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Computers Conquer Texas Hold'em Poker for First Time

All your poker chips may soon belong to the computers. A new algorithm has taken the first big step in figuring out poker, the globally popular card game played by more than 150 million people, by solving a two-player version known as heads-up limit Texas hold’em.

It’s been almost two decades since the IBM computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Since that stunning moment in 1997, computer algorithms have solved games such as Connect Four and checkers by analyzing all the possible plays and figuring out the perfect strategy for each move starting from the beginning of each game. Future programs might even master the ancient game of Go. But computers face a different challenge in consistently winning at poker, because each player has two hidden cards that represent information hidden from the opponent. By solving an “imperfect-information game” such as poker, computer algorithms could also potentially handle real-world scenarios with similar levels of uncertainty.

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CES 2015: Ultrahaptics' Ultrasonic Tactile Display for Virtual Controls

At Volkswagen’s CES press conference on Monday, the company introduced the Golf R Touch, a concept car with a cockpit that relies (only a little bit ironically) on touchless gestural interfaces for control. If we’re going to have to use mid-air, hand-wavy interfaces in near the future—whether for cars or wearables or around the home—an important issue to consider (as with any user interface) is tactile feedback. For example, when you press a virtual button in mid-air that doesn’t feel like anything, how do you know that you’ve actually pushed it? Easy: ultrasonic forcefield technology. And it’s amazing.

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CES 2015: CoolChip's Kinetic Cooling Engine—Part Fan, Part Heat Sink, Totally Awesome

Nearly four years ago, I wrote an article about a prototype CPU cooler from Sandia Labs that used an innovative design. Even calling it a prototype might have been optimistic; research project would probably have been more accurate. But at CES this week, a company called CoolChip demonstrated a working commercial prototype, and a consumer version is just months away.

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Text-a-Doctor App Gets Big Venture Capital Boost

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a good friend who was a doctor and didn’t mind telling you (for free) whether a set of symptoms warranted an office visit? A rising text-a-doctor app called First Opinion aims to make that friend available to users globally. The app is raising some skeptical eyebrows in medical circles, but it’s also raising considerable funding from the venture capital community.

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CES 2015: Displays Are What's Next, but TVs Aren't

Every year at CES, there's A Thing that emerges. It might be a feature, a trend, or even an entirely new class of device, but it ends up being The Thing that people are talking about all week.

On Monday, CES Press Day, major electronics manufacturers like LG, Samsung, and Sharp told us what The Thing was going to be: big, curved, 4K resolution TVs. These new TVs certainly are big and curvy and 4K, but I'm pretty sure that they're not The Thing; for CES 2015, The Thing is actually wearables.

The way to look at TVs this year, I think, is not as the next piece of expensive electronics that's going to end up in your living room, but rather as the predecessors to what will help wearables become as common and integral to our lives as smartphones.

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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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