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Lessons from CES: How VR Can Avoid the Fate of 3D TV

“Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.” So says Galadrial to the fellowship sent to destroy the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. But that advice might as well be directed to the burgeoning virtual reality industry. Early optimism that the second coming of VR, after a false start in the 1990s, will blossom into a new mainstream medium could collapse into despair, with the technology joining 3D television as another misfire.

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Why Wireless Power Is the Most Exciting Thing at CES 2016

The reason that people like me keep coming back to CES isn't to see slightly bigger televisions, incrementally upgraded laptops, or ridiculous niche gadgets that only a handful of bleeding-edge techies in the known universe might ever actually use. Fundamentally, CES is about the tantalizing promise of the next big thing.

The major electronics companies want you to believe that it's 4K (now that they've essentially given up on 3D) but that's just because they want to sell you a new TV. Lots of smaller companies are sure that it's wearables, but I find it hard to get super-excited about those. Car companies are pushing autonomy, but that's more like the next big thing after the next big thing.

What I'm looking for at CES are technologies that will change how I experience or interact with the world in a unique way. Flawless consumer virtual reality, for example. Or interactive eye tracking. Or anything else that generates that magical "wow, I live in the future" feeling. This year, it's wireless power, and let me tell you why.

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CES is Dead. Long Live CES

Recently, every new year occasions a certain amount of grumbling about CES in some techie circles. Pundits fear CES has become over-managed, with carefully choreographed exercises in PR replacing real tech news. It’s certainly true that the show has undergone some gentrification, as mainstream interest in what was once a deeply geeky event has dramatically increased. Celebrities are to be seen—and not all of them show up at the event to pick up an easy paycheck yucking it up at a corporate event.

There’s also the fact that it’s been a while since a new product category made a really big splash. Tablets are probably the most recent “Next Big Thing.”

But rather than marking some kind of terminal decline, this is actually a normal part of the innovation cycle. Take a look at CES’s official list of breakout stars, which includes the VCR, the CD player, the Xbox, and the IP TV. There are substantial gaps in time between many of the entries. But that’s not to say that the wheels of innovation grind to a halt in the so-called down years.

Instead, two important things happen. One is that for the big product categories, a period of refinement and—critically—cost reduction is what turns gee-whiz first-generation products into things that actually influence daily life. (Recall that the first CD player cost about US $1000.) Only a sharp drop in price allowed the digital revolution to really take off.

And the absence of a big headliner category that draws all of the industry’s focus—like when e-readers first made a splash and it seemed for a while that every company with a designer capable of combining a mobile processor and screen was obsessed with nothing elseleaves room for diversity of innovation.

This was certainly in evidence last night at CES Unveiled, one of the big demo events surrounding the show (another is Pepcom’s Digital Experience, which we’ll be live tweeting tonight). Companies turned up with lots of ideas for radically different products: an alarm clock that wakes you up with blasts of scent; a wearable pendant that can translate languages back-and-forth on the fly; a phased-array acoustic loudspeaker; a re-invented piano; and many other weird and wonderful ideas. Now, sure, not all of these are going to be winners. But the level of imagination and invention, even if not on the scale of some juggernaut breakout, means that CES is far from going the way of Comdex.


CES: The Engineer’s Scorecard

Once upon a time, world-changing technologies flowed from the wants and needs of large institutions. The government or a large company would develop something (or have someone invent it for them)—say, a computer small enough to fly a spacecraft, or a way to amplify long-distance conversations in telephone exchanges—and then eventually the technology would filter down to the consumer level, as, say personal computers or portable radios. Consumer electronics was seen as a field where technologies were applied, not invented.

Today—as seen on the boisterous show floor of the International CES, taking place this week in Las Vegas—this relationship has been inverted. More and more, technology is driven by the wants and needs of individuals. The list of the world’s biggest tech companies is dominated by companies that cater to consumers as a core part of their business: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook, Amazon, and more.

CES also holds a particular interest for me and my colleagues as the organizers of the annual IEEE International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE). It’s no coincidence the ICCE is co-located with CES and starts as CES ends. The CES showfloor is kind of like a scorecard for us, as we look to see how technologies that first announced themselves in papers and technical sessions in ICCE events in past years are now faring in this fractious bazaar.

Some technologies seem to be emerging right on schedule: We expect Virtual Reality to really start hitting its stride this year, with prototype and first-generation devices for both capturing and displaying 3-D scenes being replaced by more polished products. Home health and wearable products too are expected to expand their presence, and smart vehicle technologies of various kinds are also beginning to proliferate.

Some technologies seem to be lagging: Beyond the success of the Roomba line of floor cleaning robots (the first robot that consumers actually bought in numbers to perform a domestic chore, rather than just for its novelty value), home robotics seems perpetually caught just a little bit short.

Perhaps this year’s show will bring a surprise breakout hit, or it may just take some more time. We can trace the current frenzy around the Internet of Things back to technologies presented at ICCE events that stretch back to the 1990s, when always-on, always-connected consumer devices first started appearing.

Indeed, the theme for the 2016 IEEE ICCE is “The Internet of Me,” with a focus on the next generation of consumer connectivity.  All consumer devices are becoming digital extensions of ourselves, allowing us to interact with the world around us as well as each other in new and amazing ways.

The core areas at this year’s ICCE are: Services in the Internet of Me; Devices in the Internet of Me; Infrastructure and Enabling Technologies of the Internet of Me; Security and Privacy in the Internet of Me; RF and Wireless & Network Technologies; Entertainment, Games and Services; AV Systems, Image/Video Processing; Automotive Entertainment and Electronics; Sensors, MEMs and Enabling Technologies; Energy Management as well as Health and Wellness. 

The conference schedule also includes a mini-Technology Time Machine session on Saturday that will focus on technologies likely to shape the future of consumer electronics such as Big Data, the Internet of Things, Rebooting Computing, and Digital Senses. (A panel of speakers will deliver a top-line breakdown of some of the hottest areas at a Friday CES session.) You’ll be able to judge the quality of our predictions on the floor of future CES shows. 

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out our live team coverage of CES starting Monday, January 4 at 7 pm ET.

About the Author

Tom Coughlin is an IEEE Senior Member and Chair of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society (ICCE) Future Directions Committee.


Processor With Photonic Interconnects Built

Chip designers would love to use light beams rather than copper wires to move data between microprocessors. Such optical interconnects would overcome the bandwidth bottleneck inherent in the wires and take full advantage of the leaps in processor speed, but marrying two very different technologies—electronics and photonics—has been a high hurdle to overcome.

Now a group of researchers has proposed a way to build transistors and optics on the same chip, doing so for the first time without a major overhaul of the chip-making process. And they used it to build an IC containing 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components, which together provide all the logic, memory, and interconnection functions a processor needs.

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VR Glove Powered by Finger Motions

Tom Cruise would have looked much less cool in the 2002 film Minority Report if he’d swiped through images on his computer display with gloves that required clunky data cables or heavy battery packs. A real-world glove promises to bring that sleek Minority Report–style future one step closer by harvesting energy from the wearer’s finger motions.

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Why Do Adult Community College Grads Pursue Engineering?

The STEM crisis might be debatable, but the White House Office of Science and Technology claims that the US will need one million additional STEM graduates within the next decade to stay competitive. Community colleges are an important resource to tap into in order to meet that goal.

Getting more community college students to pursue four-year STEM degrees would also boost the diversity of the STEM workforce, since these colleges have a history of enrolling underrepresented students.

In a new study, education professors Taryn Allen and Yi Zhang at the University of Texas at Arlington address how to encourage the transfer of adult students from community colleges to four-year engineering institutions.

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Freeze Ray! (Almost)

Zapping something with a laser usually means heating it up. After all, you’re hitting it with a focused beam of high-energy radiation. But scientists at the University of Washington have used a laser to cool a liquid, reducing it from room temperature to just above 0°C.

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NIST Unveils “All-in-One” Robotic Millimeter-Wave Antenna Test Facility

Millimeter-wave communication is coming. Along with it comes mm-wave antennas and greater challenges in testing. Gone are the days when antenna calibration for far-field characterization revolved around football-field-size installations and towers tens of meters tall. By the 1960s, antenna testing for near-field measurements moved indoors; those results could then be extrapolated to real-world far-field values.

Properly testing today’s antennas requires measurements at thousands of positions, each accurate to within one-hundredth of a wavelength. For signals at 183 gigahertz (the emission line for atmospheric water vapor absorption), which have a wavelength of 1,638 micrometers, the probe must be within 33 μm of its ideal position in every dimension on every measurement. (To properly calibrate an antenna at 500 GHz will require positioning accurate to within 15 μm.)

With that in mind, researchers at the Communications Technology Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colo., have coupled off-the-shelf components with innovative feedback controls to build a Configurable Robotic Millimeter-Wave Antenna (CROMMA) test facility—a breakthrough for millimeter-wave research and, possibly, the prototype for an “all-in-one” antenna tester. NIST researcher Joshua A. Gordon and his colleagues describe CROMMA in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation.

In place of the traditional array of rotary tables and individual actuators used to jockey probe and test antennas into positions, CROMMA uses industrial robots: a six-axis Yasawa Motoman MH50-35 robot arm and a six-axis controller to position the test probe, and a hexapod robot (Physik Instrumente M-840) and rotating stage to position the antenna under test. Together, these components control position along three axes, plus angular pitch, yaw, and roll.

The robot arm can position a 35-kilogram probe almost anywhere in a 1-meter-radius working volume. The test-antenna support can maneuver a 30-kg load within a 25-by-25-by-50-mm box, and can vary the tilt within a range of 15 to 30 degrees.

The hexapod accuracy is well within the single micrometer that mm-wave requires. The probe arm, however, comes out of the box with a 70-μm limit on position repeatability.

To gain greater precision, the developers added several layers of feedback control. They started with a laser tracking system comprising an array of spherical mirror reflectors mounted on the test floor, the robot arm, and the test antenna table. They further increased precision by mounting “more sophisticated” commercial laser targets the probe arm. Finally, they added a set of three machine vision cameras to double-check the probe’s position from outside the moving robot-hexapod system.

To integrate these overlapping sets of position and rotation information and attain final accuracies within 25 μm in position and 0.01 degrees of rotation, the NIST team developed a Coordinated Metrology Space (CMS). The CMS combines the separate reference frames of the probe, the test antenna, the hexapod, and the rotating stage under the hexapod. The result is an extraordinarily precise picture of the relative positions and orientations of the probe and test antenna.

The group used a commercial 50-GHz vector network analyzer (with a frequency extender) to generate the signal from the test antenna and measure the signal amplitude and phase at the probe antenna. The tight control allowed the engineers to move the probe accurately through almost any path—including the spherical, cylindrical, and planar configurations commonly used to calibrate antennas. The 100-mm-radius spherical near-field test, for example, required 76,000 separate probe locations. The root mean square (rms) radius actually measured was 99.977 mm, with an rms error of 22 μm.

The NIST researchers checked the system by extrapolating far-field signal values from the 100-mm near-field data, and then comparing the extrapolations with data actually collected from far-field runs at radii of 1000 mm from the test antenna. The agreement was very close (with some increase in noise at wide angles between transmitter and probe).

In sum, the authors say, CROMMA makes it possible to have a single facility capable doing tests that previously required multiple antenna set-ups, “thus making possible a truly all-in-one antenna characterization facility.” More work is required to reach that goal, of course—particularly an increase in positioning accuracy to meet the demands of 500 GHz components.


Computer Learns to Write Its ABCs

A new computer model can now mimic the human ability to learn new concepts from a single example instead of the hundreds or thousands of examples it takes other machine learning techniques, researchers say.

The new model learned how to write invented symbols from the animated show Futurama as well as dozens of alphabets from across the world. It also showed it could invent symbols of its own in the style of a given language.

The researchers suggest their model could also learn other kinds of concepts, such as speech and gestures.

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