Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.
PIN on the Go
If you worry that one day someone will steal your credit card number, protection may be on the way. Swivel Technologies of Knaresborough, England, has developed a credit card system that generates a fresh, unpredictable number for every transaction
A user who registers with Swivel receives a four-digit personal identification number that can be used on a cell phone, computer, personal digital assistant or any other device equipped with Swivel’s software. When this PIN is entered, the Swivel software generates a random 10-digit sequence that, in combination with the PIN, produces a unique one-time code; that code is transmitted to Swivel’s server, which authenticates the transaction. Interception of the wireless signal would do a would-be thief no good, because the transaction code is generated anew each time. The Swivel system can be used with existing digital phones as well as those based on higher-bandwidth “third-generation” (3G) wireless technology. The patented system should be commercially available within two years.
Location, Location, Location
Anyone who’s tried it knows: the Global Positioning System works great when you’re finding your way back from the middle of nowhere. But in a crowded city, where satellite signals ricochet off buildings, the system isn’t terribly accurate; relying on GPS may land you in the Hudson River rather than at the Empire State Building. South San Francisco, CA-based startup Enuvis has developed software that helps GPS cope with the urban jungle. Called UrbanGPS, the software includes algorithms that help units lock onto weak satellite signals, differentiate true signals from echoes and process more of the satellite signal faster. Enuvis has tested the technology in some of the world’s toughest cities-including Tokyo, Seoul and San Francisco. Receivers using UrbanGPS were twice as accurate as standard units, giving position within 20 to 40 meters, according to company president Michael Kim. The company is marketing the software, which can run on simple microprocessors, to cellular carriers looking to provide location-based services such as enhanced directory assistance, traffic information, personal navigation and emergency assistance.
With today’s sophisticated document scanners, color printers and photocopiers, counterfeiters can easily forge all sorts of official paperwork-even money. Researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center have developed a way to protect computer-printed documents from illicit duplication. The system puts a random pattern of bumps and ridges on the rollers that move paper through an ink-jet or laser printer. The rollers emboss the paper with a unique pattern, invisible to copiers and scanners, which is recorded in a database. Anyone needing to authenticate a document would run it through a special device that reads the embossing, then query the database. Inventor Tom Berson says PARC is looking for a company to license and commercialize the technology.
Even the world’s steadiest surgeons can’t avoid minuscule, involuntary hand motions. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute have developed active surgical instruments that can sense and compensate for these tremors. Tiny motion sensors on the tip of each instrument track its location, relaying the information to a computer. Software analyzes this data to distinguish intentional hand movements from the higher-frequency tremors. The computer sends a signal to piezoelectric actuators within the instrument’s handle that cancel out unwanted motion.
The researchers have shown they can cut the size of surgeons’ tremors in half, says project leader Cameron Riviere. These auto-steadying instruments should be cheaper and simpler to master than alternatives such as an electronically manipulated robotic arm. Within a year, the University of Southern California’s Retina Institute will test the devices in real surgery; several companies have expressed interest in commercializing the technology.
Sound All Around
Three-dimensional sound effects-like a voice seemingly moving from behind you to in front of you, or coming from far away-are common features in video games and could begin to enhance otherwise flat business presentations. Scientists at Siemens Corporate Research in Princeton, NJ, have developed Web-based software that applies myriad tricks-such as reverb and sound-muffling-to audio files to create such effects; it also streams the finished product, so users of handheld devices can hear it through their headphones. The Siemens approach requires none of the laborious programming that sophisticated audio manipulation usually entails; it works by adding a few new extensions to an existing Web standard known as the synchronized multimedia integration language. To hear the 3-D audio results, the listener simply goes to the Web site where the file is stored. A prototype is complete, says project manager Stuart Goose, but Siemens has not stated any plans for commercialization.
Roy Kornbluh at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, is developing the loudspeakers of tomorrow-which look a lot like the plastic wrapping that the speakers of today come packaged in. Kornbluh treats silicone with an electrically conductive grease that makes it expand and contract when charged. Sending electric signals through a thinly stretched sheet of the stuff causes vibrations, thus generating sound waves.
Light, flat and flexible, the silicone speakers could be applied to surfaces that conventional speakers would be too bulky for-for instance, they could line a car’s interior roof. And because sheets of silicone are easy to fabricate, doubling or tripling their size should add only a few cents to their production cost; eventually it may be possible for them to cover entire walls in your house. SRI says it has already built speakers that can passably reproduce a symphony; a version that matches today’s highest-fidelity speakers is probably about three years away.
3-D in One
All Olivier Zanen wanted was a cheap and easy way to take 3-D pictures of insects during flight, without having to rely on multiple cameras or expensive laser scanners. So the Cornell University entomologist developed his own technology-a mirror-based contraption that lets a single handheld camera produce 3-D pictures. Zanen’s imager fits like an adapter onto a standard video camera; its two pairs of mirrors capture both left and right views of an object. The complementary images are then downloaded to a PC, where software translates them into a 3-D reconstruction of the object. Zanen cofounded Synceros in Ithaca, NY, to commercialize the technology for an application less esoteric than insect photography: face recognition. Standard face recognition systems typically suffer from false negatives, often failing, for instance, to identify people whose heads are tilted. 3-D facial images contain additional information-like nose length-that helps the software make positive matches regardless of viewing angle. Zanen hopes to have his 3-D adapter on the market in the next couple of years.
Seeing Through Blood
Even the best medical imaging devices have a hard time seeing through blood. An Israeli startup is out to cure that vision deficiency. Nesher-based CByond has developed a flexible, disposable camera that fits on the end of an endoscope or catheter; its image-sensing chip transmits color pictures at ten times the resolution of a 3,000-fiber bundle. CByond has built a prototype five millimeters across and is working on a 1.5-millimeter version. Because blood scatters light, conventional angioscopes can “see” only by temporarily stopping the flow of blood. CByond’s camera solves that problem by using polarized light for illumination. A filter passes the polarized light reflected from the artery wall, blocking the unpolarized light scattered from blood cells. The camera should help find areas of the artery wall that are in danger of bursting. CByond plans to begin human tests within 18 months.