Pittsburgh Tech Report

National Human Genome Research Institute / genome.gov

At the most basic level cancer can be defined as the DNA of a normal cell going haywire. 

Michael Ward / University of Pittsburgh

Researchers are a step closer to figuring out how our brains turn those squiggly lines on papers and screens into words.

A team of cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh have completed a landmark study looking into how the human brain recognizes and processes written words – or, more simply, reads.

“We really don’t really think about it when we’re reading a word, but all you’re really seeing are black and white lines and you turn that into a story, a sentence, a word, something with real meaning,” said Avniel Ghuman, one of the lead researchers.

Virginia Alvino / 90.5 WESA

Voice-activated technologies, like the Amazon Echo speaker, are gaining popularity with people of all abilities.

But Pittsburgh-based Conversant Labs has developed an app that’s aimed at benefiting people with visual impairments. It’s called Yes, Chef! and uses voice commands to lead users through recipes.

“So, your hands are dirty they have like raw chicken, raw meat, you don’t want to have to wash your hands every time to either touch your phone and get food on your phone or on your lap top,” said founder Chris Maury.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

It’s no secret that razors are expensive.

But a Pittsburgh engineer thinks he’s perfected the formula for the perfect shave – that’s also cheap. His company, Leaf Shave, creates razors that don’t use cartridges and use half of a standard double-edge blade. Though the razors are expected to sell for $79, the refill blades sell for as little as $.10 apiece. 

CEO and Founder Adam Hahn said he was inspired by his own troubles shaving.

No Nodding Off With This Headset For Truck Drivers

Jul 26, 2016
Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Spending hours on the highway can often leave truck drivers drowsy.

“I hate to say it, but unless you’re on the phone or something, a lot of drivers do what I do – you just kind of zone out,” said Tara Krate, a truck driver with more than a decade of experience.

Krate drives about 500 miles round-trip on her daily route and said it’s easy to sometimes lose focus.

But new technology could use those sleepy head bobs to make the industry a little safer.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

So, you had a baby a couple of years ago, and you go to a store’s app to search for a toy for your now-toddler. And whaddayaknow, there's a sale on the perfect treat.

That could become more common as artificial intelligence continues to creep into our mobile shopping experiences.

One Pittsburgh company, CognistX, is at the forefront of that movement. Its mobile app enhancements let retailers use advanced information about a person’s lifestyle and spending habits to target specific content toward shoppers.

College of Engineering / Carnegie Mellon University

It’s no bigger than a smartphone, but it could have a big impact on one of the world’s most deadly parasites.

Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Blue Martin is developing a device that she said will sort malaria-infected red blood cells from healthy red blood cells.

“Malaria, when it infects a red blood cell, eats the hemoglobin and spits out an iron crystal, which makes the cell magnetic, before the malaria splits it open and moves on,” Martin said.

Wellbridge

In a small office at the base of the Birmingham Bridge on Pittsburgh’s South Side, social workers and app developers are coming together to help vulnerable medical patients.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are making tiny strides -- no, really -- that could revolutionize the solar industry.

Paul Leu runs a lab at the university where students work with tiny particles called nanotubes.

Laurl Valn / Flickr

In a sparsely decorated office in Braddock, two men are trying to build a parking payment empire and it all started with a lunchtime conversation.

“One of our colleagues, she opened up her purse to help chip in and instead of pulling out money she pulled out a fist full of parking tickets,” said MeterFeeder co-founder and CEO Jim Gibbs. “She looked at us with desperation in her eyes and said, ‘If you make an app where I can pay for parking I would use it every day.’ And two weeks later MeterFeeder was born.”

Luyen Chou / Flickr

  

Jeff Blood has been fishing for more than 50 years. He’s cast his line for steelhead in Lake Erie, trout in State College and mined waters as far away as Alaska, Europe, South America and Central America.

“I have lots and lots of memories,” Blood said.

He's one of more than 800,000 licensed fishermen and women in Pennsylvania, according to Angler Labs founder Nic Wilson. It’s a growing sport, Wilson said -- one he loves. And it's that passion that inspired Wilson to create a soon-to-launch data tracking app for fishing enthusiasts.

Takashi Toyooka / Flickr

Reviewing a lengthy legal document can be a long and tedious task.

“Imagine looking at a computer screen for eight hours a day reading legal terms and trying to find the needle in the haystack,” said Alan Veeck, vice president of Denali Group, a Pittsburgh-based procurement service. “Doing that for eight hours makes your eyes bleed.”

LegalSifter, based in Lawrenceville, is offering an alternative. The program ContractSifter uses algorithms to extract certain terms and phrases from thick, wordy, legal documents, said CEO Kevin Miller.

Jennifer Szweda Jordan / 90.5 FM WESA

A locally made app called Seekahoo connects electrical, plumbing and other contractors with customers. The concept may sound like the well-known site Angie’s List, but Seekahoo's creators said they designed their platform with contractors in mind.

Meet Herb, A Robot To One Day Help Around The House

May 24, 2016
Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Personal Robotics Lab have spent years working on ways to make robots execute subtle, human-like movements in the hopes of helping around the house. 

With cameras for eyes, two thick arms and the occasional bowtie, Herb – an acronym for home exploring robot butler – only recently learned to move a cup across a table.

"We’re trying to get robots to be able to work in a home environment," said Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Jennifer King. 

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Saint Bartholomew School student Daryl Jean, of Penn Hills said she can’t understand why more girls don’t get excited about science and technology.

“I feel like girls, they can like science and stuff, but they don’t understand it, and some boys can be intimidating,” she said. “But I think you should try your best, because there’s a lot of inspiration out there.”

The American Association of University Women tried to kick start some of that inspiration in young Pittsburghers last weekend with its “Tech Savvy” computer coding workshop at La Roche College.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A doctorate project-turned-start up by two University of Pittsburgh students has grown from its days sharing a space at AlphaLab in East Liberty.

Kasey Catt and Noah Snyder first started InterPhase Materials with the intent of developing nontoxic coatings to be used inside the body for brain or dental implants. But after hitting roadblocks with the FDA, they refocused their efforts on coatings to keep marine life, such as mussels and barnacles, and mold from sticking to boats and buildings. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In a small, but growing office in Shadyside, Rhiza Founder and CEO Josh Knauer stood in front of a computer linked to the cloud and crunched big data for a Kia car dealer and a Pittsburgh TV station.

“Behind this very simple display of data are hundreds of billions of records of data that we are sifting through,” Kanuer said of the colorful mix of graphics and numbers on his screen. “And in a matter of seconds … we were able to get to results that had gone through those records and found just the ones that are relevant to this story for this television station and for this very local specific advertiser.”

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

As companies like Uber and Google work to make self-driving cars, a local company is working on another autonomous vehicle: forklifts.

Engineers and designers at Seegrid have spent the last decade perfecting technology that allows automated forklifts to travel through warehouses and move heavy product without a human behind the wheel. The machines roll about like robots, making noises that sound like beeps, bells and sirens as a means of communicating with one another and employees.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Lab rats can be taught to do just about any simple task for food or a treat. 

Scientists can also watch what is going on inside a rat’s brain by inserting a few electrodes. So it's not unusual that researchers at the University of Pittsburgh attached wires to the brains of a group of rats while performing menial tasks. The researchers wanted to understand the effect of anxiety, but what they learned was unusual.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Managers at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station got some advice this year from a panel of unlikely consultants – high school students.

Blackhawk High School students studied federal regulations for problems like workers' exposure to dangerous gases and the disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear engineers and scientists from First Energy Corporation challenged the teens to produce energy safely and more efficiently.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Anyone attached to their phone knows how frustrating a dead battery can be. But if you need a quick charge, look no further than your shoe.

Pittsburgh-based tech startup Sole Power has created a shoe insert with a battery pack that can charge small electronics such as flashlights, radios and cell phones. Sole Power was founded by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Matthew Stanton, who said it all started with a simple idea for a class project.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh-based company is finding new ways to use eye-tracking technology to help children with disabilities learn language skills at a younger age by playing digital games. Now the video gaming industry is taking notice.

Tobii Dynavox has been making devices to help nonverbal patients communicate with the help of computer-assisted voice technology. Many of their customers are stroke survivors and adults with degenerative diseases like ALS, in which sufferers lose muscle control. But the company is now looking to expand their devices to young children, and even toddlers.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A new artificial lung could buy patients and doctors more time during life-threatening and cardiac-related emergencies.

Pittsburgh-based Cardiac Assist just received FDA approval for the respiratory device. Before that, the company created an artificial heart several years ago that’s been used more than 4,000 times worldwide. The artificial lung will hit the market within the next two months.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local high schoolers recently took on a smelly task: finding innovative ways to eliminate some of life’s most offensive odors.

Dozens of classmates from Avonworth and South Fayette high schools presented their ideas and prototypes to executives at Calgon Carbon Corporation. The Moon Township-based company creates purification systems for a range of products, from drinking water to pharmaceuticals.   

Weekend Edit-A-Thon Puts Women In Wikipedia

Mar 8, 2016
Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local women are taking on Wikipedia.

“The gender gap on Wikipedia really just boils down to most of the people who write on Wikipedia are men,” said Kelly Doyle, a librarian at West Virginia University and scholar on gender equality. "We're trying to ... get more women to write on Wikipedia and, as a result, have more articles and content about women."

Doyle drove to Pittsburgh on Saturday to join more than 100 participants in a day-long Wikipedia “edit-a-thon.”

4Moms

Pittsburgh-based 4Moms, which works to create innovative parent-friendly products for children, unveiled a new product to streamline the clunky process of installing a car seat.

For sale later this year, the self-installing car seat joins a battery of other user friendly products that harness technology to sterilize, self-fold and mimic a parent's touch.   

Mara McFaddon, director of product management, said it’ll be the safest one yet on the market.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Imagine if companies knew the probability of turning someone into a customer – and keeping that customer.

That’s exactly what Green Tree-based Othot thinks it can do. The start up’s current focus is higher education student recruitment, and Chief Technology Officer John Abbatico said there’s plenty of data to mine.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

The makers of a new “smart plug” claim it can save companies and organizations millions of dollars each year on electric bills.

Boss Controls is a Pittsburgh-based company that produces the plugs. They’re designed to go directly into a wall outlet. But unlike traditional plugs, these gadgets are programmed to turn themselves on and off.

CEO Greg Puschnigg said they’re designed to reduce energy usage during times when devices, such as vending machines, copiers, coffee pots and computers, are not being used.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

A soldier in the field with little or no technical training could fix a piece of high-tech weaponry, seniors might use a complex health monitoring device and a newlywed couple can be coached through complicated IKEA instructions, all without the help of another human. 

Researchers at the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science are using wearable technologies like Google Glass to place an "angel" on a user's shoulder to do those types of tasks.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh-based company is aiming to make the fracking process safer for the environment with an innovative approach to water purification, by reducing the need to transport contaminated water and byproducts from drill sites.

In parts of Washington and Greene counties, residents in rural areas often hear the rumble of trucks traveling to and from fracking sites. Many of the trucks are used to haul water, which is an important element in the process.

Gordon Craig, of Epiphany Water Solutions, recently took WESA on a tour of an active well pad about 1 mile off of Interstate 79. The well is owned by Rice Energy, one of the companies now using Epiphany's new water purification systems.

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