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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.”

Meet The Microscopic Light Bulb

The incandescent lighbulb may be on its last legs. But it could find itself reincarnated at the microscale.

IEEE Fellow Yue Kuo, a professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Tex., and his former Ph.D. student Chi-Chou Lin, have been developing a new solid-state device that works on the same basic principle.

Like an incandescent lamp, the device emits light by heating up filaments so much that they glow. In this case, however, the filaments are tiny – just 20 to 150 nanometers in diameter – and the bulbs can be made in a semiconductor fabrication plant.

“In simple words, it is the solid-state version of Edison's incandescent lightbulb,” says Kuo. At the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco last week, he reported that the devices survive more than 7,000 hours under continuous operation.

Kuo has named this creation a “solid-state incandescent LED”. Here the “D” stands for device, not diode, and the device is actually an MOS capacitor. It’s created by sandwiching a thin layer of amorphous, insulating, dielectric material between a conductor and p-type silicon (silicon with an excess of holes). Light escapes through the conductor at the top of the stack, which is made from a transparent conductive film, such as indium tin oxide.

To make the stack emit light, Kuo and Lin apply a voltage high enough to break down the dielectric in the middle of the sandwich. This creates a host of tiny, permanently-conductive filaments. Once the breakdown has occurred, applying a voltage to the device causes current to flow along each filament. Because they have some resistance, they heat up, and emit a pinprick of light through the transparent film. “The light is actually composed of many small dots,” Kuo said.

Like an incandescent bulb, the incandescent device emits white light, over a wide spectral range. This is a pretty big departure from the conventional LED, which emits light of a narrow range of wavelengths. To make white light from such devices, you must pair a blue LED with a phosphor or mix light from red, green, and blue devices.

Kuo and Lin, who have been working on the incandescent device since 2011, have published a few papers now on the device, demonstrating that the mechanism works for several dielectrics, including tungsten oxide and halfnium oxide, which is already used in today’s transistors.

Because these new devices can be made with widely-available materials and basic fabrication techniques, such as sputtering, Kuo says they could be a cheap alternative to conventional LED’s. They might also be used as a light source for on-chip optical communications.

One big catch is efficiency. The team’s preliminary measurements suggest less than 1 percent of the electricity sent in the device is converted to light, although Kuo notes his measurements were taken about 2 millimeters from the device, so light that should have been counted may have been lost.

Kuo expects the device will ultimately produce light more efficiently than a conventional incandescent light bulb, which loses some 90 percent of its energy to heat. That’s because an incandescent bulb’s emission peaks in the infrared, while the incandescent microdevice peaks in the visible part of the spectrum. It’s not clear whether it will ever get close to LED levels.

“Since [the solid-state incandescent LED] is a brand new device, there are many unknowns,” Kuo says. There is still work to be done, he says, to understand the fundamental physics of the device, including the nature of the conductive paths, the potential limits on efficiency, and how the device would ultimately fail.

“I think it’s a very interesting, I would even say, a brilliant idea,” says Michael Shur, an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. who has been following Kuo’s work. Shur says the efficiency of the devices has to be improved, but he says he is excited about the practicality of the fabrication method. “Potentially it could be very cheap, it could be very robust, and it could cover a huge area. This is the technology of the future, in my opinion.”

Iowa Wants Smartphone App to Replace Driver's Licenses

Iowa could become the first U.S. state to make smartphone apps official stand-ins for driver’s licenses as soon as 2016. But the idea of having police officers scan a driver’s smartphone during a traffic stop has left some legal experts wondering about possible privacy and security complications.

The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes to offer drivers the choice of using either the traditional plastic card or digital licenses on their smartphones, according to The Des Moines Register. The mobile app version of the driver’s license would be usable as identification during both traffic stops and airport security screening.

Iowa is among more than 30 states that already allow drivers to show electronic proof of insurance on their smartphones. Many airport travelers have also become used to airline e-tickets that contain scannable barcodes displayed on their smartphone screens.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has said it envisions the smartphone never leaving the owner’s hand during the scanning process. A spokesperson told the New York Times that a privacy feature might also block users from looking at other information while the digital license app is open on a smartphone.

Still, both legal experts and police officers have begun raising concerns about how the digital driver’s license would work in practice. The Iowa State Patrol currently has no handheld scanners, which means police officers would have to take the smartphones back to the license scanners in their patrol cars. That idea may not appeal to drivers concerned about the privacy of data on their mobile devices, according to Sgt. Scott Bright, public information officer for the Iowa State Patrol.

“What happens if I drop your phone on the highway and a semi runs over it? Who will be liable?” said Sergeant Bright said in a New York Times interview. “What happens if your phone locks automatically? What happens if someone sends you a text message while I have the phone? I don’t want to see anyone’s text messages.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation still has time to coordinate with the Iowa State Patrol and local police departments on the digital driver’s license proposal—it doesn’t envision making the option available to the public until 2016 at the earliest. But it seems that there are still plenty of legal, technical, and logistical road bumps to overcome.

U.S. Officials Say North Korea Responsible for Sony Cyber Attack

Update, 19 December: The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says “has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.” President Barack Obama told reporters that “we will respond proportionally and we will respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” He also called Sony’s decision to cancel release of the “The Interview” a mistake.

The idea of North Korea hacking a Hollywood studio in retaliation for making a comedy film about an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong un might have sounded absurd at first. But U.S. officials say they have uncovered evidence of North Korea’s involvement in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and subsequent public leaking of a slew of internal corporate files ranging from embarassing executive e-mails to the upcoming slate of unreleased films.

News publications such as the New York Times cited “senior administration officials” as saying President Obama’s administration was debating whether to formally accuse North Korea of launching the equivalent of a cyberterrorism attack. The Sony Pictures hack recently took on an even darker tone when the purported hackers invoked the memory of the 11 Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks and threatened attacks on movie theaters if Sony went ahead with the theatrical release of its comedy film “The Interview.”

Such threats led all four major theater chains in the U.S. to cancel showings of “The Interview” and prompted Sony Pictures to officially put the film’s release plans on hold, according to Deadline. The chill descending over the freedom of artistic expression may be felt for a long time in Hollywood: an untitled thriller set in North Korea involving director Gore Verbinski and actor Steve Carell has also been scrapped.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest deflected questions about North Korea’s involvement at a press briefing held today (18 December), but President Obama is scheduled to speak during his usual end-of-year press briefing tomorrow. Earnest only described the cyberattack as a “serious national security matter” involving a “sophisticated actor.” He also confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice is working with the FBI on the investigation.

Attributing responsibility for cyberattacks is notoriously difficult. According to the New York Times, the forensic evidence from the Sony Pictures hack suggests the attackers used commonly available commercial tools and techniques found in previous cyberattacks on a Saudi Arabian oil company and on South Korean banks and media companies. Experts also suspect insider help because of the names of Sony servers and administrative credentials found in the malware code that infiltrated Sony’s computer network. (See IEEE Spectrum’s previous story “How Not to Be Sony Pictures.”)

The New York Times added that the U.S. National Security Agency has attempted to penetrate North Korea’s computer networks to keep track of the country’s cyber activities. But many of North Korea’s cyberattacks originate from China, a country that also has swarms of hackers for hire. Criminal hacker organizations also exist in many other countries worldwide.

U.S. officials potentially face a dilemma in deciding how to respond to North Korea, if they decide the Sony hack constitutes a serious act on the level of something like cyberterrorism. Coincidentally, Hollywood’s Universal Studios recently released a second trailer for its upcoming Michael Mann thriller “Blackhat,” which stars Chris Hemsworth as a hacker helping U.S. and Chinese law enforcement track down a cyberterrorist.

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