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Briefings
Turning Green, Talking, Playing Games

 

ROCKIN' ON THE ROAD

Motorcycles and music are a classic mix. Artists as diverse as Neil Young, Steppenwolf, and Arlo Guthrie have penned odes to the motorized two-wheeler. And the best part of the movie “Easy Rider” was the soundtrack. But for bikers, actually being able to listen to music and make selections as they ride has been problematic. Now a group of engineering students at the University of California, Berkeley is working on a solution that will let motorcyclists not only select and play their favorite tunes but take and make cell phone calls and, eventually, receive—oral—satellite navigation assistance from the Global Positioning System. The BentoBox is a voice-activated device that is wirelessly linked to a helmet. “And because it is a full computer, we are keen on integrating appropriate wireless Internet services as they become available,”explains Dan Steingart, a materials science graduate student and the project's team leader. The current version is a small server that hooks onto a bike. But the goal is to make it an add-on for a PDA that uses pocket PC software.

RadioSound sells a stereo for larger Harley Davidsons, and Chatterbox manufactures a two-way radio system for helmets. But neither of those products is voice-activated. It was Steingart who, because of safety concerns, suggested that the device be voice-activated, and not reliant upon visual or tactile controls. The team is hopeful that it can attract strategic investors and begin marketing the system by next summer. By the way, it's called the BentoBox because early versions resembled the Japanese snack boxes of the same name. “And,” Steingart adds, “we liked the paradigm of a variety of personalized goodies in a compact space.”

 

SWISH, SWISH, CRUNCH

Winter is not that far away, which for drivers in northern climates means making sure ice scrapers are handy and hoping their cars' defrosters don't take too long to heat up. But help is on the way, says Victor F. Petrenko, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering. Petrenko has developed a hot new ice-manipulating system that uses low-voltage electricity to rapidly and cheaply deice car windshields. A converter transforms the direct current from a car battery into a high-frequency alternating current that nukes the ice away but doesn't heat the surface. It works more quickly than a defroster and uses only a tenth of the energy. Petrenko expects to commercialize the device soon and anticipates that it will eventually become standard equipment. “We have solved all major technical problems and believe that our deicer can be very cheap” to manufacture, he says. The technology has been licensed to ISDI, a subsidiary of Torvec, a company that makes off-road tracked vehicles. ISDI plans to sublicense it to a large glass manufacturer. Beyond windshields, the technology could also be used to melt ice from other glass surfaces (e.g., headlights and mirrors) and snow from hoods. A related product could be used to give tires better traction on ice. Other potential applications using variations on the basic technology are almost endless: deicing aircraft, roads and bridges, ships, buildings, fiber-optic cables, non-slip shoes, skis, and cell phone towers — almost anything to which ice can be a nuisance or a hazard. Thanks to Petrenko, winters may soon become less slippery affairs.

 

THE GREENING OF JAPAN

TOKYO—Desperate to get a handle on its billowing air pollution, Tokyo is trying a host of unusual remedies. In April, it commissioned a private joint venture to build a set of experimental windmills on reclaimed land overlooking Tokyo Bay. The pilot project, led by an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corporation, calls for erecting a pair of 850-kilowatt windmills imported from Denmark this month. If all goes according to plan, the blades will start spinning in March of next year.

Energy returns are expected to be trivial—a mere 2.5 million kilowatt-hours per year, or only enough to supply about 800 households—but hopes are high that the windmills will electrify interest in green energy. In an attempt to appeal to schoolchildren, the city has even ordered that the windmills be painted a fetching color. The private venture, which was selected from eight candidates, undoubtedly swayed the judges by predicting, with some hyperbole, that “neither New York nor London has an overall plan for renewable energy use, and with this project, Tokyo can become the world leader” in renewable power. Tokyo, like most of Japan, now depends on nuclear and thermal power for most of its energy needs. If the windmills meet performance expectations, the city plans to build more throughout the metropolitan area.

Tokyo has made progress in slashing carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide levels, but efforts to rein in suspended particulate matter, nitrogen dioxides, and photochemical oxidants have been thwarted, largely because of a surge in diesel-powered trucks creeping along the city's horrendously clogged roads.

Battling the so-called “heat island” phenomenon, where vehicle and industrial emissions exacerbate the city's ferociously simmering summer weather, the city and neighboring localities are clamping down. Starting next year, Tokyo and surrounding areas will require particulate filters for all diesel vehicles. Tokyo has also launched an offensive to expand green space from the current 29 percent of the metro area to 32 percent over the next 15 years. “Green space” is loosely defined to include not only forests but everything from rice paddies to rivers to shrubs around office buildings. Now, all new, expanded, or improved buildings of 3,000 square meters or more must cover at least 20 percent of their land and rooftops with plants, turf, trees, or other foliage.

A city environment department spokesman noted with regret that with a continued expansion in roads, the city's clean air initiatives can only hope to arrest the continued decline in local air quality, rather than substantially improve it. “But,” he said, “we had to do something.”

 

CHILLING OUT WITH COMPUTER GAMES

DUBLIN—Gary McDarby is an Irish electrical engineer admittedly besotted by science, but also keenly interested in helping children in need. A decade ago he was working as a volunteer, dealing with youngsters who had been forced to become child soldiers in Liberia. One 10-year-old lad, who had taken part in a firing squad that killed a woman, was so traumatized by nightmares that he couldn't sleep. McDarby, desperate to help the child, gave him a Walkman loaded with a tape of the serene Celtic chanteuse, Enya. It did the trick, quieting the boy and helping to ease him into sleep. After that incident, McDarby concluded that “smart technologies” that taught people how to calm down could one day be developed. He's now a principal scientist at MIT's Media Lab Europe in Dublin and leads the lab's MindGames team, which has designed computer games that help stressed out children to relax. McDarby admits that games that encourage calm reactions are a paradox, but they seem to work. And once the games have taught the children tranquillizing skills, those lessons can be put to use in real life. The true test is “how effective the learned behavior is in the classroom,” McDarby notes.

His team has three prototypes ready, each created from scratch, using inexpensive technology. Nonetheless, he says, they look great, incorporating high-end, three-dimensional graphics to ensure that players are engrossed. One game, Relax to Win, has two players competing in a dragon race—the more relaxed the contestant, the faster his or her dragon goes. Electrodes attached to fingertips measure heart rates. Another game measures brain alpha waves and pulse rates, and the calmer players become, the more power they're granted. The first commercial versions of the games could be ready within a few months. McDarby's creations give the old phrase “relax, it's only a game” a new and poignant meaning.

 

GOING UNDER A TINY KNIFE

For patients, the development of keyhole surgery has made going under the knife much less of a risk. The technique, laparoscopy (or endoscopy), requires only small incisions into which a miniature video camera and long, slender tools are inserted. Because there is less tissue damage, minimally invasive surgery requires less recovery time and reduces postoperative pain. But its tiny tools can be cumbersome to use. Not only do they limit dexterity, but they're single-function instruments. That means surgeons are constantly switching tools during a procedure. Penn State engineers have developed a software program that can be used to design multi-task surgical tools that grasp, cut, and pivot around obstructions. The initial prototype has stainless steel jaws with scissor-like blades about the size of a grain of rice that not only can slice but, at the flick of a switch on the handle, can also grasp. The blades can also be rotated to get around obstacles. Dexterity tests on animals have been underway for more than a year.

Team leader Mary Frecker, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says the software can be used to design any number of other multi-task tools. Her team also is working on a compliant version that will let the surgeon bend the blades to make them even more maneuverable. The tool tip for the compliant version is also in prototype form, Frecker reports, and work is now focusing on the handle.

During dexterity tests at the Hershey Medical Center, the team hopes to gain early reviews from surgeons. Frecker says commercialization is a few years away. “We are currently working on developing relationships with industry. A possible scenario is that they would take over a portion of the development and take the designs into mass production,” she says. That would take only about six months, but first there would have to be a one- to two-year U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process. If that turns out to be a snip, then keyhole surgery could soon become an even less risky procedure.

 

LIGHTING THE WAY

MONTREAL—David Plant has seen the light. So, too, has his fellow professor Andrew Kirk at Montreal's McGill University. Now, the two members of the school's electrical and computer engineering department are hoping to put that light inside computers to make them work faster and more efficiently.

As Kirk explains, right now there is no problem with how fast processors in computers work. Integrated circuits with hundreds of millions of transistors can operate at speeds of gigabytes per second, something that would have seemed like science fiction only a few years ago. But what is a problem, Kirk says, is the speed of the interconnection between the circuits. “You can't get data on and off a chip fast enough for a processor to be working flat out.”

They are hoping to solve that problem with the help of photonics—using lightwave technology to transmit large amounts of data. One of the best known applications of photonics is fiber optics, which has been used for many years for long-distance telecommunications. What Plant and Kirk are working on is shrinking the distance over which light can transmit data, from tens and hundreds of miles to a few inches to make it practical to put inside computers. Recently, they have developed a computer chip in their photonics research lab at McGill that works using both electronics and light, with optical transmitters and receivers built right onto a chip to help transfer information from one integrated circuit to another.

“Electrical connections are great for processing information. Light—or optics—is best for transmitting the information,” Plant explains. “The silicon will still do the thinking, but the light will pass the information from point A to point B in the computer and back again in a much more efficient way than electronics and copper wire allow.” That's especially important for large computing tasks, like weather forecasting or medical imaging such as CAT scans, which deal with a huge number of variables at the same time.

The goal now is to make the leap from something that works in the laboratory to something that can be sold commercially. That means getting companies that make the processors to adopt their technology. So far, there are some positive signs, according to Kirk. “I remember hearing a lecture a few years ago by engineers from Sun Microsystems saying that Sun would never put optics inside its machines, but now the company has a program looking at doing precisely that. So does Intel. So they're thinking about it.” He adds, “It doesn't mean they're going to do it. Ultimately, the benefits will have to outweigh the costs. A lot of companies failed because they were trying to do beautiful technology rather than make money.”

 

STAMPS, ANYONE?

LONDON—For the deaf and hearing-impaired who rely on sign language, communicating with the hearing world is an often difficult and frustrating chore. But in Britain, they may soon find it somewhat easier to handle basic exchanges at the post office. Consignia, the company that runs the British post office network, is to begin a trial of a computer screen at some branches that displays a digital avatar that can communicate in sign language. The software takes oral speech, changes it to text, and the avatar—a computer animation that looks human—then translates the text into sign language. An initial trial of the software, developed at England's University of East Anglia, occurred at London's Science Museum last year and was deemed a success. And if this trial scores similar high marks, the screen could become commonplace at most branches. The post office technology is limited to a set of key and useful phrases for postal transactions. But future versions many years from now will take real-time speech and translate it directly into sign language. That could mean deaf people could regularly communicate with the hearing world using hand-held computers. There's a shortage of trained human interpreters, and they often need to be booked well in advance. So digital avatars conversant in sign language could some day put much more of the hearing world at the finger tips of the hearing impaired.

 

HEAVIER IT COURSES FOR AUSSIES

SYDNEY—Since the dot-com meltdown, IT students in Australia have been flocking to more focused and rigorous courses such as software engineering. “When times are tough, students demand a qualification that will give them an edge,” says John Rosenberg, dean of the faculty of information technology at Monash University in Melbourne.

The nation's largest IT school, Monash enrolls some 7,200 information technology students—up 16 percent since 1990. “Because of our size, we're a good indicator of the trend,” says Titian De Colle, Monash's marketing manager.

Among students applying to Monash this year, interest in software engineering is up nearly 30 percent, business systems 25 percent, and computer science 6 percent. “This is really significant growth at the harder edge of IT,” says De Colle. “There's been increased demand for more technical and heavier courses, while interest has slipped in more generalist courses.”

Part of the reason is that many of the jobs lost during the downturn required less expertise. The dot-com market was so hot that even self-taught people could snare fat paychecks. But a recent Australian Information Industry Association survey shows that half the country's IT jobs now require university backgrounds.

While demand for courses in software engineering, computer science, and digital systems are on the rise, other areas are experiencing declines. The university's bachelor of e-commerce is no longer offered due to lack of interest, and applications to the bachelor's program in information systems and management has fallen 23 percent.

Rosenberg says the “softer, generalist IT courses” will eventually stage a comeback. “Companies still need computers, they all need a Web presence and, in the end, are going to go back to hiring people to support those functions,” he says.

“Generalist e-commerce studies may one day again be a route to a good career,” De Colle says. “But, for the moment, students are making their decisions according to what they see in the recent job market.”

 

ROBOTS KNOW THE DRILL ON MARS

If a team of geologists were working in a desert here on Earth, they would chisel and hammer the rocks they wanted to study, because it's the interior of the rocks that contains useful clues. So next year, when NASA sends two rover vehicles to explore the Red Planet, their robotic arms will each be fitted with a Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) designed to scrape away 5 millimeters of the planet's dust-coated, oxidized rind and reveal to scientists on Earth the mysteries within. “We're trying to replicate what a geologist in the desert would do,” explains Mame McCutchin, spokesperson for Honeybee Robotics of New York, which designed and built the highly specialized drills. Geologists hope the mission will provide a climate history of Mars and help determine if any life forms exist there. It may also offer data that helps explain how life developed on Earth.

Final assembly of the RATs is now underway at Honeybee Robotics' lower Manhattan headquarters. The drills, which are each roughly the size of a beer can, weigh about 1.7 pounds and utilize a pair of diamond matrix wheels to handle the dirty work. Because there is limited power available, they are low-force, high-speed drills that require only about 10 watts of power. “That's less than your average light bulb,” McCutchin notes. The drills also have to be ready for the unknown. “No one knows how hard the rock will be,” she explains. Or how soft, for that matter. Also, after eons of flying around, its particles slamming into one another in a waterless environment, Mars' dust is very fine. What effect the dust will have on the 90-day exploration is also in question. During the mission, set to start next May, Honeybee's team will be monitoring the data. It will be able to remotely slow or speed the drills, if necessary, but if something breaks, there's no sending up a repairperson. Honeybee has a long history with NASA, going back 16 years and 75 projects. The godfather for this mission was a 1990s project to take core samples from the Temple1 comet. That project was scrapped in 1999, but a lot of the know-how and technology for this mission was first developed then. Honeybee also is working with NASA on a Mars mission slated for 2007-09, called Smartlander. That will require drilling holes 20 meters beneath the surface.

Honeybee, founded in 1983, develops highly customized robots and smart machines and has a reputation for unique design skills. Earthbound projects include the 65-ton Coca-Cola sign above Times Square in New York City; Honeybee designed the moving parts. The company also designed an 800-pound robot that moves like an inchworm through the 100 miles of steam pipes beneath the streets of Manhattan. The WISOR robot can detect and weld small leaks, thus lengthening the life of the pipes, some of which were built a century ago. That's pretty old, but compared to the surface of Mars...