An anonymous reader writes "Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory just announced that they have found a way to create more efficient photovoltaic cells using 50% less energy. The technique hinges upon a new optical furnace that uses intense light instead of a conventional furnace to heat silicon to make solar cells. The new furnace utilizes 'highly reflective and heat-resistant ceramics to ensure that the light is absorbed only by a silicon wafer, not by the walls inside the furnace.'"
Happy New Year! It's that time (as of now!) for the UK, and since the Slashdot backend operates in Greenwich Mean Time, that seems as good a reason as any to welcome 2012 now instead of local midnight for any of the various U.S. time zones. Everyone has a different take on how to rank the events of the last year; read on below for a few notes on some of the goings on of the past 31,536,000 seconds (give or take). The list is pretty arbitrary, drawn from the thousand-ish stories that hit the Slashdot page in that time; please say in the comments what news hit you the hardest this year.
An anonymous reader writes "I'm trying to help a school put their classes online in the way most minimally invasive to the teachers. A few environmental considerations: They don't always have live internet in the classroom, or I'd just run to Skype. I'm hoping to make it as much one-touch start/stop as possible to start recording, stop recording, and upload to a server. I'd like to believe others here have already done something similar, so if a package or process worked for you, that would be great to hear. Not sure what if it's all PowerPoint lectures, or if they actually use a whiteboard, and if so what the best camera would be to use (on a school budget!)."
smitty777 writes "Forbes is running an intriguing story on a new 'Superphone' under development by the folks at Microsoft. According to this leaked MS roadmap document, the plan is to build the Apollo-based phone in the 4th quarter of 2012. FTA: 'In the end, however, none of this matters. Microsoft's "peek into the future" is barely a glimpse into what the company may or may not have planned for 2012. While the "superphone" bullet is worth noting, it is not the confirmation of a revolutionary new product. At best, it indicates that Microsoft wishes to compete with Apple by offering a product that is, well, super.' It's also interesting that Sony and AT&T also appear to be working on superphones of their own."
New submitter brunozamborlin writes "I just published a short video that shows how a very cheap contact microphone can be used to recognize different types of fingers touch and transform any surface into an interactive board. In the video we put the microphone over different surfaces such as kitchen tables and balloons and through realtime gesture recognition we show how we can play different virtual music instruments using a technique called physical modeling . A mobile version would be definitely possible." The project's Web page shows several more examples. Update: 12/31 15:17 GMT by T : Bruno Zamborlin points out that the surfaces don't need to be flat; instead, they simply need to be rigid.
Several readers pointed out the story of the Apple phone that never was, from 1983. Pictures of the concept phone are impressive, as you'd expect from Hartmut Esslinger, later founder of Frog Design. Even more interesting is that this phone is part of a much larger collection of Apple artifacts curated by Stanford.
MrSeb writes "Altering the very fabric of technophilic society, a multinational team of material scientists have created electric circuits and transistors out of cotton fibers (abstract). Two kinds of transistor were created: a field-effect transistor (FET), much like the transistors found in your computer's CPU; and an electrochemical transistor, which is similar but capable of switching at lower voltages, and thus better suited for wearable computers. Cotton itself is an insulator, but by using various coatings, the team from Italy, France, and the United States was able to make conductor and semiconductor cotton 'wires' that retained most of their flexibility. The immediate use-cases are clothes with built-in sensors (think radiation or heartbeat monitors), but ultimately, think of how many thousands of interconnections are in every piece of cotton clothing — you could make a fairly powerful computer!"
PerlJedi writes "I am planing a long trip (to Ireland), and want to buy an Android tablet to take along for the trip. I am a software engineer (I actually work for Slashdot), a Linux geek, and an Android fan. I would like to get a tablet primarily to use for entertainment (when I'm not working or building robots in my workshop, I'm usually playing with my phone), but something I could get some work done from in a pinch would be a major plus (all I need to be able to work is a Web browser, and an ssh terminal, preferably with a keyboard). My current cell phone is the Samsung Charge, rooted and running GummyCharge 2.1, and it is a good bet I'll want to root whatever tablet I get, if not right away, soon after getting it. From an entertainment standpoint I want something that is large enough to watch high definition videos on, with a battery life that will make it practical for use on a long flight. Having a decent camera would be a nice plus, but is not an absolute necessity. Having a forward facing camera for video chat would also be good, but is also not a necessity." PerlJedi's got a few options in mind; read on for the details of his reasoning and help him fulfill his quest.
MikeChino writes "Russia and China are gearing up to dominate the lithium-ion battery industry by launching the world's largest Li-ion plant (press release). Planned for Novobirsk, Russia, the facility will be a joint venture between Chinese firm Thunder Sky and RUSNANO (a Russian state-run corporation) and it will be able to produce up to 500,000 batteries (of all sizes) per year."
randomErr writes "Intel began shipping the new mobile Atom, formerly codenamed 'Cedar Trail', processors to manufacturers. As with most new chips it has more features and longer battery life. Intel said today 'Computing systems using new Atom processors will debut in early 2012 through leading original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and Toshiba.'"
An anonymous reader writes "HTCDEV announced today: 'HTC is committed to listening to users and delivering customer satisfaction. We plan on releasing the updates that will allow you to unlock your bootloader in the coming months.' However, they do note this: 'It is our responsibility to caution you that not all claims resulting or caused by or from the unlocking of the bootloader may be covered under warranty,' and this: 'We strongly suggest that you do not unlock the bootloader unless you are confident that you understand the risks involved.' This looks like a new year gift to some."
Hugh Pickens writes "Although global demand for solar power is still growing — about 8% more solar panels will be installed this year compared with 2010 — bankruptcies, plummeting stock prices and crushing debt loads are calling into question the viability of the solar energy industry that since the 1970s has been counted on to advance the world into a new energy age. Only a handful of manufacturers are now profitable in the face of too much capacity, which has contributed to a plunge in prices as government subsidies have been curbed. Prices for solar panels started 2011 near $1.60 per watt, but a buildup of inventory forced manufacturers into a fire sale toward the end of the second quarter that has pushed prices to near $1 per watt now. 'The prices that we're seeing today are likely not covering manufacturing costs in many cases,' says Ralph Romero. With at least seven solar-panel manufacturers filing for bankruptcy or insolvency in the last several months and six of the 10 largest publicly traded companies making solar components reporting losses in the third quarter, public-market investors are punishing the solar sector, sending shares down nearly 57% this year. Although winners are expected to emerge eventually, the question is how much more carnage there will be before that happens. 'The fact of the matter is, nobody really knows which solar companies will be pushed out of business or be forced to merge,' writes industry analyst Rodolfo Avalos. 'Nobody also knows how long it will take for the solar industry to improve even when the forecasted solar global demand for the next 5-10 years is quite promising.'"
MrSeb writes "Specifications and benchmarks of Intel's 32nm Medfield platform — Chipzilla's latest iteration of Atom and first real system-on-a-chip oriented for smartphones and tablets — have leaked. The tablet reference platform is reported to be a 1.6GHz x86 CPU coupled with 1GB of DDR2 RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and FM radios, and an as-yet-unknown GPU. The smartphone version will probably be clocked a bit slower, but otherwise the same. Benchmark-wise, Medfield seems to beat the ARM competition from Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia — and, perhaps most importantly, it's also in line with ARM power consumption, with an idle TDP of around 2 watts and load around 3W."
kodiaktau writes "Roboticists with EPFL are playing with new methods of locomotion for robots, modeled after grasshoppers, bats and other non-traditional forms of movement, including leaping and gliding."
It's a rumor that goes back years (here's one example from this summer) that Apple is planning to produce dedicated TV sets branded with its own name; the main question seems to be when. DigiTimes (hat tip to CNet) is reporting that component-maker sources say that Apple has begun the process by ordering parts that hint at an offering next year of Apple TV sets (as opposed to Apple TV) in 32" and 37".