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CES 2015: Placing Bets on the New TV Technologies

The day before the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (informally known as press day) is traditionally the time for the large, established consumer electronics manufacturers to strut their stuff. And because these are the outfits that own the factories that make the video screens for gadgets big and small, you know they are going to talk about TV, their flagship product.

Surprisingly, none of the major manufacturers led their press conferences with a TV announcement; instead, they first turned the spotlight onto the Internet of Things, and then quickly moved on to wearables. No breathtaking announcements there: All sorts of stuff will connect, and some of that stuff will be attached to your body. But opening with their small rather than their big products was telling. The manufacturers clearly hope the consumers will buy enough of these smaller gizmos to keep the cash flowing until they are ready to buy a new big (and, for the companies, profitable) gadget, the TV.

The best way to get someone to trade in his or her old TV is to improve on the technology enough to make it worth it. Remember back when you still had a CRT TV and a friend brought a plasma TV home? You wanted it, right?

And nobody thinks today’s LED-backlit LCD screens (what you call LED TV) are perfect. That technology will, eventually, be replaced.

LG, kicking off press day in its traditional 8 a.m. spot, proclaimed that the next TV you buy will use OLED technology. “What really distinguishes TV’s ability to create a jaw dropping picture is not the colors, it’s the ability to generate black,” said LG’s Tim Alessi. “For all its virtues, LED TV [can’t] generate black, even with local dimming.” Because OLED can turn individual pixels on and off, Alessi says, it wins with the blackest black.  LG already has OLED TVs on the market; but it is raising its bet on the technology, introducing seven new models, ranging from 55 to 77 inches in screen size, at CES. The company didn’t reveal its pricing plans, but these things will be expensive. The 55-inch version released last year currently retails for about $3500.

Alessi did mention a competing technology—quantum dots—in passing, indicating that LG would be displaying a quantum dot TV at its CES booth. (I demystify quantum dot technology here, but in short, it’s a way of lighting LCD TVs that produces vastly better colors than LED backlights do. There are two approaches: putting the quantum dots on the edges of the screen, or on a film covering the back of the screen.)

According to quantum dot company Nanoco, LG will be using Nanoco’s film technology. Industry sources tell me that the LG TV on display at CES is an early prototype, pulled out because the company knew some competitors were going to go big with that technology at CES. LG tells me that it’s simply trying “not to play favorites” with its CES lineup.

One of LG’s quantum dot–wielding competitors is TCL, a dominant TV manufacturer in China now hoping to challenge the big Korean and Japanese companies that rule the U.S. market. TCL’s E Hao dismissed OLED, saying, “OLED has been talked about for so many years…but it’s always way out there.” He insists that quantum dots is the future, adding that its name speaks volumes: “Quantum—it’s high tech already.”

But the proof, Hao says, will be in the color images quantum dots produce. He’s confident that consumers will love it. Maybe OLED can produce 100 percent of the colors specified in the U.S. television standard, but, like a poker player upping the ante, he notes that “quantum dots can offer 110 percent.” With that, the company unveiled a 55-inch quantum dot TV—no pricing yet, but likely cheaper than same-sized OLED models. TCL is using the edge-lit version of quantum dot technology, developed by startup company QD Vision.

Samsung also is betting on quantum dots and against OLED. But you might not have realized that even if you attended the Samsung press conference. Samsung jumped through linguistic hoops to announce its first quantum dot television—without ever using the term “quantum dot.” Instead, it referred to its “proprietary nanocrystal semiconductors” that create a “next-generation viewing experience” it is calling SUHD. Come on, Samsung! You picked a technology, own up to it! Samsung, by the way, is using the film approach to quantum dots developed by Nanosys.

Sharp, the company that was the first to bet all its chips on LCD display technology back when most TVs used cathode ray tubes and plasma still seemed a viable contender to be tubes’ successor, is still committed to pushing the limits of LCDs—so far, without incorporating quantum dots. Sharp announced monster 120-inch displays, displays with 8K resolution, and displays that put the control electronics at each pixel rather than at the edges, allowing free-form shapes.

When Sharp executives speaking at its CES press conference presented their view of the future beyond LCD, they pulled out a wild card: MEMS displays. Sharp has been working with Qualcomm subsidiary Pixtronix for more than two years to develop a display using indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) semiconductor technology. IGZO/MEMS displays comprise arrays of tiny mechanical shutters, one at each pixel, that switch to select red, green, or blue from a cycling backlight. Sharp says this technology is finally ready for commercialization; it anted up with a 7-inch IGZO/MEMS tablet display. Sure, that’s a long way from a big-screen TV, but some of us remember when we were oohing and ahhing about OLED screens at that size, and OLED eventually grew up.

This all leaves LG alone in thinking it can win with OLED TV in the near future.

Meanwhile, despite the consumer electronics companies being divided in their predictions regarding what kind of screen will be on the next TV you buy, they coalesced in how they believe you’ll be getting content on that TV. The consensus is that you’ll be streaming it from the Internet, not tuning in to cable, satellite, or broadcast channels.

The reason? For large screen sizes, the 1080-pixel resolution (actually 1920 by 1080 pixels) of HDTV isn’t always good enough. The industry is moving towards a 3840-by-2160-pixel resolution with better specs in terms of color and other features that it’s calling 4K UHDTV. Nobody seriously thinks the cable companies are going to transmit much bandwidth-eating UHD programming anytime soon. But streaming providers such as Netflix appear eager to do so—on-demand, for a price. 

Several consumer electronic manufacturers did mention that they would be producing Blu-Ray disk players that could display 4K UHDTV programming from purchased or rented disks; but this seems aimed at the videophiles with tricked-out home theaters; the average TV viewer will turn to the Internet for 4K programming.

Update 9 January:

Nanosys on Wednesday published a correction to its earlier press release stating that Samsung does not use Nanosys products. A bit confusing, but according to a Nanosys spokesman, Samsung is manufacturing its own quantum dots under license from Nanosys; Nanosys could potentially supply them from its Milpitas, Calif., manufacturing line, but is not doing so at this time. I wasn’t able to get an official statement from Samsung on the matter, but one company representative pointed out that it wouldn’t be smart for Samsung to single-source any technology.

Samsung isn’t the only company licensing the Nanosys technology. 3M is using it to manufacturer Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF), which it supplies to TV manufacturers. Hisense’s ULED TV and Changhong’s QLED TV, both introduced at CES, incorporate the 3M quantum dot film. 

Sony, who was actually first on the quantum dot bandwagon announcing quantum dot TVs using QD Vision’s technology in 2013, continues to include it in its “Triluminos” line of TVs; displaying a number of those models on the CES floor.

And now some news about pricing: Hisense, unlike the rest of the TV manufacturers launching quantum dot products at the 2015 CES, was willing to talk money. The company says it expects to list its 65-inch quantum dot television at $3000 when it ships sometime in the first half of 2015. (The company’s current 65-inch 4K resolution models list for about $2000 but have a street price under $1500.) That’s a bit less than Sony’s current 65-inch quantum dot model, launched at $5000 but now listing at $3800.

Go here for photos and on-the-spot commentary on TV technology from CES 2015. 

Why I Love CES: Tobii and SteelSeries Release Consumer Eye Tracker

I hate CES. It’s crowded and noisy, with a frantic energy that borders on desperate. That energy is stoked by everything that’s wrong (and right) about Las Vegas. For the press, it’s essentially impossible to find everything worth covering among 3,600 exhibitors announcing 20,000 new products staged across more than 18.5 hectares (two million square feet) of convention space. But we kill ourselves trying anyway.

Why do I keep coming back? Because of the tiny handful of companies that are using technology to make our lives not just better, but magical. I also do it in order to see those companies transform their tech from trade show prototypes to consumer products. This year, Tobii and SteelSeries are demonstrating gaze tracking interfaces that have made just such a leap. 

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CES 2015: Seagate's New RAID Disk Drives Keep Your Data Safe, In Style

Your data is possibly the most valuable thing that you own, in the sense that losing things like pictures of your family would be catastrophic and impossible to replace. Having a backup drive is a good start, but if you’re as paranoid as I am, you want something even more reliable. A RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) protects you against the failure of a drive, and Seagate and LaCie have introduced some new external drives at CES this year, along with a few other notable storage solutions, including one of the prettiest portable hard drives we've ever seen.

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CES 2015: The Year of Infrastructure

Consumer electronics, as seen through the lens of the Consumer Electronics Show, goes in cycles. They usually begin with the introduction of a new product that makes a huge splash (think of the first Sony Walkman or the original Fitbit tracker). Then, as a single product becomes a category, along come a wave of related items from other companies, which range from inferior clones to clever and innovative upgrades. Finally, the technology matures and becomes somewhat standardized, and the category effectively becomes the infrastructural platform for the next wave of ground breaking innovation. At this year’s CES, with no obvious breakout hits poised to establish new categories, it looks like we’re in the later phases of the cycle.

Much attention is focused on laying the ground work that will enable the next cycle. Everyone figures the Internet of Things is coming in a big way, so there’s a lot of discussion about what technologies are going to be used under the hood to facilitate all that machine-to-machine communication. For communications over the last few meters, Bluetooth has become a strong contender. This is impressive, given that a few years ago, it looked like Bluetooth was going to relegated to the ultra-niche market of enabling wireless telephone earpieces. But the ubiquity of Bluetooth in smartphones made it a reliable bet for device makers, and the more recent low-energy Bluetooth standard has been popping up in all kinds of devices. However, some home automation manufacturers are trying to develop their own standards, such as Thread, which has support for things like mesh networking to ensure high reliability communications.

For longer-haul links, people are beginning to consider the 5G technologies that are expected to be available by 2020. Like the LTE 4G rollout, 5G will likely arrive in piecemeal fashion, with accumulating improvements occurring as technologies such as beamforming are introduced to cellular base stations.

Wearables are another technology that seems to be waiting for the thing that will take it to the next level. The health and fitness space has become crowded with companies offering trackers with very similar functionality. What’s needed is a product that will allow wearable tech to break out of the health space and into a broader market. But what that will be is anyone’s guess, especially after the lukewarm reception that greeted Google Glass, despite the hopes of many. Two other categories that are generating more anticipation than mass market action are 3-D Printing and Drones. 

Other important happenings going on in the background involve which companies are likely to attract funding. As pointed out yesterday morning by Rovio’s Samrat Vasisht, software companies have, for a long time, appealed to VC and angel investors because of their very low capital and distribution costs. But those same economics, which make it easy to compete with an existing phone app or website, have led to software becoming somewhat commoditized. Consequently, hardware companies are becoming more attractive to funders, because they offer products that are easier to differentiate in the marketplace and aren’t as easily duplicated. 

So this week, I’m going on the lookout for more signs of infrastructure development and in-category innovation. But, the week is still young. If any groundbreaking, category-making, products do turn up, we’ll let you know!

Parrot Pot and H2O Try to Make It Impossible for Anyone to Kill Plants, Even You

Most of the world is covered in plants of one sort or another. This has always struck me as remarkable, since in my experience, plants are impossible to keep alive, no matter how much attention I give them. I guess it’s not the right kind of care and attention, though, because in order to keep plants from dying, I and others not blessed with green thumbs will soon be able to rely on technology to take over our horticultural efforts. Parrot’s new products, Pot and H2O, will keep plants alive entirely on their own, despite the insufficiency of our care.

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What to Expect at CES 2015 and Beyond

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there will be a sea of new devices and gizmos jostling for our attention. Many of them are simply the latest iteration of established technologies, but other newcomers represent emerging trends that are likely to influence entire categories of products—and even help forge new categories.

Some of the things I will be paying special attention to include announcements related to 4K televisions.  The increasing availability of 4K content for these TVs (thanks in part to the creation of compression technology that allows such high-resolution video to be transmitted via broadband Internet connections) is helping to stoke demand. In turn, this is driving costs down. Consequently, 4K televisions are beginning to enter the mainstream.

However, the “full scale” 4K experience—with, for example, higher-quality audio to accompany the jump in picture resolution—will likely only be available in high-end products subject to hefty pricing premiums. For the technically inclined, it looks like it will be more cost effective to assemble one’s own system from separate components, such as a 4K display and a 3rd party audio system, at least for now. And I’ll also be looking to see how 8K televisions are edging towards their turn on stage.

The progress in OLED TVs will also be something to watch closely. Last year saw the first curved OLED televisions—progress in such conformable screens could lead to the days when virtually any surface could be host to a display.

Staying on displays, virtual reality systems are of increasing interest, and as the world still awaits the release of a consumer version of VR Oculus’s Rift, I expect to see competitors at CES looking to steal a march on Oculus. VR Oculus may have pre-empted some challengers with its partnership with Samsung to create the entry-level Gear VR headset, which uses a Galaxy Note 4 in place of the Rift’s custom-built display, but how the various systems look and feel in practice will be important to experience.

Wearable computing will have a big presence, although one still firmly rooted in the technology’s origins in the health and fitness market. It remains to be seen if devices such as activity trackers can really make a positive impact on the health of wearers, and the ultimate solution may not lie in the tracker’s hardware, but in how well the accompanying software successfully motivates people to change for the better. So CES watchers should be on the look out for clever programming that can really leverage sensor data to induce healthier behavior.

In smartphones, some of the most interesting developments may be found not in the phones themselves, but in the accessories on offer. Traditionally, accessories are generally classed as just bling, but increasingly accessories are providing vital additional functionality. For example, phone cases with built-in batteries are already essential for getting through the day if you are using any power-hungry apps. Accessories which offer completely new capabilities will be worth keeping tabs on: in an organic version of the modular vision of Google’s Project Ara, the smartphone is becoming just the central processer around which users can customize their own mobile hardware.

Related to both smart phones and wearable computing is the Internet of Things, a sensor-rich, constantly connected constellation of devices. The basic technology has been available for a few years, so what will be of interest are new applications—one thing that I’ve been surprised not to see at previous CES’s are games that rely on Internet of Things technologies, so this may be the year.

The downside of the Internet of Things is that it could leak a lot of personal data about users. Products that can demonstrate that they can successfully aggregate and anonymize data may find an edge with consumers buffeted by a string of very public hacks on supposedly private and secured data.

Looking even further ahead, CES is followed by a partner IEEE event, the 2015 International Conference on Consumer Electronics organized by the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society.  The ICCE Conference aims to give a view of the future of consumer electronics 5 years from now or later.  The 2015 conference theme is “The Future of HealthCare.”  In addition to conference sessions covering future technologies to keep us well, and prolong our ability to be productive members of society, there will be a number of sessions on a number of other technology topics, as well as the second occurrence of a special IEEE Future Directions Convergence Event.

The IEEE Future Directions Convergence session on January 9, 2015 will focus on how Big Data will affect consumers. Included on this special session are Charles Despins, President and CEO of Prompt, Inc, a Canadian university-industry R&E consortium focusing on information and communications technology; Steven Collier, Director of Smart Grid Strategies at Milsoft Utility Solutions; Ling Liu, Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, focusing on research on distributed data intensive systems; William Tonti, formerly at IBM and currently Director of IEEE Future Directions; May Wang, Associate Professor in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Winship Institute, focusing on biomedical big data analytics and Kathy Grise, IEEE Future Directions Program Director.

Also at the ICCE conference there will be a special session on the Internet of Things as well as a keynote talk by Shuji Nakamura, a winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the blue laser, an important device in many consumer products.  Other ICCE sessions will talk about next-generation compression technology for transporting high-resolution video content, advanced acoustics for home entertainment, image enhancement and processing, as well as energy management and mobile power.  The IEEE Masaru Ibuka award will be presented to a man who has had a front row seat to some of the biggest changes in consumer technology: Martin Cooper—who made the first ever cell phone call in 1973 as a vice president at Motorola.

About the Author

Tom Coughlin is a senior member of the IEEE and the President of market and analysis firm Coughlin Associates. Along with many publications and several patents, he has been a leader in many technology organizations, including the IEEE and the Storage Networking Industry Association.

CES 2015: What the Heck Are Quantum Dots?

It wouldn’t be CES without an attempt to launch the next big thing in TV technology. The next big thing was recently supposed to be OLED TVs. That didn’t work out so well; OLED manufacturing costs haven’t come down as fast as anticipated; yields are still low for large-screen OLEDs and prices are staying high.

The next big thing for 2015, we’ll likely be told at CES, will be the quantum dot TV. Sounds pretty space-agey, for sure. But before you rush to throw out the 3D-4K-LED TV you bought last year, the one you thought was the apex of display technology (or before you ignore the news as just another lame attempt by TV manufacturers to get your attention) let’s demystify this latest “breakthrough.”

First, what quantum dot television technology is not. It is not a new way of creating a television picture on a screen. Rather, the technology that’s translating the broadcast signal to an image is the same old liquid crystal display (LCD) technology that has been around for more than a decade, and in the past couple of years vanquished the competing technology, plasma TVs.

Wait, you say, I don’t have an LCD TV, I have an LED TV. At least that’s what the box said.

Sorry to disappoint, but your LED TV is an LCD TV. The LED refers to the backlight; the original LCD TVs were backlit by fluorescent tubes; switching to LEDs for backlighting let manufacturers make TVs thinner and more efficient.

Quantum dot technology promises to be an even better backlight than LED.

Here’s why. A TV picture is made up of pixels (picture elements), each with red, green, and blue subpixels. In an LCD TV and most LED TVs, the LCD display creates those colors by filtering white light. (Typical LED TVs use white LEDs—actually blue LEDs coated in a yellow phosphor—on one or two edges of the TVs. What manufacturers call LCD TVs use fluorescent tubes behind the screen.) White light, however, doesn’t just contain the pure red, green, and blue that make up the TV image; it contains pinks, and yellows, and oranges and other extras that get through to slightly change the red, green, and blue tones.  And the better the filters are at blocking these extraneous colors, the less light makes it to your eye—not an efficient way to create a bright picture. Some LED TV manufacturers in the past addressed this problem by using red, green, and blue diodes instead of white ones; this, however, turned out to be too costly and too power-hungry an approach.

Quantum dots, which are light-emitting semiconductor nanocrystals that can absorb light of one wavelength and convert it efficiently to light of other very specific wavelengths, can create even more distinct reds, greens, and blues than colored LEDs, says Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of QD Vision. QD Vision spun out of MIT a decade ago to commercialize quantum dot displays.  

QD’s technology starts with a blue LED (not a blue LED tweaked to be white). The system then routes light from the LED through a tube filled with red and green quantum dots. These fluoresce, generating red and green light. At the other end of the tube, the light that comes out looks white to the eye, but is actually a blend of the original pure blue, plus the pure red and pure green generated by the quantum dots. Because it is so pure, the vast majority of it passes through the LCD’s filters unobstructed, keeping its brightness. TV manufacturers using these little tubes as backlights place them at the edges of the displays.

QD Vision isn’t the only company that has been developing quantum dot backlighting. Nanosys, working with 3M, created Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF). In this approach, the blue LEDs again sit at the edges of the display and the layer of quantum dots covers the entire back of the LCD panel. Moving the dots away from the LEDs could mean that they’ll last longer, because they are less likely to be stressed by temperature changes. But this approach reportedly raises the cost of the backlight dramatically.

An approach further in the future is creating an entire TV display out of quantum dots, rather than just using them as a backlight. In fact, that was QD Vision’s original plan, according to Coe-Sullivan. “We founded the company thinking we were going to make an emissive display technology called QLED; we’d take the OLED device structure, but use quantum dots as the emissive layer. You’d get better color and better efficiency than OLEDs.”

But, he says, “the reliability is not there, though we’re still working on this approach in R&D.”

“It was far easier to improve LCD technology,” says Coe-Sullivan, than to launch an entirely new technology.

So actual QD displays aren’t coming anytime soon.

“We are a way off, if ever, before we see QDs being used for emissive displays, says Paul O’Donovan, a principle research analyst for Gartner.

This means that when you hear about “QD TV”, you should think “QD-backlit LCD TV”, because that’s what manufacturers will be sending to retailers for the foreseeable future.

It looks like we’ll be seeing both the QD Vision and the Nanosys/3M approaches at CES: 

  • Sony used QD Vision’s technology in more than a million TVs sold in 2013, and will likely be back at CES with new models.
  • TCL in December announced its first QD TV, a 55-inch 4K unit for the China market, also using QD Vision’s technology, and it plans to make an announcement at CES.
  • Shortly after the TCL news came out, LG announced that they were planning to announce (seriously) QD TVs at CES using quantum dot film—they didn’t name names, but that’s likely the Nanosys/3M technology.
  • Samsung hasn’t made an official announcement, but has made it clear that it will have QD news at CES.

Other companies are sure to jump on the QD bandwagon; it’s going to be the hot TV topic at CES, pushing any announcements of 4K/Ultra High Definition TV or future OLED models into its shadow.

Don’t entirely count out OLED for the long run, however. OLED TV still has advantages over any type of LCD TV—it needs no backlight, can refresh far more quickly, and can be made thinner, lighter, and more flexible. And it should eventually be cheaper to make, though yields aren’t there yet.

“LG has been managing to ship OLED TVs in some volumes,” O’Donovan says, “admittedly only to a few markets and at a relatively high cost.” And though Samsung has said it won’t be making any moves in the OLED TV area in 2015, its recent investment in OLED equipment maker Kateeva shows that it’s still betting on OLED for its future.

Update 6 January: TCL indeed unveiled a TV using QD Vision’s technology at CES; Samsung went with the Nanosys film technology; LG is reportedly planning to use quantum dot film technology from Nanoco.

The Year-Long Space Mission: This Time It’s not About the Money

If you’re planning interplanetary voyages, the main design driver is less likely to be the distance than it is to be the duration. Sure distance dictates how much propellant and what kind of engines are needed, as well as the strength of communications signals. But for how long the spacecraft must function, what you really need is reliable data about the lifetime of components.

The International Space Station, stuck in low orbit only a few hundred kilometers up, is turning out to be crucial for getting that data, which will be used on expeditions orders of magnitude farther away. After years of shaking down prototype life support systems, the station is about to host the first serious endurance test of the central component of such an expedition—the crewmembers themselves.

In late March, two regularly-rotated crewmen—one American and one Russian—will be launched with a special flight plan. They will not be replaced at the end of their standard six-month tour, but will remain in orbit for a back-to-back second six months. The relief mission that would have carried their replacements will instead carry two short-term fliers who will then almost immediately return to Earth aboard the craft that would normally have carried the relieved six-monthers.

People have flown for a full year in space before, on the Russian Mir space station. Two of them flew 365 days exactly in 1987-1988, a quarter century ago. The 3rd and 4th landed in 1995 and 1999. But the four cosmonauts who made such flights demonstrated little more than sheer physical and mental fortitude by surviving, because little useful medical data was gathered.

This time, the longterm crew will have a sophisticated battery of medical sensors as well as well-tested health maintenance equipment, such as exercise devices. More importantly, they will have a well-defined list of subtle physiological trends to be meticulously monitored, a list resulting from studies of several dozen six-month expeditions by earlier ISS crewmembers. Some of the effects, such as significant eyeball deterioration, were not even known during the previous long missions.

The men are not just to be guinea pigs under observation—they will be fully-functioning members of the normal six-person station crew. As such, along with extensive self-examination, they will perform repairs, assist ground operators with experiments, and help reconfigure the station for hosting the commercial crew transport vehicles that are due to show up the following year.

Science team members have advised me that, as is appropriate with any medical study, a sample size of two is completely inadequate to draw conclusions from. So a second two-person year-long mission is being planned for 2017, and even longer missions are under serious consideration before the station is retired sometime after 2024.

This mission has the added plum for the Russian space agency in that it opens up two short-term mission seats. One seat is going to a researcher from the European Space Agency, but the second is being sold to a private “space tourist” for upwards of US $65,000,000—a nice cash infusion bonus to be shared among components of the Russian space team.

That motivation has always been a powerful factor in Moscow space planning. One of the four cosmonauts who made a yearlong flight in the 1990s had been launched on a six-month mission and then was told halfway through that his return ticket had been sold to the country of Slovakia and he’d need to catch the next flight. I’m not making this up.

Ten years ago it almost happened again. A few months before the Russian launch of a two-person skeleton crew to the ISS, Moscow told NASA that they wanted to extend that crew’s mission to a full year. Ostensibly it was for medical research, but neither side had prepared any experiments and it soon turned out the excuse was bogus. They had promised to sell one “crew swap” ticket to another millionaire space tourist and just wanted that money.

The American on the upcoming crew, Leroy Chiao, joined with NASA space doctors to argue that the idea was nutty. (As Chiao told me, he very reluctantly agreed not to quit if he were ordered to extend.) But eventually the Russians dropped the suggestion.

Time has passed, significant data has been accumulated on six-month expeditions, and a number of worrying physiological “funnies” have been discovered. Now, with human interplanetary flight as an official—if far-term—focus, the medical value has become real. The crew was selected a year ago and are genuine volunteers. And Russia will still get the extra cash.

Question Authority: Make Your Own “Top Tech 2015" Predictions

Careful readers will note that the online versions of six articles from IEEE Spectrum’s January “Top Tech 2015” prediction issue offer them a chance to make their own technology forecasts. At the ends of these articles you’ll find boxes with links to questions on robotics, solar power, the Google Lunar XPrize, exascale computers, drones, and smart cars. These lead to SciCast, the prediction market project co-founded by Charles Twardy, Kathryn Laskey, and Robin Hanson at George Mason University.

SciCast lets participants bet points on specific outcomes of questions in science and technology, testing their judgment against thousands of others’ and reaping rewards if their prognostications are better than those of their competitors. Anyone can browse SciCast to see what participants think the future will bring. And anyone can play. Registration is required to make forecasts and join the game, but it’s minimal and free. You just need to pick a username and password. Even an e-mail address is optional. You may be asked for more information, or to complete a simple questionnaire to gauge general scientific and technical literacy, but whether you respond or not is up to you.

The George Mason team built SciCast with support from the U.S. Intelligence Research Projects Activity. It’s one of tools for staying ahead of world events, political and scientific. SciCast focuses on the sci-tech part, and is one of three approaches that have “produced notable results,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

This kind of competition works because it helps eliminate bias and the kind of herd mentality that can seize small groups of experts. As the Journal went on to say:

Deliberation is useful, but it isn't ideal for generating accurate forecasts: It is susceptible to groupthink. Social biases, such as deferring to those with seniority, intrude on the process. And dissenting views often aren't captured. The effects have led analysts to predict events that didn't occur, or miss events that did take place.

In his best-selling The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t, American prognostication guru Nate Silver talked about eliminating bias.

If we want to reduce these biases— we will never be rid of them entirely— we have two fundamental alternatives. One might be thought of as a supply-side approach —creating a market for accurate economic forecasts. The other might be a demand -side alternative: reducing demand for inaccurate and overconfident ones.

A prediction market is the supply-side solution. It lets forecasters work in relative anonymity and isolation, motivated solely by self interest (in theory, at least) as they try to amass the most points. Every bet they make changes the odds: SciCast’s FAQ says that “forecasters spend points to adjust the consensus forecast. Significant changes cost more — but ‘pay’ more if they turn out to be right. So better forecasters gain more points and therefore more influence, improving the accuracy of the system.”

So those out for point-gain and bragging rights can start with these articles, and the associated SciCast questions:

 “When Will We Have an Exascale Supercomputer?,” by Jeremy Hsu

A Robot in the Family,” by Erico Guizzo

The XPrize’s Lunar Deadline Drifts,” by Rachel Courtland 

Big Solar’s Big Surge,” by Peter Fairley 

Flying Selfie Bots,” by David Schnieder

Thus Spoke the Autobahn,” by Philip E. Ross 

Tiny 2-D Drumheads Made From Black Phosphorus

They’re sure to rank among the world’s smallest trampolines.

A team led by Philip Feng, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, has draped atom-thick layers of semiconducting material over cavities to create new kinds of resonators. Similar, albeit bigger, micromechanical systems are used today to make a variety of components, including reference oscillators for on-chip clocks, amplifiers, and frequency-selective devices. 

In a talk given last week at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco, Feng showed the results of his team’s study of drumheads made from molybdenum disulphide (MoS2) and black phosphorus, a structural variety of phosphorus that forms puckered sheets and has been gaining more and more attention as a potential 2-D material for future electronic devices.

These are not the world’s first drumhead resonators. The list of previously used materials includes silicon nitride, silicon carbide, diamond, and graphene, Feng says. But he notes that his team’s drumheads are the first to be made from 2-D materials that have semiconducting properties (graphene does not qualify, because in its natural form it’s always conductive).

This “immediately adds new possibilities and potential functions,” he says, because stretching a 2-D semiconducting material alters its bandgap. That’s the amount of energy needed to kick electrons up into a state where they can move freely through the material.

Since they can be stretched more, 2-D materials should produce resonators that operate in a wider range of frequencies than conventional crystal-based resonators made from silicon or diamond.   

To fabricate the devices, Feng’s group refined a transfer technique that begins with the fabrication of electrodes and circular “microtrenches.” The 2-D material is laid down over the trench, much “like covering a muffin tin with kitchen plastic wrap,” says Feng. The process, which the team has also used to make MoS2 transistors, is outlined in a recent paper published in the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology B.

At last week’s meeting, Feng showed that the vibrations of the resonators could be detected down to their noise limit—the random fluctuations caused by thermal noise. 

Although he doesn’t yet have specific new applications to point to, Feng says that work on 2-D resonators with bandgaps could open up a new avenue for coupling mechanical vibrations to electrical and optical behavior. “I’m not sure it’s going to turn out better than graphene,” he says, “but I do think it’s going to be different.”


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