Harris: Futuristic inventions Illinois scientists are working on today

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Dr. Philip Laible, lead researcher behind Argonne's endurance bioenergy reactor, in his lab at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill. (Posted on: December 13, 2013)

Rock's proposed solution would address two problems. First, one vaccine would prevent four livestock diseases: sheep pox; goat pox; peste des petits ruminants (afflicts goats and sheep); and Rift Valley fever, which can be passed to humans. Second, this vaccine would last many years.

"That's the unconventional aspect of this project," Rock said. "Viruses are circulating all of the time. You and I, we're persistently infected with a half-dozen viruses, and we always have the potential to transmit them to other people. But these viruses we're going to engineer (into vaccines). These viruses are really ubiquitous in animal populations. They're very successful. They circulate efficiently, so the young animals are infected very early."

Thus, Rock's engineered virus — a good virus — would be passed to new animals in the herd naturally just as the flu is passed from person to person because the flu virus circulates in the air. So this good virus would naturally circulate as well, exposing newborns and new arrivals alike to the vaccine.

Rock isn't certain this is going to work. But he's optimistic. He expects field testing to begin next year in either Central Asia or Africa. His research is being supported by a $100,000 grant, awarded in November, from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"And the impact, too, I think is going to be big for us, in the United States and the developed world," he said. "Because as we reduce these diseases where they occur, it reduces the threat to us. If we have less sheep and goat pox circulating in parts of Africa or parts of Asia, the risk of introduction to the United States and Western Europe is decreased."

Michael Peshkin and Edward Colgate, Northwestern University: surface haptics. Sometime in the future, before buying a pair of jeans on Amazon, a shopper will be able to know what those jeans feel like. All he or she will have to do is slide a finger over the photo of the jeans on a computer screen.

"All sorts of things we do with our hands, in the real world we expect to get sensations from it, and on glass surfaces, we just don't," Peshkin said. "And that's something we can fix."

Peshkin pointed at my iPad, on which I was pecking away notes, and asked: "Wouldn't you like it if your keys (on your iPad) had edges?" In fact, I would like that very much.

Peshkin and Colgate are the co-founders of an Evanston startup called Tangible Haptics, which will commercialize their inventions. One patent has been issued; others are pending. Haptic is derived from a Greek word and means "of or relating to the sense of touch."

The company this year raised a seed round of funding, which included an investment from a publicly traded manufacturing company, which Greg Topel, Tangible Haptics' chief executive, declined to name. The company also has received grants from the National Science Foundation.

Sitting on the desk of Peshkin's Northwestern office last week were two prototypes. Each looked about the size of an iPad Mini but with a thicker underbelly. The first application Topel and Peshkin asked me to try was a scroll wheel. Think about completing an address form online and scrolling through the list of states to find "Illinois." Well, with Peshkin's scroll, every time your finger scrolls from 1 to 2 to 3 — or from Illinois to Indiana to Iowa — you feel as if your finger hits a little bump.

This is accomplished with software-controlled friction. The screen doesn't move at all. The next generation of this technology would do more than impede your finger. Instead, your finger also could be pulled forward, left or right. Friction alone can't do that.

Tangible Haptics hopes to have a product ready for production by the end of next year. The technology would be integrated into another company's consumer electronic device. That hasn't happened yet because the team is working on shrinking the size of the technology to a half-millimeter of thickness, small enough to fit in a mobile phone.

"As soon as you start to have glass that feels like other things, we're never going back," Peshkin said.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential. To sign up for her monthly newsletter, go to tinyletter.com/MelissaHarris.

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