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Alt-week 6.8.13: the Tetris printer, micro-vacuums and naked Antarctica


Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

Printing can take many forms these days, it seems. It's a term we see pulled in another direction this week, but one we think you'll enjoy. Want something a little more tangible? How about advanced Antarctic topology, or gas-detecting microscale vacuum pumps? Yep, this is alt-week.

It's a fact, we're suckers for a bit of video game nostalgia, and this week we've got it in spades. Not only does Taito's classic Space Invaders celebrate 35 years since swallowing its first quarter, Tetris is back in our lives. So, technically, it might have never really left -- but this time it's inception-style nostalgia, thanks to this natty Tetris "printer." Using an algorithm to convert a source image into one-square-sized "pixels," a Tetris playfield recreates the image one line at a time, clearing blocks and rows as needed until the right colors are in place. The code essentially plays the game until it gets the Tetriminos in the right places and the end image -- in this case game characters -- emerges. Watch the video to see it in action, or head to the creator's site to see how it was put together block by block.

Altweek 6813 the Tetris printer,

You'd be forgiven for thinking the image above came from the Curiosity rover, which is due to hit the road again soon. Actually, it's a detailed map of what Antarctica looks like without all the ice. The new images, created by the British Antarctic Survey, are compiled from decades of measurements, and give us the most intricate view of the continent's topography yet. Three datasets in total were used -- surface elevation, ice thickness and bedrock topography -- to create the imagery, which replaces the previous best collected over 10 years ago. The picture it paints is in stark contrast to the relatively smooth surface we're used to seeing thanks to the permanent layer of snow and ice. Beyond mapping, the work also helps scientists understand how the ice moves around, under its own weight, on top of the base layer of rock. Want to see more? Interactive images and a video presentation over at NASA are available for the curious.

Altweek 6813 the Tetris printer,

If you thought the trusty Roomba was the pinnacle of vacuum technology, think again. Recent research, funded by DARPA, has resulted in the world's smallest vacuum pumps. In some cases, smaller than a dime. While these micro-suckers might not be much cop at cleaning the den, they do have other, more specialized talents. Most notably, the technology could offer highly sensitive gas sensors that can provide early warnings of chemical attack, and biological pollution. The research was conducted with input from the University of Michigan and Honeywell, with the example you see above being a 24-stage microscale "rough" pump -- where each section serves as either a pump or a valve. Previously, the smallest pump or vacuum technologies were about the size of a deck of cards, making them impractical for use inside complex electronics. With further development, however, these microscale pumps could allow for smaller (and more accurate) laser-cooled atomic clocks. So don't make that impulse purchase just yet.

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

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