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The Year in Infotech

Technology Review picks the year’s most significant advances in information technology.
December 26, 2006

The way we use technology is changing. A few years ago, static e-commerce sites made up much of the Internet. But now, video is taking over, and people’s viewing habits are evolving. More people are searching online for video, creating, sharing, and editing it than ever before, and these activities are driving a slew of new software applications and hardware innovations. Below, we’ve chosen six of this year’s most compelling information-technology stories, many of which relate to our culture’s newfound addiction to a novel type of video experience.

Researchers at Cornell University are working on microelectromechanical systems, such as the tiny silicon mirror and carbon fibers shown above, to create small, efficient projectors.

Image and video search. When Google bought YouTube in October, the Internet search giant gave credibility to the burgeoning world of online video. But one fact still remains: finding a particular video clip can be difficult using a traditional search engine. This year, a number of academic and commercial enterprises tried to improve image and video search. Photo-sharing website Riya released face-recognition software that allows people to search through their photo collections by face. Later in the year, the company released, a site that lets people search for shoes, handbags, and watches by scouring the Web for similar pictures. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University made headway on automatically tagging images, and a group at the University of Leeds used cues from face-recognition software, closed captions, and original programming scripts to identify faces that appear in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Mobile-phone projectors. While mobile devices have lots of storage space for pictures and videos, the small screen still makes viewing media awkward. But that could soon change. Clearly, Nokia understands the importance of implementing projection systems for mobile phones. Researchers at Cornell University are working on tiny microelectromechanical systems to create small, efficient projectors. And Microvision, of Redmond, WA, gave Technology Review a preview of its mobile-phone projector system, slated for display at next year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Geotagging. GPS is becoming a more common feature in mobile phones, cameras, and cars. The result is a world of people, pictures, cars, and data trails on maps. A Microsoft research project aggregates disparate sensor data to map the world in real time. Online photo-sharing site Flickr now lets people tag their photos with the name of the location where they were shot, allowing people to search for photos by geography. And Nokia is working on a project to link the physical world to the Internet via mobile phones, and GPS itself is improving its reliability.

Tools for content creation and sharing. In the past year, podcasts, online photo albums, homemade videos, and blogs have bloomed all over the Internet, and many were made by regular people just looking for their 15 megabytes of fame. A blizzard of new software and content-sharing sites has allowed for this proliferation. Yahoo Answers lets anyone be an expert by answering questions posed by others. More people are blogging from mobile phones. And video-editing software is migrating from the desktop to the Web, allowing people to interact and participate in a medium that has been closed to the average person for decades.

Electronics without silicon. As the microelectronics industry makes smaller and smaller transistors, a handful of researchers are looking beyond silicon to find a better semiconductor. At this year’s Intel Developer Forum, the company announced the results of their work on an indium-antimonide transistor that operates 1.5 times faster than a silicon transistor. And more recently, at the International Electron Device meeting, MIT researchers showed that an indium-gallium-arsenide transistor, created the same size as today’s state-of-the-art silicon devices, runs 2.5 times faster.

Flash memory. The iPod Nano, which uses flash memory to hold thousands of songs, effectively thrust solid-state storage into mainstream cool. Providing an alternative to magnetic, spinning hard drives, solid-state storage uses transistors and chips to hold data, making it smaller and sturdier. Companies such as Intel, Freescale Semiconductor, and Samsung have invested millions in flash-memory fabrication technology and are constantly looking for ways to increase storage density while shrinking chip size. Freescale is looking at nanocrystals as a way to pack more data-saving transistors on a chip, and Samsung is stacking layers of silicon to boost capacity. The applications extend beyond smaller MP3 players, however. Samsung is looking for ways to make flash hard drives for laptops affordable. And flash drives that plug into the USB ports can now hold your computer’s operating system, applications, and files, so you can take your desktop to computers at your friend’s house, a colleague’s office, or an Internet café.

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