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Prototype

Shifty Blades
Shape-shifting rotor blades could boost helicopters’ flight ranges and payload capacities. Designed by researchers at the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Naval Air Systems Command, and Boeing, a new “torsional actuator” twists a rotor blade along its length like someone trying to pop ice cubes out of tray. The angle of rotation is no greater than two degrees in either direction, but the resulting shape change can customize the blade’s aerodynamics for either hovering or flying forward. Installed in the blade near the rotor hub, the actuator has a core made of NiTinol, a nickel-titanium alloy that deforms when subjected to an electric current. This deformation rotates a rod running through the blade; the rod in turn torques the blade. Calculations indicate that using such a blade instead of a fixed-shape blade could increase helicopters’ payload capacities by 40 percent. The actuator project is scheduled to be completed in 2008, after which the device could be retrofitted into existing vehicles.

Pixel Perfect
Get too close to your TV screen, and you’ll notice that each of its dots, or pixels, contains a trio of vertical stripes or “subpixels” colored red, green, and blue, with narrow black areas between them. This arrangement dates from the dawn of color television but has persisted into the age of advanced liquid-crystal-display computer monitors. A Cupertino, CA, startup called ClairVoyante thinks it’s time to mix things up – and believes the result will be brighter, cheaper displays. Red, green, and blue together make white, but to make a screen’s whites even whiter, ClairVoyante’s designers are adding a white subpixel to the mix (top). At the same time, they’re making each subpixel wider, so that a pair of subpixels will take up the same space as three conventional subpixels (bottom). That means there’s less black space overall; the combination of white subpixels and the new geometry almost doubles a screen’s brightness. It also cuts manufacturing costs, since the design requires only two-thirds as many “source drivers,” the electronic devices at the top edge of a screen that control each column of subpixels. ClairVoyante expects Asian manufacturers such as Samsung to launch the first “RGBW” devices – probably small-screen gadgets such as cell phones – in 2006.

Rear View Backbeat
Time may be running out for the bulky bass speakers on cars’ rear window ledges now that the window itself can produce the same sounds. “We were researching active noise control when we discovered the window glass is an excellent membrane for generating low frequencies,” says Urban Emborg, president of Sweden’s A2 Acoustics. In fact, says Emborg, preliminary tests show that at very low frequencies glass could produce less distortion than premium subwoofers. In addition to boosting sound quality and freeing up trunk space, says Emborg, A2’s glass-speaker system could ease vehicle assembly, since the glass and electronics can be preassembled as one unit. The system sends signals from a car’s audio amplifier to tubes 10 millimeters in diameter that lie along the bottom of the window frame. The tubes are made of a “piezoelectric” material that expands or contracts when a voltage is applied to it; the tubes create vibrations that propagate into the glass, producing deep notes that are audible in the vehicle but not outside. A2 is developing methods for mass-producing the technology.

Speed Reader
Ever wished you could speed-read? A new program called Jump could save you the bother. The software scans large documents and groups details about people, places, and other topics under descriptive headings, creating easy-to-navigate maps of the documents’ content. And it’s phenomenally fast, able to read more than 600 pages in 10 minutes. The idea is to let users get the gist of documents quickly and then find any specific information they want, says Nick Jakobi, head of linguistics research for Corpora, the Guildford, England, company that created the program. Unlike the “find” command in a word-processing program, Jump doesn’t just search for strings of characters. It uses natural-language-processing techniques to break text into noun phrases and verb phrases and identify the subjects and objects of verbs. It can thus find not just mentions of a person’s name, say, but other references to that person, even those that use job titles or pronouns. Corpora launched the program this spring as a tool for lawyers, journalists, and others in text-heavy professions.

Biotech
America Out-Teched

Despite the United States’ reputation as a driver of innovation, in a World Economic Forum poll it ranked only 10th in the world in terms of business use of information and communications technologies. The WEF asked business leaders to rate their respective countries according to three criteria: how extensively companies take advantage of foreign technology licensing, how aggressively they adopt new technology, and how much original R&D they perform. It also asked the executives how readily their firms can obtain telephone lines and mobile phones, and combined all five ratings into one index score. Who does the WEF name the global leader? Japan. But as a whole, Asia does not perform as well as Western Europe, which boasts 6 of the top 10 nations.

Medicine
Shrinks: Picture This

California psychiatrist Daniel Amen uses SPECT – single-photon emission computed tomography – brain imaging to diagnose and treat attention deficit disorder and other behavioral problems. Many of his colleagues take a dim view.

What’s the problem?
Psychiatry is the only field of medicine where it’s considered normal practice to treat an organ – in this case, the brain – without looking at it.

The technology you’re using has been around for thirty years?
It’s used by neurologists for diagnosing dementia, seizures, strokes, and head injuries. But some of the researchers at NIH keep saying it’s not ready for psychiatric problems.

What does it let you see?
You look at blood flow. We rate 30 different areas of brain function.

Critics say you haven’t proved the approach is scientifically valid. Why don’t you publish more?
I’m a clinician. My job is to do the best I can for my patients. The technologies continue to improve. In seven to ten years, I’m very confident that all complicated psychiatric patients will be imaged.

You’re doing pretty well already – four busy clinics.
Our biggest referral source is our patients. As people see what we can do, they demand it.

Are your colleagues being fussy or just careful?
Psychiatrists are high touch, not high tech. It’s holding back the whole profession. Not to mention our patients.

The Electricity Industry Sees the Light

Thomas Edison started the world’s first electric power company in New York City in 1880. In a Wall Street warehouse, he connected a coal-fired boiler to a steam engine and dynamo, then linked the plant by underground wire to a block of nearby office buildings. When he flipped the switch, 158 light bulbs (also designed by Edison) flashed on, and the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. made converts of its carefully chosen first customers – J. P. Morgan and the New York Times.

Edison envisioned electricity as a competitive, service-oriented business with numerous suppliers. He would hardly recognize the vast monopolies that dominate the U.S. power industry today. Yet that very industry – long known for its fierce resistance to change – is now poised for a transformation that may bring it closer to Edison’s original vision.

The winds of competition are roiling the power business. Since the early 1980s, a new breed of independent power companies has emerged to challenge protected utilities by building cleaner, more innovative, and more efficient plants. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 has heightened competition by giving these companies access to new markets. At the same time, miniaturized generators such as fuel cells and photovoltaics promise to transform the economies of scale that have shaped the industry, opening up a new era of decentralized power generation – perhaps even allowing individual homeowners to generate their own power. And new telecommunications technologies may link millions of these small generators and even household appliances into one “smart” power system.

Like the telecommunications industry of the early 1980s, the electricity industry is confronting increased competition and rapid technological change. These pressures could pave the way for a much more efficient and environmentally sound power system. But to get there, electric utilities will have to undergo a radical restructuring much like the one that transformed Ma Bell.

Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen (May/June 1995)

Tech Finance
Valuing Venture Capital Investments

For the first time in five years, median valuations of companies receiving venture capital increased last year. Companies already shipping products showed the largest gains; in 2004, their median valuation was one-third higher than in 2003. Overall, though, valuations were still only about half of 2000’s high. Health-care companies have suffered the least, their median valuation declining less than a fifth since 2000. But information technology companies have plummeted.

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