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2010 Physics Nobel Prize Goes to Graphene Duo

And the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, now both at the University of Manchester, for studying single atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene. Graphene, skinny enough to be called "two-dimensional", might not have the good looks of fullerine, including the 60 carbon atom buckyballs, that won the 1996 chemistry Nobel, but these sheets have talent. So thin that they exhibit quantum mechanical properties, graphene sheets conduct electricity as well as copper, conduct heat better than any other known material, and are so dense that they can block helium atoms.

The two winners began their careers in Russia before moving to the Netherlands and finally the United Kingdom. In 2004, they pulled the sheets from a graphite crystal simply using adhesive tape--countering nay-sayers who did not believe such a thin crystalline material could remain stable on its own.

From these humble beginnings, graphene has made strides quickly. Here are some recent highlights:

Last month, IEEE Spectrum described new ultracapacitors--batteries' quicker cousins--which use graphene fins for even more speed, since the fins let charge on and off faster than other carbon tangles. This speed could allow portable electronics to shrink in size and weight.

The material's need for speed also appeared in transistor research published last month. A UCLA team built the fastest graphene transistor yet, a proof-of-concept device that switched twice as fast (300 gigahertz) as similar devices. Some hope graphene might prove a faster alternative to silicon chips in future circuits.

Nanometer-scale "bubbles"--formed from stretching graphene--can trap electrons in magnetic field doppelgangers (up to 300 teslas strong), researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory announced this July. This could perhaps usher in the age of "straintronics," controlling electrons' movements by deforming this material. 

In the spring, IEEE Spectrum reported that scientists gained a better grasp on why graphene makes nanometer-scale machines so slippery. They found the more of the thin sheets added, the better the lubrication, giving them a better understanding of friction at the atomic level.

Of course, this is only scratching the surface of this material's applications. For more on this Nobel Prize-winning find check out this listing of graphene articles and blog posts. Also be sure to read IEEE Spectrum's November issue, which includes a feature article on the material by Alexander Sinitskii and James M. Tour, describing in detail how graphene might work to compliment (and perhaps even overthrow) silicon in the future.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / AlexanderAIUS

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The Secret Life of Pachinko

If you’ve ever hurled a skee-ball or whacked a mole, you’ve played redemption games:  those prize machines found at Chuck E. Cheeses and mildewed arcades across the country.  As videogames became more popular at home, these sort of arcade machines have become more and more popular.   They give players a reason to leave the house and plunk their quarters/tokens into the slots. 

But while Americans cashing tickets for Silly Bandz find these games quaint, in Japan they’re a serious – and shadowy – billion dollar business.  The most popular of these games is pachinko, those vertical pinball machines that award prizes if the ball you shoot bounces off pegs into the right holes.  Japanese pachinko parlors are both a national pastime (with professional players), and a portal into one of gaming’s seediest underworlds.  

Once ruled by the yakuza organized crime, the industry is ruled by cops, according to investigative journalist Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on The Police Beat in Japan.  “The police have made this their own personal retirement plan,” he says.  The meta-game:   an elaborate, but transparent, redemption system that lets players “sell” their pachinko prizes for cash at nearby shops – thus skirting Japan’s anti-gambling laws.   Here's how it works.

The Pachinko Parlor

Found in and around train stations, these bright and blinking smoke-filled parlors seduce a cross-section of gamers:   from blue collar and unemployed workers to teens and moms.  Compulsive players have been caught leaving their kids baking alone in cars outside for hours.  “Now the lots are patrolled after a couple kids died of heat exhaustion,” says Adelstein.

The Machines

Pachinko machines brandish licensed manga and anime characters, much like latest generation of slot machines in the U.S.  Digital counters and flashing lights react to the falling balls.  Pachinko costs around $5 to play, but parlors have phased out cash for payment cards.  “It’s another racket,” says Adelstein, “the police agency forced them to introduce the pre-paid card system.”

The Redemption Center

When players score, the machine hits so-called “fever” state, spitting out piles of tiny metallic balls – sometimes thousands at a time, which winners eagerly catch in trays.   Balls get redeemed at prize counters offering a surreal array of goods:   from rice cookers to disembodied sex toy mouths.  “Sometimes they have ridiculously worthless things like teddy bears priced at a value of $400,” says Adelstein, “that’s because they’re light to take around the corner and exchange for cash.”

The Prize Exchange Place

The so-called “three shop system” of pachinko plays out like this:  you win a prize, then take it around the corner to shop that exchanges it for cash.  Exchange shops are usually often unmarked, but “the pachinko addicts will tell you where to go,” Adelstein says.  The exchange shop then sells the merchandise back to the pachinko parlor at wholesale.  To keep players from selling goods outside the system, items are often micro-tagged.

"Skin Stretch" Feedback Takes the Wheel

Your GPS navigator can already talk to you. A new device wants to let it touch you. A group at the University of Utah recently added direction-indicating knobs to a steering wheel that nudge the driver's fingers to tell them where to go.

It seems the future car will employ many of the driver's senses for navigation and safety. Already common visual and aural commands might be more integrated with the car (see augmented reality windshields) and this project isn't the first to use touch for communication: In the July issue of IEEE Spectrum, Anne-Marie Corley described a vibrating seat that rumbles to warn drivers of cars in their blind spots.

This project uses a similar concept but, instead of vibrating seat tactors, the device uses TrackPoint caps--knobs once used for steering IBM laptop cursors. The once passive TrackPoints now push back on the user's sensitive fingertips, a gentle rub left meaning, well, turn left.

In a small study, nineteen undergraduates gave the device a driving simulation test run. Without cell phone distraction, drivers who received tactile feedback followed lane changing commands about as accurately as those who listened to a computerized voice (97.2 percent accuracy for tactile feedback and 97.6 for aural). In a separate run, drivers chatted on a cell phone while receiving lane-change directions. Here, the fingertip feedback seemed to help more than the spoken directions (98 percent lane change accuracy for tactile versus 74 percent for aural). Nate Medeiros-Ward, lead author of the study will present his team's complete findings today at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's annual meeting. The team's previously published or forthcoming papers on the "skin stretch" feedback device appear on the project's Website

A University of Utah press release starts by describing the invention as means to keep distracted drivers on the road--when they are too busy chatting to hear or watch the GPS. That application seems, for me, a bit far fetched. If you're too distracted to pay attention to the GPS commands and watch the road, a gentle finger rub from your wheel (once you're accustomed to it) doesn't seem any more likely to get your attention.

David Strayer, coauthor and a professor of psychology, seems to say as much in the press release:

Strayer says the findings shouldn't be used to encourage cell phone use while driving because even if giving drivers directional information by touch works, "it's not going to help you with the other things you need to do while driving--watching out for pedestrians, noticing traffic lights, all the things you need to pay attention to."

What sounds more promising, as described on the project site, is the devices' ability to give directions to those who are paying attention, but who may not benefit from voice commands--focused deaf drivers, for example. The device might also help those on foot: Incorporated into walking canes, the touch cues could give directions to the blind--or, as demonstrated in the video below, allow advisors to steer graduate students via remote control.

Images: Justin Lukas and William Provancher, the University of Utah

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Goodbye Roll Call, Hello RFIDs

For some reason, I have vivid memories of roll call from elementary school. It was a daily drill that gave each student a chance to rehearse his identity by riffing on the word "here!" Whether you sang it or burped it, you had to make it memorable. Or at least, that's how I felt about it.

But it's a nostalgia I may not share with my kids, as tracking devices have begun to dispose of the ritual all together. Last month, a preschool in Richmond, California installed a curiously expensive, high tech system to track the attendance of its students. And it could serve as a pilot program for others to come.

Upon arriving in the morning, according to the Associated Press, each student at the CCC-George Miller preschool will don a jersey with a stitched in RFID chip. As the kids go about the business of learning, sensors in the school will record their movements, collecting attendance for both classes and meals. Officials from the school have claimed they're only recording information they're required to provide while receiving  federal funds for their Headstart program.

However, the story has caught the attention of both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who have expressed alarm at the potential infringement of privacy rights. Together, they have submitted a letter of concern to school officials, including a request that they clarify what security precautions were put in place with the program.

This is not the first time a school has tried to track its students with RFID. In 2005, according to the AP, another grade school in California handed out RFID badges and was met with an equal amount of outrage from the ACLU and privacy rights watch dogs.

Aside from privacy issues, the project has stirred debate about resource allocation. The RFID system was installed with funds from the Federal stimulus program and carries a price tag of $50,000. Moreover, it was designed to replace a task which, from the outside, seems only minimally taxing to budget and personnel—and which, in my case, served to create lasting memories.

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Halo Reach vs. Angry Birds

The other day I was talking with Warren Spector, designer of the upcoming Wii game Epic Mickey.  Warren has been designing videogames for decades, going back to the cult classic PC games Ultima and Deus Ex.  

Though he’s working on what is ostensibly a blockbuster now, he thinks we’re in a new golden age for gaming.  This is being driven by the rise and spread of new platforms – from digital downloads on the Xbox Live Arcade to the iTunes app store.

I agree with Warren, but I’d go one step further – I think this is not just a new golden age, but the most golden age yet.   When people talk about the golden age of gaming, they’re usually referring to the early 80s.  The early 80s had a lot going for it in terms of electronic entertainment.  It was the era of Pac-Man Fever in the arcades, and the Atari 2600 at home. It was also the time when the first wave of personal computer hobbyists, hackers and coders on machines such as the Apple II and Commodore 64 pioneered the first DIY software creation and distribution subculture. 

The end of that era came with a video game adaptation of the hit film E.T.  Not only was the game crass and crappy, but there were so copies produced that they supposedly had to be buried in the desert of New Mexico (a legend which has now turned the place into something like the Area 51 of gaming).  The buried E.T.s symbolized the ugly mark of a new era of gaming, when corporate tie-ins devoured the indie geeks like Pac-Man chomping down fading power pellets. 

True enough, the 90s saw the rise of the Playstation generation – bigger, flashier franchises driven by bigger, flashier sequels (Think Madden).  Yes, a thriving PC underworld still emerged to transform the industry – particularly Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and their progeny – but it never quite got the respect (or eyeballs) of consoles.  This was especially true over the 00s, when blockbuster franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Halo dominated the charts.

This month, the latest and supposedly last Halo title, Halo Reach, is hitting – and flying off - shelves.  Yes, it’s selling gazillions of copies, and the must-play of the year.  But its relevance pales, I’d argue, to the games that most people (especially those sitting next to me on my train this morning) are playing.  

It’s hard to go a day, for example, without seeing someone on the road playing Farmville on Facebook or Angry Birds, the chart-topping mobile game.  Angry Birds is the Pong of iPhone generation – a simple, addictive, elegantly designed game that appeals to a broad cross-section of players.  Just as most of us grew up on Pong, there’s a whole new generation of gamers growing up on Angry Birds.  Halo Reach, while truly awesome, seems almost niche in comparison – a game that requires a huge amount of time, and relative skill, to accomplish. 

The gold of a golden age doesn’t just come from the luster of sales, but the promise of a rising dawn.  Huge new swaths of the population – people who may have never gripped an Xbox controller – are choosing to play games like Angry Birds during their precious down time. They still may not self-identify as gamers, but their driving innovation all the same.

"All You Can Eat" Mobile TV Announced at DemoFall 2010

If you’ve got a RIM or Android phone, and are worried that you’re not going to be able to keep up with HBO’s latest must-see series, “Boardwalk Empire,” I guess this app’s for you. BitBop says it can deliver network television to mobile devices better than Apple, because it’s an “all you can eat” buffet--$9.99 a month—instead of Apple’s 99-cent-a-show a la carte menu. And you can load up on shows when you have a wi-fi connection, instead of worrying about spotty cell phone service. Personally, I’m not thinking I’d want to spend a whole lot of time squinting at TV shows on a phone, but BitBop has got to be eyeing the pad market, though it’s not talking about those devices yet.

See what BitBop is talking about in the video above. (By the way, BitBop isn’t your ordinary startup company; it’s a front for Fox TV, so we’ll likely be hearing from it in the future.)

"Flipped" Scanners Launch at DemoFall 2010

This summer, I speed-dated a few mobile scanners. I didn’t find true love. So I was intrigued when yet another scanner company brought out their products at DemoFall 2010—perhaps I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Rocky Mountain Ventures Company demonstrated two products, the Flip-Pal, a compact $150 personal gizmo appearing in the video above, and the Capture-ID, a larger, $250 product that was demonstrated only in mock-up form, intended for commercial use. Both can scan the typical way, with a document placed face-down on the scanner, or in reverse, with the scanner sitting on the document, and a clear window letting you look down on what is being scanned. It’s this feature that caught my intention—how much easier to position a document when you are looking directly through a window at the scan area, not just guessing. And how nice to be able to scan books or lumpy surfaces that wouldn’t work in sheet-fed or traditional flat-bed scanners.

Alas, however, I didn’t find true scanner love at Demo—the Flip-Pal’s scanning area is optimized for photos; even though the image stitching software is effective, it’s a little convoluted for the typical papers I scan. And the Capture-ID is just too big for my computer bag.

Simplifying the Picturephone

I’m a big fan of simple, as long as simple does one useful thing well, and doesn’t cost too much. SeePort’s Virtual Windows, announced at DemoFall 2010, may meet those criteria (the price hasn’t been announced yet, that’s coming, I’m told, at the January Consumer Electronics Show, but is likely to be under $150).

The concept for Virtual Windows is indeed simple. It looks like an electronic picture frame, but it contains a camera and microphone.  You pair your window with someone else’s for instant communication. Set this electronic picture frame on a counter looking out into the room—your kitchen, for example. Set up another in your elderly parent’s home, perhaps, or in your child’s college dorm room (OK, bad example, no college student would want their parents to be able to stalk them quite so closely.)

You can leave it on; grandma can say hi to your kids when they’re passing by on their way back from the refrigerator. Or you can connect by tapping the touch screen. Or you can make it simple on one end, but tap into the “window” on the other through an iPhone.  In the video above, company founder Lauren Elliot tells me why he thinks this is going to be a great product.

Fuel 2.0: E-Fuel's MicroFueler Will Put An Ethanol Refinery in Your Driveway

I didn’t expect to see an ethanol production plant pitched as a consumer technology at DemoFall 2010. But after more than a day of social networking, online shopping, and cloud technologies I was happy to see a product that does something useful, is good for the environment, and doesn’t want to be my friend. Even if it was big, green, and kind of ugly.

The Microfueler, from E-Fuel Corp., is definitely not for everyone. But if you’re really commited to energy independence—or, like some of my neighbors, have a little home wine-making operation with a lot of high-sugar content organic waste, it may be for you. E-Fuel already sells a system that ferments organic waste and converts it into ethanol. Start out with waste with a heavy sugar content, if you have a home wine-making operation, say, and the process is particularly efficient. (I do know folks who fall into this category.) The system includes a $10,000 home auto fueling pump to extracts gas-tank-ready ethanol from a fermented tank, and a $6000 generator that can power your home from this fuel supply. At DemoFall 2010, held in Santa Clara, Calif., the company added a component to this system--what it calls a column reactor, which it says will speed the fermentation process to minutes instead of days; no word on the price yet on this final device, says CEO Thomas Quinn, who tells me how it all fits together, in the video above.

Mag-Stripe Cards Get Smart

Magnetic stripe cards are by no means perfect—they’re basically as dumb as digital technology gets. But they are supported by a vast infrastructure of magnetic stripe readers, and any discussion about making the cards better typically grinds to a halt when this infrastructure is considered.

Enter Dynamics Inc., a little company from Pittsburgh. Attending the DemoFall 2010 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., its CEO Jeff Mullen admitted it was his first visit ever to Silicon Valley.

Mullen may be a stranger to the valley, but he’s no stranger to creative ideas implemented in Silicon. Instead of trying to replace the magnetic stripe on the card, Dynamics added a layer of electronics under it. Those electronics can reprogram that stripe on the fly. That means cards could have switchable numbers—use one for debit, one for credit, perhaps. They could also require that users tap in a security code before they’ll work, meaning a stolen card is essentially a dead card. Mullen’s plan for what he calls Card 2.0 is to sell the technology to the credit card issuers—and, he says, they are definitely interested. He tells me all about it in the video, above.

(And if you think he’s exuberant here, you should have seen him after the DemoFall attendees voted Dynamics winner of the People’s Choice award.)

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