Enter the maze

Back (page) on the block

by Peter McOwan, Queen Mary University of London

Skyscraper blocks: copyright istock.com 38096794

Blocks, acting as a verb, to block, get in the way (of creativity). As a noun, a block, they are things we use to create stuff. That's the thing about blocks, you're never quite sure what you're going to get. Here we take a Computer Science look at the ways this block bimodality behaves.

Block on the landscape

Fancy visiting Denmark? You can without leaving the comfort of your computer thanks to the Danish government. They uploaded a 1:1 map of Denmark into the online game Minecraft, where every Danish detail is recreated by millions of tiny computer graphics blocks. Rather than indulge in millions of hours of game play to build the landscape by hand, the full sized replica was created automatically. They used geographical map data to create this novel bit in Minecraft's extensive collection of visual worlds. The upload was a hefty Terabyte of block building data - that is a billion or so blocks of 1s and 0s. The Danish government hope players will enjoy wandering the land, adding new buildings and places. The only rules: no swearing, no bullying no use of virtual TNT! Enjoy your visit responsibly.

Big benefit: Big bulks of blocks bring bi-location benefits

The build-a-block group

Architects are taking blocks to a whole new level. 3D printing is used to build small plastic prototypes of designs. The printer moves, controlled by a computer, depositing small blobs of materials that stick together in layers, building up the desired shape. But think bigger. What if the printer was the size of a cargo container and deposited blocks of material to create a full sized house? That's what they are doing in Amsterdam! Building with bricks is so yesterday! Or take China. There waste materials are recycled to create blocks that can be used to print a cheap bungalow in a day or so. Others are thinking cuddly. Researchers are looking at how modified 3D printers can produce joined together blocks of knitting for making soft toys.

Big benefit: Blocks are bricking it and building buddies

Block calculations

The brain, like a computer, is a powerful information processor. To do the monumental calculations needed just to stay alive, a brain does different things in different places. It has different blocks for different abilities. Your eyeballs are the only part of your brain you can touch, and they are at the front of the brain but the process of seeing starts to happen at the back. Information from your eyes runs through identifiable brain areas called, simply, V1 to V5. Damage area V3 and you lose the ability to perceive colour. Damage V5 and you may not be able to see movement. Your ability to produce fluent conversation seems to happen at the side in a place called Broca's area: problems there cause difficulties with speech production. Dyscalculia, a rare condition where the patient can't do arithmetic also seems to have particular brain areas associated with it. We are able to explore the brain's processing of information in these areas using clever algorithms, giving us a better understanding of how we compute, or don't, in our heads.

Big benefit: Broken blocks of brain beckon mental blocks

Block bends beat behaviour

Cities like New York are built on a grid. Streets run in parallel creating city blocks, which make it easier to get around. But not all cities are so simple to navigate and that's where maps comes in. Where we are changes the things we see and feel, but what if it could also change the music we're listening to? Enter Geosound, an app that uses the map of the area you're in to resequence the music on your phone. When you select a track the app calculates its beat structure, and then downloads a map of the streets around you. The software extracts the roads and junctions of your location and uses them to jump the music through its beat structure while showing how the beat changing elements are moving around you on the map. If your location gives an exciting rework of a musical classic you can tweet it for other to experience. Download it from: www.qappsonline.com/apps/geosound/

Big benefit: Blocks and beats make mash-up music