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Prototype

Straight from the lab: technology’s first draft.

Cinematic Countermeasure

The expansion of digital cinema could be a boon for movie pirates who use camcorders to record films from theater screens and then sell the copies on the streets of New York City and Bangkok. But Cinea, a startup in Herndon, VA, is working with Princeton, NJ-based Sarnoff to develop technology that will make such recordings worthless. Recordings of conventionally projected films contain pulses of black because camcorders catch the brief moments during which the projector light flicks off and the next frame scrolls into place. A digital projector, however, emits continuous streams of light, allowing a pirate to record a great image. Through specially designed software and hardware, researchers at Cinea can control the microscopic mirrors that reflect each pixel of light toward the projector’s lens. Turning the mirrors back and forth in a pattern creates milliseconds-long distortions in the image. Theatergoers don’t see them, but camcorders pick up the distortions in the same way they record the flickers of conventional projection, says Cinea CEO Robert Schumann. Cinea has demonstrated its process using still images, and with a $2 million grant from the federal government’s Advanced Technology Program, the company plans to have a system ready for testing at a large-screen movie theater within two years.

Treatment Transporter

The molecular system that shepherds antibodies from a mother’s milk to her baby’s bloodstream may soon provide a painless alternative to drug injections. Molecules in the lining of a baby’s digestive tract pull antibodies from milk before they’re digested and escort them to the blood. This mechanism also operates in the upper-lung and nasal passages, and it remains active throughout life. Syntonix Pharmaceuticals of Waltham, MA, plans to exploit the pathway by fusing antibodies to drug molecules that are conventionally delivered by injection. Entering the body via an inhaler, nasal spray, or a pill, the fused drug molecule takes the antibody shortcut to the bloodstream, says Alan Bitonti, the company’s vice president for research. Last year, Syntonix began a human trial of a fused version of the red-blood-cell booster erythropoietin; several other fused drugs are in preclinical testing.

In Focus

Stare a moment at this O. Chances are you can’t make out the words at either end of this line. That’s because extreme detail can be resolved only by the small slice of the human retina called the fovea. Our eyes compensate for this limitation by jumping from spot to spot. Now researchers are mimicking this phenomenon in an effort to avoid sending “wasted” pixels in digital images over the Internet. Foveal Point, server-based software developed by New York University computer scientist Chee Yap, sends high-resolution detail only for the area of an image at which a user’s mouse is pointing. The user specifies that area’s radius, and the surrounding image remains indistinct. The result: the bandwidth needed to download images such as satellite photos can be cut by as much as 95 percent, depending on the size of the foveated area and the haziness of the background. Yap hopes to license the software to a company that will adapt it for commercial Web browsers and mobile devices. “Every browser should have such smart’ viewers,” Yap says, so that users can “go to any site and view arbitrarily large and high-resolution images.”

Document Fixer

Coffee spill obliterate part of that important letter? All you need is a paper towel and some cryptographic digital-signature technology from Palo Alto Research Center in Palo Alto, CA. Then you can clean up the mess and reconstruct the full page-words and images alike-in seconds. The technology, which PARC is seeking to license, starts by encoding the original document in a series of slashes-each just one-half millimeter across-that represent ones and zeroes. These “glyphs” may be printed as an unobtrusive gray screen on the back of the original. Scanning any 75 percent of a document’s gray screen gives a computer all the information it needs to rebuild the original. The key to this process is image compression technology that can render images with a minimum of glyphs, as well as redundancy within the glyphs and error correction software that fills in missing data. “Just as the Internet can recover from packet loss; we can recover from page loss,” says Jeff Breidenbach, the system’s developer.

Point-and-Click Animation

Software based on physical models helps artists create realistically animated graphics, but getting an on-screen object to wind up in a particular place is a tedious trial-and-error process. Enter Jovan Popovic of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. He has developed software that gives animators interactive, real-time control over animated graphics. To make a pair of scissors bounce off the floor and land on a coatrack, say, the animator simply clicks on the scissors and drags them first to the floor and then to the rack, determining the scissors’ path on the screen. The computer calculates the starting conditions needed to make the journey happen and does the math that generates realistic animation. Popovic, who did the research while he was a student at Carnegie Mellon University, says his tool will make movie and video game sequences-such as rolling dice, bouncing balls, and colliding objects-more believable. He has begun negotiations to license the software.

Impressive Chips

By helping to identify the proteins involved in fundamental cellular reactions, protein chips could become powerful aids in disease diagnosis. Aspira Biosystems, a startup in South San Francisco, CA, has developed a way to make protein chips that are more reliable and can detect more proteins than existing chips. Most of today’s protein chips rely on nanoscopic spots of special proteins to interact with and capture other proteins. Because the molecules are so finicky, however, chips are available for only a few types of proteins. Aspira’s system lets researchers make casts of short fragments of proteins in a polymer; these casts, arrayed on a chip, can selectively capture the matching proteins from a mixture of molecules. Using this technique, it should be possible to make chips that can latch onto virtually any protein, making way for the diagnostic tests that are needed to make personalized medicine a reality. Next year Aspira plans to begin selling the chips to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for use in drug discovery; diagnostic applications will follow.

One-Chip Audio

In the race to make cell phones and other audio devices smaller and cheaper, one company has found a way to put the sensing and processing onto a single chip. Akustica, a Pittsburgh spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University, has built multiple microphones onto a chip by etching meshes of tiny beams over cavities in its surface and applying a polymer coating that vibrates. Unlike competing systems that require separate assemblies for processors and acoustic parts, each of these chips is fabricated in one piece using standard automated techniques. The chips are, therefore, durable, reliable, and cheap to mass-produce. Akustica has put as many as 64 microphones onto a two-by-two-millimeter signal processor about the size of a sesame seed. Considerably smaller than what’s inside today’s cell phones and hearing aids, the chip, says CEO Jim Rock, can tell where sounds are coming from and can reduce background noise for a fraction of conventional manufacturing costs. Akustica plans to begin volume production within two years.

Battery Manager

Throw those jumper cables away. A sensor-and-software system under development at Stuttgart, Germany-based Bosch promises an end to weak or dead batteries, which account for one in seven car breakdowns. The unit, housed in a box the size of a deck of cards, monitors the battery’s ability to hold its charge and partially regulates power flows throughout the car. If the battery charge falls below a threshold level, for example, the system might raise the engine idle rate briefly to speed recharging or cut off power to low-priority systems such as heated seats, says Gnter Threin, an electrical engineer at Bosch who codeveloped the system. Using proprietary software that models the way batteries deteriorate with age, the system can warn a driver to replace the car battery well before the starter motor starts to struggle. An early version of the technology will be installed in some luxury car models this year; improved and lower-cost versions for wider applications are expected by 2005.

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