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Straight from the Lab: Technology’s First Draft
September 1, 2003

Software Radio

Wireless devices, from cell phones to FM radios, are effective but dumb. Most handle only one wireless format, since the others would require different radio components, adding expense and bulk. Electrical engineer Vanu Bose is using software to make wireless devices smarter. In May, the company he founded and heads, Cambridge, MA-based Vanu, demonstrated a prototype handheld able to send and receive both walkie-talkie and digital police-band signals.

Vanu engineers started with a Hewlett-Packard iPaq running Linux and added a custom expansion pack. The pack contains basic radio hardware, plus electronics that convert signals into digital representations. Vanu’s software then decodes the digital signals and sends sound output to the iPaq’s built-in speaker. In reverse, transmissions are encoded into a digital waveform particular to the desired format and sent to the radio hardware for transmission. Adding a new format requires only a software upgrade. The company hopes to commercialize the software for use by police and fire departments within 18 months; consumer products that could incorporate cell-phone, pager, and wireless-data functions are “down the road,” Bose says.

Cancer Cure Supplier

For tens of thousands of U.S. cancer patients each year, bone marrow transplants offer the best hope for a cure. But as many as 60 percent of patients cannot find donors who are genetically compatible. A new technology created by Gamida-Cell in Jerusalem, Israel, could improve those odds. The technology takes advantage of the fact that banked blood from newborns’ umbilical cords, which contains blood-producing stem cells, can offer a better chance for a match than the adult bone marrow most patients receive. But umbilical-cord blood contains relatively few stem cells-only enough to aid recipients weighing less than 50 kilograms. Gamida-Cell has developed a chemical that significantly increases the number of stem cells in cultured cord blood. If all goes according to plan, the company will produce stem-cell-enriched blood itself and sell it as a transplant product, starting as early as 2006. Human trials of the approach have already begun at the University of Texas’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Ride the Bus

Bus riders in Boulder, CO, who find it difficult to navigate the mass transit system may soon be able to tear up their maps and schedules and use handheld computers instead. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, working with Boulder-based software firm AgentSheets, are combining various technologies in a bid to restore independence to the cognitively disabled; eventually tourists might also use the system. Each traveler has a handheld computer and a cell phone. The handheld uses the phone to download Global Positioning System data transmitted by city buses, then determines the best route to the user’s destination. Software analyzes bus speed and direction and steers the user to the right bus, using arrows, images, and voice prompts. Future versions may combine GPS, cellular, and processing capabilities, eliminating the need for two separate devices.

Acoustic Implant

Remon Medical of Caesarea, Israel, is adapting a sound-based underwater communication technique to monitor bodily functions and even administer drugs. Remon’s tiny acoustic telemetry device, the size of a grain of rice, has no antenna or other wires and can be implanted deep in the body. Similar devices that use radio-based signals must be implanted a few millimeters under the skin or, if placed deeper, paired with a controller near the skin for communication and power. Remon’s device is charged remotely using ultrasound: a membrane stretched across a hole in its custom transducer converts sound waves to electricity. By using a flexible, micrometer-thin titanium membrane, instead of a rigid surface, Remon boosted the transducer’s efficiency 1,000-fold. The firm’s first products are sensors that measure pressure in the arteries of patients with congestive heart failure or abdominal aortic aneurysms, which affect more than seven million people in the United States. Future devices might release drugs. Remon has begun human testing and hopes to go to market in 2005.

Ultrafine Ultrasound

Every year nearly one million unnecessary biopsies are performed in the United States, while tens of thousands of tumors go undetected. This is because diagnostic imaging techniques like x-ray mammography and ultrasound can’t resolve features smaller than about five millimeters. Now biomedical engineers Vasilis Marmarelis and Tae-Seong Kim at the University of Southern California have developed an ultrasound system with 10 times better resolution. It uses an array of dozens of transmitters, each .4 millimeters on a side, to send ultrasonic pulses through tissue to a matching array of sensors on the opposite side. A computer generates images of the tissue based on the time delay and shape of the received sound waves. Resolution is high because the hardware elements are so small, and because transmitted signals carry more information than the reflected signals used in conventional ultrasound. The system will enter human trials this fall, says Marmarelis, and the researchers hope to partner with medical-imaging firms.

Text, Lies, and Videotape

A picture may be worth a thousand words-but even a few words can help sort a thousand pictures. At Siemens Corporate Technology in Munich, Germany, engineers Andreas Hutter and Joerg Heuer have developed software that analyzes video sequences and automatically generates text descriptions of all the moving objects within them. Instead of classifying an object in a parking garage as a person-a difficult task-the software could indicate that a “triangle” (legs) with a “brown top” (hair) traced a certain trajectory. Armed with a text database, security personnel could then search for a car thief with brown hair walking along a certain path just by typing in a few keywords. The Siemens approach, which is compatible with digital-video data standards and could be commercially available in three to five years, is faster and more reliable than training a computer to search videos specifically for a walking person, says Hutter. And the computer doesn’t need to be reprogrammed if security also wants to look for something else, say a particular car: a search for a “red rectangle” with “circles” will do.

Robo Ride

Imagine experiencing the upside-down thrills and G forces of a 100-meter-high roller coaster, but without tracks and within a space only seven meters high. That’s the idea behind Robocoaster, a programmable robot arm that can carry two passengers through loop-the-loops and barrel rolls at accelerations of almost twice the force of gravity. The ride, developed by Robocoaster of Warwick, England, and Kuka Roboter in Augsburg, Germany, is a modified cousin of the giant robot arms that handle everything from heavy lifting to spot-welding on automotive-factory floors. “Riders can choose from five levels: gentle, fun, fast, turbo, and extreme,” says Robocoaster president Gino De-Gol. That versatility makes the ride exciting for teens but still accessible to small children and senior citizens. Robocoasters are being tested at three amusement centers in the United States, Brazil, and Denmark, and could show up next year at major theme parks, says De-Gol.

Driver Profiler

Horrible driving seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. So DriveDiagnostics of Jerusalem, Israel, is aiming to give vehicle owners and insurers direct feedback on drivers’ performances. Next year, the company plans to begin marketing a device, eight centimeters in diameter, that sits on the dashboard and monitors every move the vehicle makes using accelerometers to measure the forces on the car. Different combinations of forces correspond to different events, and algorithms deduce whether the driver is braking suddenly or taking a corner sharply. The software examines a journey’s worth of events and correlates them with one of 30-odd driver profiles, such as “tired,” “drunk,” or “inexperienced.” Although the device will flash a red warning light when a bad move is made, the target market isn’t drivers but those who want to enforce better driving, such as parents of new drivers, car fleet managers, and insurance companies, who could review drivers’ performances after the fact.

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