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Prototype

Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.

Movies on the Small Screen

Makers of digital organizers have long promised that we’ll be able to use their portable gadgets to view premium video content, such as current films and television shows. Movie studios and other copyright owners have not been terribly cooperative, though, holding back their content and citing the lack of reliable antipiracy technology. Now there’s a way around this impasse: this spring, San Francisco startup Mazingo Network is launching the first system that delivers copy-protected video to handhelds. As a result, people will finally be able to watch copyrighted movies and TV shows on the devices’ small screens. Video playback is “one of the best features of the Pocket PC,” says Bill Dettering, Mazingo’s founder and chief technology officer.

The system-designed for Pocket PC devices from Compaq, Casio and others-is built around software that adds decryption capabilities to PocketTV, a widely used (and free) program for viewing video on a mobile device. Mazingo’s subscription-based service transmits both video files and a decryption certificate to a Pocket PC. If the certificate matches an ID embedded in the device, playback begins. This approach wasn’t possible until recently, since the the previous generation of Pocket PC devices lacked unique IDs.

High-Tech Medic

An array of acoustic sensors that can be worn around the neck to pick up breathing patterns and heartbeat rates could help monitor soldiers’ physiological condition on the battlefield. The prototype sensors, under development at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, consist of microphones embedded in gel-filled pads. The gel, whose density and sound speed match those of human tissue, optimizes the conduction of sound from within the skin to the sensor. It also blocks out ambient noise (likely to be very loud on a battlefield). By listening to the sound of blood flow and respiration, the sensor monitors heart and breath rates, blood pressure, coughing, vomiting and other symptoms of distress. The sensors would transmit their readings to a remote receiver via a wireless communications device. The sensors can also be worn on the wrist or a headband (photo), making them less cumbersome than vests that are also under development for similar monitoring applications. The sensors remain several years from battlefield readiness.

Mind Your Meetings

Some of the best insights hatched at brainstorming meetings get lost in the shuffle for lack of supporting information. Eric Brown and colleagues at IBM’s Watson Research Center are working on software called Meeting Miner that could patch these productivity leaks.

First, existing speech recognition software records freshly hatched ideas as they are voiced. Next, new text analysis technology gauges the ebb and flow of words and determines when a chunk of a discussion represents a larger topic. The program then uses keywords to search for related information. Participants in a chip design meeting, for instance, might rely on Meeting Miner to flag conflicts in a patent database. Brown is working to adapt the system into a help desk aid for service reps who need transcriptions of complaints and answers to customer problems.

Identified Flying Concept

As the U.S. Department of Defense solicits designs for aircraft that can take off vertically, one option is-yes-a flying saucer. In the conceptual design by Go Aircraft of Long Beach, CA, a round fuselage rides on a single large fan whose blades reach the perimeter of the circular craft. Jet engines are mounted on the fuselage; their thrust is routed through ductwork to the fan for vertical lift. Once clear of obstacles, the craft tilts to create forward thrust until finally all jet thrust is redirected rearward to achieve cruising speed. In theory, the craft has twice the range and cruising speed of the military’s troubled tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey. Ron Sincavage, senior program manager for autonomous vehicles at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, says the concept “offers the potential for a highly agile and maneuverable system.” A patent on the design is expected to be issued soon. However, says Go Aircraft president Gordon Ow, “It’s not capable of outer-space travel.”

All Shook Up

A new mixing technology based on low-frequency sound waves could save billions of kilowatt-hours for energy-hogging industries like chemical processing. It’s a simple idea: a motor-driven bar vibrates in a chamber filled with liquids or gases, causing sonic waves that mix the materials (photo). The low frequencies (typically below 100 hertz) are gentler than those of existing high-frequency sonic systems, which can damage delicate polymers. “It’s like hitting a tuning fork and sticking it into a bucket of water,” says Richard Talley, an engineer at Montec Research, the Butte, MT-based outfit that developed the system with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The first industrial-sized blenders using the low-frequency sonic technology will shorten mixing times by about 60 percent, according to the company. Montec is talking with companies in a number of industries dependent on mixing processes, including mining, waste treatment and petroleum.

Fingertip Power

The batteries used in remote controls can be costly to replace-and they seem to run out of juice at the most inconvenient times. MIT Media Lab researchers Joseph Paradiso and Mark Feldmeier have devised a way to eliminate this hassle: a batteryless controller powered solely by the energy that goes into pressing its buttons.

The control (photo) contains a piezoelectric material that produces a voltage pulse when compressed. This electricity powers a wireless transmitter that can send a digital code more than 20 meters. The researchers have demonstrated this concept in a keyless car-entry remote. The same technology could also replace the batteries in TV remote controls. Products incorporating the controller could be on the market within two years.

Helmets for Hogs

They swerve in and out of traffic, find parking spots lickety-split and emit an unmistakable aura of cool. But for bikers on their Harleys, it’s a trickier affair to flip through CDs or fumble with a map. Enter a team of engineering students from the University of California, Berkeley, who have devised a motorcycle helmet endowed with voice-activated controls. The fully loaded helmet lets bikers speed dial their buddies, play Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” or, eventually, download driving directions via GPS technology. “We want to provide the motorcyclist with all of the audio luxuries considered standard on a car, without the distracting controls,” says team leader Dan Steingart, a materials science graduate student at Berkeley. The group strapped a Palm Pilot-sized server onto the motorcycle’s frame to act as a universal control and equipped the helmet with a wireless transceiver and headset. The students are seeking venture capital funding.

Docking Desks

Office work often involves idea sharing in one-on-one meetings. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Integrated Publication and Information Systems Institute in Darmstadt, Germany, have designed an electronic desk to facilitate such discussions. The “ConnecTable” (photo) is a horizontal, pen-writable display. When two of these tables are placed next to each other so that their edges touch, the display surfaces merge to create one big workspace. If one person draws a figure on her desktop, for instance, she can push it over to the other person’s display by placing her pen on the figure and sliding it toward the other desk-much the way someone would slide a piece of paper across a conference table. Norbert Streitz, the desk’s chief architect, says that the German furniture manufacturer Wilkhahn plans to bring the display table to market by year-end.

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