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New Industry Group Hopes Open Source Framework Can Propel the Internet of Things

The days of sitting in your driveway to listen to the end of your favorite song or compelling news broadcast may be over soon. Ditto on worrying about where you put your house keys.

A newly formed industry consortium, the AllSeen Alliance, wants to advance the adoption of the “Internet of things” through an open source framework. The Internet of things is based on the idea that devices and objects can connect to each other for seamless sharing of information and coordinated operations.

In such a connected world, you could turn the car off, open your front door and have the same song or radio show playing in your home. Additionally, when you drive up to your house, the doors could unlock automatically.

The AllSeen Alliance involves leaders in home appliances and computing, including the Linux Foundation, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, Cisco, D-Link and others. The software framework comes from a project originally developed by Qualcomm called AllJoyn, which allows products to communicate over Wi-Fi, power line networks, or Ethernet. The alliance members plan to expand the standard and take input from the open source community.

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Spy Games: Spooks Infiltrated Online Games

“Tracking terrorists” may represent the best official excuse ever concocted for U.S. and British spies to play online games at work. But it remains unclear whether such cyber-sleuthing efforts have paid off, according to new revelations from the Snowden documents.

The Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica jointly reported on a U.S. National Security Agency document written in 2008 and titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments." The document revealed the NSA's strong interest in extending surveillance of potential terrorists and other intelligence targets to World of WarcraftSecond Life and Microsoft's Xbox Live service—online gaming spaces already being infiltrated by FBI, CIA, and Pentagon spies back in 2008.

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Silicon Valley Fans of Nikola Tesla Assemble to Unveil A Statue

On Saturday, under a crisp, blue, Silicon Valley sky, geeks of all sorts gathered to honor an inventor they believe should be the symbol of Silicon Valley. They believe Nikola Tesla is special not just for the countless advances he made in developing alternating current, wireless energy, wireless communications, and more, but because of his modesty, and the fact that he was far more interested in moving society forward than in accumulating wealth.

Earlier this year, one Tesla fan, Dorrian Porter, launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a tribute to Tesla to stand in Silicon Valley, in the belief that the inventor should be a symbol for the valley’s entrepreneurial spirit. The campaign sought  US $123 000; and raised $127 260 from 722 supporters. The last chunk of that money, a $20 000 donation that put the campaign over its goal just hours before the Kickstarter deadline would have terminated the effort, came from an anonymous family. Said Porter, “It’s fitting for Tesla to have had this kind of anonymous support—because it’s what he would have done.”

The statue, designed by artist Terry Guyer, rests on land offered by local building owner Harold Hobach, at 260 Sheridan Ave. in Palo Alto. It contains a time capsule, to be opened in 30 years, and a free Wi-Fi hotspot. This isn’t the only monument to Tesla in the world—in September, a monument went up at the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham, N.Y., and monuments are also standing in Croatia and in Niagara Falls. It is, however, the first in Silicon Valley, so its unveiling brought out the local Tesla fans.

Greg Leando, a local banker, says he came because, he says, he found that, growing up in Silicon Valley, “Tesla is an inspiration to al ot of young entrepreneurs. We are at the epicenter of technology and innovation, so it is a fitting tribute.”

Engineering technician Konstantinos Georgiou came to honor a “little fellow with a big brain.” Georgiou is a big fan of Tesla, he says, “not only because of the things that he invented, but also because of the fact that he was humble, and that’s admirable as well.”

Aeronautical engineer Ana Rosic came because she feels a special connection to Tesla. She, like Tesla, is Serbian, and, she says, “We Serbians always had a lot of respect for Tesla. I was delighted that someone thought of this idea; he’s done so much for the world, this honor is overdue.”

 At the Saturday’s unveiling, attendees crowded around to put their own special items in the time capsule—an iPhone, a 2013 penny, and cards on which they’d scrawled their predictions for the future. Scenes from the unveiling follow.

The wraps come off of a bronze statue of Nikola Tesla, in front of 260 Sheridan Ave. in Palo Alto. Tesla fan Dorrian Porter, standing with his daughter on his shoulders, used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the statue, created by artist Terry Guyer, standing to next to Porter.

A time capsule, inserted in the base of the statue, is slated to be opened in 30 years. Those attending the event contributed memoriabilia from the present—including a 2013 penny and an iPhone—and their predictions of technology's future.


Tesla fans crowded tables selling T-shirts and souveniers, like these magnetic miniatures of the monument.

Photos: Tekla Perry

Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

A new idea for treating brain injury doesn't involve fixing the damaged regions. Instead, researchers want to detour neural impulses around the damage. 

Scientists used to think of the brain as an collection of discrete parts, with different regions taking charge of different neural functions. Today's emerging model of brain activity indicates that even a simple act of perception or cognition involves many different brain regions. Several projects are devoted to mapping those complex webs of interconnections, collectively known as the connectome.

The current experiment on brain injury banks on the idea that a lesion in the brain may be disruptive partially because it interrupts some neural circuit. The researchers, from Case Western Reserve University and the Kansas University Medical Center, thought that a little judicious rewiring could solve the problem. 

In the study, researchers caused brain injuries in rats' caudal forelimb area, which is involved in the movement of the rats' front legs. That brain region typically processes information from a sensory area that provides information about the limbs' positions, and it sends on the command to the premotor cortex, which in turn conveys the command to the spinal cord. In these injured rats, though, the signal couldn't make it past the sensory area. A rat presented with food pellets will still try to grab them, but it will grope around almost at random, and will have little success in nabbing the food.

To restore function, researchers implanted a microdevice in the rats. One set of electrodes recorded and digitized the signals in the sensory area, then the signal was routed to another set of electrodes in the premotor cortex, where they delivered precise electrical pulses. When these cyborg rats were tested for their pellet-grabbing skills, they performed almost as well as uninjured animals. 

The video below tells the tale. Warning: Don't watch if you don't want to look at post-brain-surgery rats. They have a somewhat Frankenstein-like appearance.

Such technology could one day help a broad swath of people who suffer from traumatic brain injury, including football players, war veterans, trauma victims, and stroke patients.

Image and video: David J. Guggenmos et al.

NSA Collecting Cellphone Location Data Worldwide

Millions of Americans who travel abroad every year with their cellphones end up becoming data for a powerful set of surveillance tools used by the National Security Agency, the Washington Post reported yesterday. The NSA gathers almost 5 billion cellphone location records every day and uses the data to search for intelligence targets worldwide, according to the Post.

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Radio Pulse Gun Aims to Stop Modern Cars

When an ordinary police stop becomes a dangerous high-speed car chase, a new kind of radio pulse gun might come in handy. The device aims to stop fleeing suspects by disabling their modern cars' electronics. At least that's what the maker of the device, a British company called E2V, claimed during a recent demonstration. The company is marketing the radio pulse gun as a non-lethal weapon for law enforcement and military customers, but the device is far from perfect: it won't do much to stop older vehicles—and it might even prove dangerous for the newest drive-by-wire cars.

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Volvo to Test Self-Driving Cars in Traffic

Volvo and a consortium of Swedish research institutions will test self-driving cars in street traffic in and around Gothenburg starting in 2017, they announced yesterday. The project begins next year with customer research and hardware development. It will culminate in a fleet of 100 cars that will alternate between driving themselves and allowing their human occupants to drive, depending on where they are.

The Swedish initiative has the support of Gothenburg's city authorities. U.S. regulators are also working on how to handle self-driving cars. Cities stand to benefit from reduced traffic and, if self-driving cars join car-sharing schemes, less demand for parking. US regulators have not yet indicated how they will handle self-driving cars, but this Swedish announcement suggests one way of easing self-driving cars into the traffic flow: partial access. Only certain roads will be designated for the Gothenburg test, according to Volvo.

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Satellites to Monitor UN Forest Protection Goals

Climate change negotiators agreed Sunday to monitor deforestation and to pay developing countries for keeping carbon trapped in forests. To measure just how much forest those countries are conserving, the United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+, to its friends) will rely on a complex system of satellite measurements and field checks. The agreement is a victory for advocates in the research and conservation communities. Yet they face a lot of work implementing the program.

Many countries and agencies already have experience conducting their own long-term monitoring, but the programs often differ in their goals and methods. That makes their data hard to compare. For example Brazil spent US $1.4 billion on a satellite system a decade ago for monitoring the Amazon, but some researchers accused it of being more of a drug-smuggling interdiction tool than a forestry tool. And the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) has been monitoring wildfire-driven deforestation since the 1980s, but that is not suited to monitoring illegal logging because the two forms of deforestation occur on different timescales. Earlier this year, Nature published a commentary by researchers and satellite builders calling for a single international standard for forest-monitoring data.

A Finnish-led team has been working on a more technical forestry problem: how to combine the various bands of data satellites can collect. Optical data, such as that provided by the Landsat system, are common, but do not penetrate the clouds that often cover tropical forests. The team found that they could boost their ability to estimate forest cover and degradation by including radar data, they reported earlier this year in IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing. The project, called ReCover, collected satellite data in multiple bands from forests at five study sites and compared satellite-based interpretations to measurements of forest cover and quality on the ground. Their first-pass analyses achieved from 75 to 91 percent accuracy in forest classification, depending on the method, but combining methods should help them improve.


Photo: Researchers collect ground truth in Chiapas. VTT.

Hardware Hits from Haxlr8r Include A Robotic Guitar Tuner and Gadgets for Urban Gaming

I go to a lot of start-up launches. And at every launch there’s usually a good idea or two that looks like it might turn into a product that makes sense. But at Haxlr8r’s biannual launch event last Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, the hit rate seemed vastly higher than typical—with more than a handful of good ideas that seem very close to being ready to hit store shelves.

Part of the reason for these gizmos being so nearly ready for prime time is Haxlr8r’s unique approach. Twice a year, the two-year-old incubator takes a small class of start-ups to spend four months in Shenzhen, China. Just about as soon as the entrepreneurs arrive, the Haxlr8r mentors send them out to find a manufacturer; the idea is that if you are not talking to a manufacturer before you are deep into the design stage, you’ll likely have to go through a time-consuming and expensive redesign to make the product manufacturable. The Haxlr8r startup teams are expected to design for manufacturability right from the beginning.

I was also surprised by just how young these entrepreneurs tackling hardware products were. I didn’t get to check the IDs of everyone in the room, but some were clearly not even a year out of college, and most were not much older. It’s refreshing to see that not all engineering students are focused on writing apps or have their heads in the (virtual) clouds.

Enough of a preamble. These six (out of ten) gadgets launched at Haxlr8r made immediate sense to me. Many of them are available for preorder on Kickstarter now. But most won't be shipping in time for the holiday gift-giving season—bad news for the geek on your list.

• The Roadie Tuner from Band Industries. Maybe I noticed this one because I’ve got a couple of sons who play guitar (one professionally), so I know what it takes to keep the various guitars around the house and on stage in tune. But I think even if you aren’t around guitar players, you’ll find this robotic guitar tuner magical. The US $99 gizmo pairs with a smartphone app; the user plucks the string, the app does the listening, and the Roadie Tuner, placed over a guitar peg, quickly adjusts the string tension. The app can store multiple custom tunings for quick adjustments between songs. It can even and track multiple guitars to determine string wear and alert the user to replace a string before it breaks. Roadie’s developers—a robotics engineer, Bassam Jalgha, and an audio processing engineer, Hassan Slaibi, who hail from Beirut, Lebanon—say the little robot can tune a guitar in less than 30 seconds. (Video below.)

Palette. Palette’s founders, from Toronto, Canada, think everyone—not just DIY’ers—should be able to build custom controllers for their computers. They have designed a snap together set of dials, sliders, and buttons that lets users build a custom controller, paired with a software tool for mapping the controls to any functions of any software. Their first target market is people who do photo editing, who, they say, are desperately in need of better controllers. Sets of Palette blocks sell for $99 to $399.

• The Wearpoint Tact. Wearpoint’s founders, from Brooklyn, NY, really like Google Glass, but think that the voice and touch-the-rim controls are “socially awkward.” Now we can argue about just how subtle one can really make a camera and display that sits on your face, but Wearpoint thinks that users should at least get the controls out of the way. To that end, they've designed a $60 remote controller that gives tactile feedback and can be tucked in a pocket or be worn on the wrist.

Dustcloud. Urban gaming—getting gameplay out of virtual worlds and into real ones—is definitely on people’s minds these days. After all, what was San Francisco’s recent Batkid adventure other than a really impressive urban game that had even the police and the mayor playing? Perhaps it’s having just lived through the media frenzy surrounding Batkid that made Dustcloud’s gaming platform make so much sense to me. Dustcloud, based in Prague and Berlin, has created little electronic guns called “dusters” that shoot electronic bullets the company calls “speks.”  (They do look clearly enough like toy guns to keep the users safe, at least I think so). The basic concept is nothing really new (think lazer tag, using cellular data and GPS instead of beams of light). But the clever app that lets you locate team members and competitors, keep score, and play anywhere really makes this one look like a win. The company describes the experience as Twitter meets Halo, or FourSquare for spies. The business model is interesting too: the company plans to sell the app and dusters at a low cost and make its money on the ammunition and “mods” to make the weapons more powerful. I am absolutely not the target market for this one, I’m not a gamer and I don’t like guns, but it still appealed to me. Or maybe Dustcloud just made a really good demo video of the game being played using an early prototype, called Wetworks, in Prague.

• The Vigo System. Vigo has developed a lightweight wearable gadget—it looks like an elongated Bluetooth earpiece(photo, right)—that monitors eye blinking, head motion, and other movements to calculate just how alert the wearer is. If the alertness falls below a preset level (customized via a smartphone app), it wakes you up with a selected alert, either a vibration, sound, or flash. I’m not sure I would wear this $80 gadget in a meeting or lecture hall, as Vigo’s Philadelphia-based founders envision, but for long distance drivers and others that really do need to stay wide awake, it makes sense.

• The Babybe mattress. Babybe, with founders from Chile and Germany, are tackling a technology that hasn’t changed dramatically in a long time—the incubator for premature babies. The company has created a wearable device it calls the “turtle” to capture a mother’s heartbeat, breathing pattern, and voice vibrations. The system then transfers those sounds and movements to a haptic mattress in the incubator that beats, vibrates, and seems to breathe just like mom. Because Babybe is aiming to get its gadget into hospitals, it’s next step is not toward store shelves, but to clinical trials. But it certainly seems ready for that step.

The other Haxlr8r companies that launched this week may indeed find a market, they just didn’t push my “wow” button. (Though, truthfully, in a less stellar mix of companies I might have found them more interesting). Curio is a little robot that clips onto a mobile device and responds to patterns of light created by an app. Though the software looked easy to use and the company's plan of making the robot’s controls hackable and the body parts 3-D printable could make it appeal to DIY’ers, it doesn't do all that much. Everpurse is making fashion-statement purses that are also chargers for mobile devices; you still have to remember to charge the purse, albeit on a wireless charging pad, not with a plug. Notch has a movement tracker that tracks in 3D, costs only $49, and connects itself into a mesh network of its peers, but the company hasn’t quite figured out its killer app. Its suggestions that the gadget could help a user master a backflip or conduct a virtual boxing match didn’t quite hit the mark, though fitness tracker companies should probably take a look at the company’s technology. And there's Petcube’s combination of a video camera, a speaker and a laser pointer that you can control over the internet to play with your pet and film its antics remotely. It's just not for me, though it may lead to a few more cat videos going viral.


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