preview were treated to a 10-minute excerpt showing many familiar characters.

Scenes included naughty adolescent Bart Simpson skateboarding through the fictional town of Springfield naked and his intellectual sibling Lisa meeting a potential new boyfriend.

Another sequence depicted US rock band Green Day being booed off stage for expressing green concerns – a suggestion the film will have a topical environmental theme.

‘Enormous love’

Groening, who first conceived The Simpsons in 1985, said the thinking behind the film was to include “everything we couldn’t show on television”.

Matt Groening

Matt Groening said the film would celebrate hand-drawn animation

“We hope it makes a little money too,” joked executive producer Al Jean.

The idea for a Simpsons film has been percolating since 1992, said Groening, but only came to fruition recently.

“Finally we decided that, as we were coming up to our 20th year and 400th episode, we should have a movie out,” he said.

According to Jean, however, it was not something into which they entered lightly.

“We couldn’t have felt more pressure, just because of the enormous love people have for the show around the world.”

That said, Jean is keen to point out one does not have to have watched the programme to appreciate the movie.

“Our ambition was if you’ve never heard of the Simpsons you can enjoy the film,” he said.

Tie-in merchandise

“It was important to us that it be viewed as a separate entity.”

Any suggestion that the belated film represents a winding down of the Simpsons franchise was hotly denied.

Simpsons Movie merchandise

An extensive range of merchandise has already been produced

“Emphatically no,” said Jean, adding that he hoped the film would “help the franchise and bring more people in”.

Given the show has been running since 1987, it is unlikely there is anyone left who has not encountered America’s favourite nuclear family.

And with a goody-bag of merchandise awaiting journalists as they arrived for Wednesday’s event – including watches, drinking straws and even a stress relief aid shaped like a donut – the film is clearly viewed as a major summer cash cow.

Would Groening and Jean like their inevitable box-office success to be followed by awards recognition? Perhaps, though for now they are happy to trot out the usual cliches.

“I’ve thought about it,” shrugs the latter. “But there are many fine animated movies this year.”

“It’d just be an honour to be nominated!” adds Groening with his tongue firmly in cheek.

The Simpsons Movie is out in the UK on 27 July.

Sinn Fein Cllr Charlie Mc Hugh has given a broad welcome to a Parades
Commission decision to re-route Orange Order/Loyalist Band marchers away
from predominantly nationalist areas of Castlederg on the 11th Night and on
the evening of the 12th July .

Cllr Mc Hugh said,

The decision to re-route a parade by the Castlederg Young Loyalist Flute
Band away from predominantly nationalist areas of the town on the 11th night
and another larger parade by Killen LOL District on the evening of the 12th
July is to be welcomed.

In meetings with the Parades Commission, local community and Sinn Fein
elected representatives have continually outlined our opposition to such
parades which are seen as little more than coat trailing exercises by our

Inherent in the Parades Commission decision is, I hope, a belated
acknowledgement that there is no valid reason for Loyal Order/Loyalist bands
to be parading through predominantly nationalist areas of Castlederg other
than to antagonise and to heighten community tensions.

While I welcome the Parades Commissions determinations in regards to the
return routes of the Orange Order/Loyalist Band parades on the evening of
the 11th and 12th July, I cannot understand the logic of permitting the
Castlederg Young Loyalist Flute Band to accompany Bridgetown LOL 379 through
the Ferguson Crescent/KilleterRoad/Priests Lane area on the morning of the
12th July given that the Commission agreed to the logic of keeping this same
band out of area on the night before

Apple iPhone
Half a million phones were sold on the first weekend in the US

iPhone in action
Mobile phone operator O2 is reported to have won the sought-after deal to sell Apple’s iPhone in the UK.

Press reports said that O2 is set to sign an exclusive contract shortly and should have the new phones on sale in time for Christmas.

A spokesman for O2, which is owned by Spain’s Telefonica, declined to comment on the reports.

More than 500,000 iPhones were sold in the first weekend in the US by AT&T, which has exclusive rights there.

Vodafone had previously been tipped as the likely winner of the contract.

The agreement with O2 is reported to include Apple receiving a continuing share of the revenue generated for the network operator.

The handsets are expected to be sold for about £300 and O2 will be hoping that the lure of the fashionable phone is enough to win customers from rival networks.

July 2007
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