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3D magnetic interaction could transform computing

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A new form of magnetic interaction which pushes a formerly two-dimensional phenomenon into the third dimension could open up a host of exciting new possibilities for data storage and advanced computing, scientists say.

In a new paper published in the journal Nature Materials, a team led by physicists from the University of Glasgow describe how they have been found a new way to successfully pass information from a series of tiny magnets arrayed on an ultrathin film across to magnets on a second film below.

Their breakthrough adds both a literal and metaphorical extra dimension to ‘spintronics’, the field of science dedicated to data storage, retrieval and processing, which has already had a major impact on the tech industry.

Anyone who’s ever played with a pair of magnets understands that opposites attract – the south pole of one magnet attracts the north pole of the other. While that’s true at the scale most people are familiar with, the way magnets interact with each other undergoes some significant changes as magnets shrink.

At the nanoscale – where magnetic materials can be just a few billionths of a metre in size – magnets interact with each other in strange new ways, including the possibility of attracting and repelling each other at 90-degree angles instead of straight-on.

Scientists have already learned how to exploit those unusual properties to encode and process information in thin films covered in a single layer of nanoscale magnets.

The benefits of these ‘spintronic’ systems – low power consumption, high storage capacity, and greater robustness – have made invaluable additions to technology such as magnetic hard disk drives, and won the discoverers of spintronics a Nobel prize in 2007.

However, the functionality of magnetic systems used today in computers remains confined to one plane, limiting their capacity. Now, the University of Glasgow-led team – along with partners from the Universities of Cambridge and Hamburg, the Technical University of Eindhoven and the Aalto University School of Science – have developed a new way to communicate information from one layer to another, adding new potential for storage and computation.

Dr Amalio Fernandez-Pacheco, an EPSRC Early Career Fellow in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, is the lead author on the paper. He said: “The discovery of this new type of interaction between neighbour layers gives us a rich and exciting way to explore and exploit unprecedented 3D magnetic states in multi-layered nanoscale magnets.

“It’s a bit like being given an extra note in a musical scale to play with – it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, not just for conventional information processing and storage, but potentially for new forms of computing we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The inter-layer transmission of information the team has created relies on what is known to physicists as chiral spin interactions, a type of magnetic force that favours a particular sense of rotation in neighbour nanoscale magnets. Thanks to recent advances in spintronics, it is now possible to stabilize these interactions within a magnetic layer. This has for instance been exploited to create skyrmions, a type of nanoscale magnetic object with superior properties for computing applications.

The team’s research has now extended these types of interactions to neighbouring layers for the first time. They fabricated a multi-layered system formed by ultra-thin magnetic films separated by non-magnetic metallic spacers. The structure of the system, and a precise tuning of the properties of each layer and its interfaces, creates unusual canted magnetic configurations, where the magnetic field of the two layers forms angles between zero and 90 degrees.

Unlike in standard multi-layered magnets, it becomes easier for these magnetic fields to form clockwise configurations than anticlockwise ones, a fingerprint that an interlayer chiral spin interaction exists in between the two magnetic layers. This breaking of rotational symmetry was observed at room temperature and under standard environmental conditions. As a result, this new type of interlayer magnetic interaction opens exciting perspectives to realise topologically complex magnetic 3D configurations in spintronic technologies.

The team’s paper, titled ‘Symmetry-Breaking Interlayer Dzyaloshinskii-Moriya Interactions in Synthetic Antiferromagnets’, is published in Nature Materials. The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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How smartphones make you safer on the roads

From insurance benefits to free drinks and snacks, apps offer incentives that change driving behaviour, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Let’s get the true confessions out of the way: on Mondays, I’m an appalling driver. On Tuesdays, I’m world class.

That’s the harsh truth presented to me by my smartphone, in collaboration with a sensor in a car and an app on my smartphone. But here’s the kicker: thanks to the reward I’ve been offered for my behaviour on Tuesday, chances are that I’m going to make Wednesday great, too. And come next Monday, I will probably be a little less appalling. However, there is only so far one can go on a Monday, regardless of coffee and other awards.

Thanks to interactive technology, though, it is likely I will become less of a menace on the roads over time, regardless of the day of the week.

But first, answer this question: Which would you prefer from an insurance company: threats of punishment, or promises of rewards? The answer is obvious, yet most insurance companies are still firmly in 20th century mode: promise the world, but make it exceptionally difficult to claim when things go wrong.

Of course, there is a better way. And thanks to technology, many better ways. In recent years, short-term insurance companies have latched on to the secret long known in medical insurance: rewards incentivise behaviour.

The concept was pioneered give years ago by South Africa’s Discovery, which extended its Vitality health rewards programme to car insurance. The medical aid giant entered a strategic partnership deal with US-based Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which had developed technology that allows users to combine massive amounts of sensor data from smartphones, other mobile devices, and cars. The technology category is called telematics, which nowadays tends to be seen as a sub-category of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for any device to be connected to the Internet for sending and receiving data automatically.

In South Africa, the result was the Discovery Insure smartphone app on phones and the Vitality Drive Sensor, placed in a vehicle. Both Discovery and its clients are able to keep close tabs on driving behaviour. By roping in Vitality-style rewards, Discovery also incentivises improved driving behaviour. Almost as significantly, it allows the company to gather data from a large group of drivers to learn more about the impact of both good and bad driving behaviour.

The concept has taken off around the world. US-based Root Insurance has pioneered “usage-based insurance” in the USA, obtaining a valuation close to $1-billion through enthusiastic early investors. Root has also latched onto discounts, offering reduced premiums for keeping the app running. In the United Kingdom, at least half a dozen companies are offering “black box insurance” using telematics.

South African companies are far ahead of the game. Two years ago, Avis launched the SafeDrive app, using Discovery’s sensor system, and with a Vitality-style rewards concept built in. That is its key differentiator from almost any other car rental company in this country: it rewards its customers for driving well.

By connecting to the sensor, the app collects data on the movement of the car, and scores the driver on smoothness of acceleration, driving and braking. The app on the phone links it to mapping data, including speed limits, so that the driver is also rated on speeding. Finally, the smartphone itself detects when the driver is using it, meaning that one loses points for bad driving as well as for using the phone while driving. The app also cannot link to mapping and other data when the phone is not in range of mobile data connectivity.

The upside is that, when one scores 80% or more, one is able to activate rewards on an upward sliding scale. From 80 to 84, the app unlocks free coffee  from Vida E Caffe or a hot drink from Kauai. The next tier, from 85-89, delivers the likes of a chicken sandwich from Nando’s. Superb driving above 90% takes you all the way to full breakfast at Mugg & Bean, or the equivalents at the other partners.

Avis saw immediate benefits:  early stats showed that Avis customers redeeming the rewards improved their driving by 5%, while there was an 8- 12% improvement in driving within seven days of a trip. In other words, drivers took steps to improve their driving over time.

The app also uses the phone to alert Avis of severe impacts, or severe weather alerts, as well as providing a panic button function for emergencies – with 24-hour access to an emergency centre.

Ironically, it was city driving that earned me the most rewards, with several 100% trips despite stop-start traffic and numerous speed limit changes. A trip to Limpopo on a Monday destroyed my credibility, however: on one long, straight stretch of road in the open countryside, with almost no traffic in either direction for an hour, I found it impossible to keep to the 60km speed limit. SafeDrive had no sympathy, and scored me a dismal 70%.

I was determined to make up for it the next day, and saw the rewards flowing in. Sadly, I didn’t have time to cash in, and that raises a suggestion for both Vitality and Avis: when customers don’t take up their rewards, they should automatically be allocated to charities. It is an option on the Vitality app, but has to be specifically selected. Automate that, and drivers will also be doing good by driving better.

Click here to read how the SafeDrive app works.

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Bravado debuts SA Fortnite team

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They have been blazing trails in Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and FIFA. Now South Africa’s top esports group, sponsored by Dell, Alienware and Intel, has expanded into one of the biggest competitive games on the planet.

Bravado Fortnite will officially launch at the Dell Technologies Forum, this week, on 27 June, at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. Attendees will be able to meet the team and the rest of Bravado, as well as take part in Fortnite matches.

Fortnite is leading the battle royale genre with its mix of action and high-level strategy,” said Bravado’s CEO, Andreas Hadjipaschali. “It’s also cross-platform, so it can be played on many different gaming devices. This has made it a popular choice for many gamers and attracted many competitors. After our successes with creating and supporting winning teams in other games, adopting Fortnite as our latest competitive tier makes perfect sense.”

Welcome to Fortnite

Fortnite is a new breed of competitive gaming genre called ‘battle royale’. Each match can host up to a hundred competitors – if your character is eliminated, they must sit out for the rest of the round. The pressure rises as the game’s playable map gets smaller, forcing players closer to each other. It’s a ‘last player standing’ format where matches can be played by individuals or two-player teams.

There is also an elaborate construction element: players can build structures to protect themselves, block enemies and gain higher ground. It’s a kinetic experience, which makes Fortnite very popular for online streaming audiences. It’s also a major esports title, with major tournaments offering millions of dollars in prize pools.

Fortnite is played by millions of people every day. It boasts over 250 million registered users and has hosted up to 10 million players at a time across numerous matches.

“Once I had experienced the mechanic of building and editing, I was instantly hooked,” said Tristan “Zozu” Rens, Bravado’s Fortnite team captain. “It was something I haven’t seen in a game before and I knew there was something different about it. I’ve never been a fan of battle royale games before I played Fortnite. But the nature of competitive Fortnite, with final storm circles the size of football fields with 40 players battling for the 1st place, is something I couldn’t get enough of. As time went by, the hunger to pursue it professionally grew.”

Rens and his teammates are not afraid to put in the work: they train for between 6 and 10 hours a day. Right now Bravado Fortnite is focusing on perfecting its team synergy and will be active both online and at LANs to gain maximum experience.

The Fortnite gloves are off: Bravado has entered its world and aims to lead the way for other South African esports athletes, current and aspirant. That pool of talent is growing every day. If you want to get some tips on how to get into esports, reach out to Bravado or its players through the official website, their social media accounts, or drop in when there is a tournament near you.

But why wait? Bravado will be at the Dell Technologies Forum, 27 June at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. Meet the team, check out the latest Alienware systems and blow off some steam in exciting Fortnite matches. Head over to https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-za/events/forum2019/Johannesburg/index.htm and register to attend this one-day event. Then lock and load for some Fortnite action!

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