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Holographic Video Brings Star Wars-Style 3D Telepresence a Step Closer

holographic display
A holographic display shows a 3D image of a man [center image above]. The image's three-dimensional nature becomes apparent when viewed from different angles [left and right images]. The display can update the hologram every 2 seconds. Faster refresh rates would make 3D telepresence possible. Images: University of Arizona

A holographic video system like the one Princess Leia uses in Star Wars is now one step closer to reality.

Researchers report today that they've built a holographic display that can show three-dimensional color images of a person in a remote location, with the images updated in almost real time -- a precursor to holographic telepresence.

This is the first time researchers demonstrate an optical material that can display "holographic video," as oppose to static holograms found in credit cards and product packages. The prototype looks like a chunk of acrylic, but it's actually an exotic material, called a photorefractive polymer, with remarkable holographic properties.

Nasser Peyghambarian and colleagues at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, designed the material -- a complex compound referred to as PATPD/CAAN, or polyacrylic tetraphenyldiaminobiphenyl/carbaldehyde aniline -- to refract and modulate light in a specific way useful for holography.

The breakthrough, which the researchers report in this week's Nature, is that the material can refresh a hologram every two seconds and give the effect of near real time updating. An early prototype built by the same group two years ago could refresh holograms only every 4 minutes.

Last year's blockbuster movie Avatar generated a lot of interest in 3D technologies. Several electronics manufacturers have demonstrated TV sets with 3D capabilities. But the technology used in movie theaters and TV sets, known as polarization stereoscopy, is different from holography.

Holograms are made with lasers and they use special materials capable of diffracting light in a way that looks to an observer as if it had been scattered by the real object itself.


Image of a fighter jet created on a new holographic display. Image: University of Arizona

Like ordinary displays, the new device is a matrix of picture elements, though in this case holographic pixels, known as hogels. As opposed to 2D pixels, hogels contain 3D information from various perspectives. Each hogel is written with a single 6-nanosecond laser pulse.

The technique is known as holographic stereography. It's been around for some time and is in fact used in large 3D static prints used in marketing materials. But the ability to dynamically update the image has eluded researchers -- until now.

Since its appearance in the original Star Wars film in 1977, 3D telepresence has been a source of fascination. But the absence of a large, updatable holographic recording medium prevented researchers from realizing the concept.

In their 3D telepresence demonstration, the researchers use 16 cameras to take two-dimensional pictures of a person's face at multiple angles. The cameras fire simultaneously every second, and a standard desktop PC converts the 16 views into hogel data and sends it to the laser recording system through an Ethernet link. Each image is 4 x 4 inches (about 10 x 10 centimeters), with 120 hogels. Once a hologram has been written, the laser uses the next available hogels to refresh the images every 2 seconds.

"The development seems like a nice and potentially important contribution to holography," says Paul Debevec, a computer scientist who leads the Graphics Laboratory at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, in Playa Vista. He was not involved in the project. "It seems that the authors have significantly improved the speed with which holograms can be written."

But he adds that the prototype is still small and "two orders of magnitude slower than useful video rates." Other 3D technologies, much simpler and cheaper, could work as telepresence systems, he says. His group developed one such system based on a spinning mirror that was capable of showing a full-size human face, with the image updated at 30 frames per second.

(My colleague Sally Adee tested the prototype; see her "holographified" face here.)

"With respect to 3D telepresence," Debevec says, "what they claim to have taken a step towards appears to be something our 3D teleconferencing system demonstrated two years ago."


Color holograms recorded on the new device. Images: Nature

Peyghambarian and his colleagues acknowledge that their device needs to be bigger and refresh faster. But they say that other 3D telepresence technologies demonstrated before required moving parts, complex projection systems, floating particles, or they were simply optical tricks or computer-generated special effects. In other words, they aren't true holograms.

Advanced holographic system, the researchers say, could find applications in telemedicine, prototyping, advertising, updatable 3D maps, and entertainment.

"As an example, in telemedicine and especially for brain surgery, surgeons at different locations around the world could use the technique to observe in three dimensions, in real time, and to participate in the surgical procedure," they write in the Nature paper.

The project also included scientists from Nitto Denko Technical Corp., in Oceanside, Calif., the research arm of a Japanese company that makes semiconductor and optical products.

Is this the technology that is going to bring Star Wars holographic telepresence to our homes?

After watching videos of the prototype, I'm underwhelmed. The researchers claim this is getting us close to holographic telepresence, but we're clearly still far, far away. Lightsabers might come first.

So for now I'm sticking with robotic telepresence. I guess I feel more comfortable in a solid mechatronic body than as a flimsy hologram. But see for yourself and let us know what you think.

According to the researchers, the movie below "shows the concept of 3D telepresence." The device is displaying holograms of individuals located in a different room. Note that in the first hologram the man is smiling; the next time the hologram is refreshed, after several seconds, he's not smiling anymore. (Don't ask me about the second guy with the glasses at the end -- I don't understand why they show him if it's just a static image...)

This movie shows a series of 6-nanosecond laser pulses writing an image in about 2 seconds.

Videos: University of Arizona

Intel First: Making Advanced Chips for Third Parties

Achronix Semiconductor Corp. announced yesterday that it will churn out a new line of their chips in Intel's forthcoming 22-nm technology factory. This is a first: Intel has put their older manufacturing lines at other companies' disposal, but never have they opened one of their new factories to an outsider.

Some have said that this signals Intel's entrance into the now mostly Chinese and Taiwanese foundry business of chip manufacturers for hire. Gus Richard, a microprocessor industry analyst with Piper Jaffray, said as much to The New York Times:

“Manufacturing is [Intel's] crown jewel, and they’re finding new ways to monetize it.”

However, Intel's Bill Kircos, Director, Product and Technology Media Relations, wrote in a company blog post that the agreement is "not currently viewed as financially material to Intel’s earnings."

He echoed that sentiment in an email to IEEE Spectrum. "Our factories are our prized possession," Kircos says. "Still, this agreement with Achronix would only make up significantly less than one percent of our capacity."

Achronix, develops Field Programmable Gate Arrays--customizable chips that users can tap for a variety of telecommunications, military, and aerospace applications. They can be manufactured in smaller quantities than Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) which, as The Register describes, require large production runs to make economic sense:

"It might take $30m or $40m to develop an ASIC to do a particular job. . . . For very high volume products—with hundreds of thousands to millions of units where the cost per unit has to be low—you want an ASIC. But in places where you need a chip that might only require thousands to tens of thousands of units to satisfy an entire market, an FPGA, while more expensive to buy, is better because it is less expensive to make and is correctable in a way that an ASIC is not."

Two other FPGA companies, Xilinx and Altera, currently control 85 percent of the market share, EE Times reports.

Achronix suggests in a press release that the Speedster22i they'll manufacture in Intel's factory will help them compete, writing that the chip will "eclipse other FPGA solutions expected to hit the market in the next few years." The release also says the chip will be the FPGA equivalent of an ASIC of over 20 million gates. Since Intel's plants are in the United States, the company says, the device will be ideal for military applications. IEEE Spectrum's Sally Adee discusses reasons why "on shore" silicon manufacturing is important for security in her feature Hunt for the Kill Switch.

What this means for Intel isn't clear. EE Times reports that some had recently speculated that Intel, which made their own programmable logic chips in the 1980s, would acquire Xilinx or Altera. Achronix CEO, John Lofton Holt, told EE Times that the arrangement,

"[S]peaks to how important they [Intel] see FPGAs to the future of the semiconductor industry." But, Holt said, "If Intel wanted to be in the FPGA business they would be already. They certainly have the cash."

I asked Intel's Kircos whether Intel had any plans for manufacturing their own FPGAs. "We're not going to speculate on that," he says.

Image: Achronix

Energy Consumption Labels Coming Soon to a TV Near You

You've seen them on refrigerators, you've carefully peeled them off washing machines. And now they're coming to a TV near you--they being EnergyGuide labels. This means shoppers can compare energy consumption--which can vary greatly between TVs, even those with the same technology and screen size, as easily as they compare price. (One model of 42-inch Philips LCD, for example, sucks up $40.35 worth of electricity in a year, according to CNET, a 42-inch LG LCD will use just $20.66 worth of electricity in that same year.) The U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced the new rule today, it goes into effect on 10 May 2011. 

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The Most Dangerous Site Online?

Visitors to the LimeWire file-sharing site found this message today:   “This is an official notice that LimeWire is under a court-ordered injunction to stop distributing and supporting its file-sharing software. Downloading or sharing copyrighted content without authorization is illegal.”

As someone who has been watching, and writing about, LimeWire for nearly a decade, (including this story in May 2007 for Spectrum) this moment is a long time coming.  And while the fight will still continue, it perhaps marks the end of what might be called the Peer-to-Peer Decade.

For LimeWire, that decade began with its unlikely founder, Mark Gorton.  Gorton defies the stereotype of the version 1.0 Napster punk.  With an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Yale, a master’s from Stanford, and an MBA from Harvard, Gorton built an empire, and a name, by coding the solutions that make them tick.  Tower Research Capitol, his financial services company on Wall Street, is among the small but elite firms that employee quantitative analysts (sometimes called “quants”) who code black box software that automatically exploits ripples in the market, and makes trades. Instead of recruiting from business schools, Gorton recruited his Wall Street whiz kids from unlikely places: physics, math, and engineering departments.

But despite his Wall Street fashion success, Gorton’s inner nerd caught up with him during the Napster craze of late 2000.  Gorton used his quant-made cash to fund his most ambitious mission, as he once told me, “building open source tools to help improve the functioning of democracy.”   One such tool was the file-sharing network, Gnutella.  Unlike Napster, Gnutella was part of the open source community:  idealistic programmers around the world who distributed their code for others to tweak and improve.  Problem was, Gnutella was also something of a mess.  “It was pretty poorly organized,” Gorton said.  So he set about cleaning it up.

The result was LimeWire, an easy-to-use free download that achieved the considerable feat of taming Gnutella for a newbie crowd.  The software soon resided on nearly 10 million computers worldwide.  While Napster crashed and burned, LimeWire avoided being sued.  Hilary Rosen, then president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, warned in 2001 that just because Gorton hadn’t received a call from the RIAA, didn’t mean he shouldn’t be worried.  “No one should take comfort in that they haven’t been sued yet,” she told me. 

For Gorton, however, this was all becoming rather moot.  A swarm of coders online quickly churned out their own spin-offs of LimeWire, just in case anything should happen.  “If the recording industry sues me,” Gorton told me, “I can fire all my programmers, stop development, and the network will keep running.” 

Not anymore, it seems.  But I don’t expect Gorton to back down so easily.  After the Recording Industry Association of America sued Gorton for facilitating copyright infringement a few years ago, Gorton countersued back.  He then launched an iTunes style music store that users LimeWire as its engine.  Gorton also created the Open Source Planning Project, a non-profit that develops free software tools for community groups.  One of these projects is Transportation Alternatives, a grassroots effort in New York to produce livable streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

Each of Gorton’s efforts relies on what might be called nerd-sourcing, tapping braniacs for out-of-the-box solutions.  But the code that drives Gorton is more personal.   By creating the right tools, he believes, it’s possible to not only build a business, but a stronger world. 

Electronics Companies Receive Darts and Laurels from Greenpeace

Philips and HP are bringing good things to the environment, according to Greenpeace’s latest Guide to Greener Electronics. The organization praises Philips for releasing the first television free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), both chemicals that persist in the environment after disposal and cause health problems. HP, Acer, Wipro, and HCL have also phased these substances out of several lines of computers, and HP has introduced its first PVC-free printer. Meanwhile, Nokia and Sony Ericsson remain at the top of the class, in first and second place respectively, for producing the most hazard-free products.

But Greenpeace isn’t happy with the entire electronics industry. The organization slapped Toshiba, LGE, Dell, and Lenovo for failing to stay on track in meeting their commitments to making their products greener. Toshiba got a second penalty point for misleading its customers, and Microsoft got slapped for actually backtracking on its commitments. The full Greenpeace Guide is here.

Update: China and Rare Earth Minerals

In January, IEEE Spectrum's Willie Jones asked a question:  What if China, which mines more than 95 percent of the world's supply of electronics-essential rare earth minerals stopped selling? Given Chinese media reports from earlier this week that the country may reduce export quotas of these minerals by up to 30 percent next year, many others are asking that same question. 

As Bloomberg Businessweek reports, China's Commerce Ministry responded to media in a statement that said the country will “continue to supply rare earth to the world," but must reduce exports for environmental and economic reasons.

Japan, which buys some 56 percent of China's rare earth minerals, is already feeling the pinch, Reuters reports. A reduction in cerium, essential for making flat-panel televisions and hard-drives, has sent manufacturers there into a scramble as they have noticed a 16-fold increase in the price of the mineral over the past decade. 

Of course we could all get the elements somewhere else, given that "rare" is a misnomer. Cerium, for example, is actually the 25th most abundant element of the 78 common elements in the earth's crust, according to the USGS. A better name for the 17 rare earth minerals might be "hard-to-extract safely minerals." As Global Post describes:

The ore typically contains radioactive elements, like thorium, radium and even uranium in the case of the Chinese mine. Moreover, the ore needs to be boiled in acid literally thousands of times. This renders the waste stream dangerous. . . The massive Inner Mongolia mine, on the banks of the Yellow River, is said to be an enormous toxic wound on the earth, but environmental standards in the Middle Kingdom remain lax. 

Some, such as George Leopold at EE Times suggest that the United States should devise new, safer ways to mine and process rare earth elements here. Molycorp Minerals, in Greenwood, Colo., the owner of the largest U.S. repository of rare earth metals, which stopped operating in 1992 when prices dropped, might be one place to start. Leopold also says we might encourage consumer electronics recycling programs as in Japan. 

Another alternative might be redesigning electronics so they don't need these minerals. Dexter Johnson addressed using nanoscale materials for this exact purpose in a Nanoclast blog post in June.

Image: Cerium, Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons

Magic Rocks

This week comes news of a breakthrough in nanocrystal research.  Scientists at the United State's Energy Argonne National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington report finally being able to watch nanocrystals grow into form. "We have not been able to see how different conditions affect the particles," said Wenge Yang of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, "much less understand how we can tweak the conditions to get a desired effect."

"Nanocrystal growth is the foundation of nanotechnology," said lead researcher Yugang Sun, "Understanding it will allow scientists to more precisely tailor new and fascinating nanoparticle properties."  As the so-called "foundation of nanotechnology," nanocrystals have fascinating prospects, as I learned from an engineer working in the field in Princeton.  Nanocrystals are in your socks, your Armani suit.  They're making his way into your cosmetics, your credit cards, your smart car.   And if you have lung cancer, he could be inside her chest too.

Entrepreneurial physicists are making and selling nanocrystals: programmable particles that are infiltrating our everyday lives.   Once a security measure of the Department of Treasury, nanocrystals are now going wide and transforming our lives. Grown from patent-protected mixtures of rare-earth elements – with names like Ytturbium, Prometheum, and Neodymium – these crystals measure as small as one nanometer.  Together they create something extraordinary, light.  Each mixture of elements produces a unique optical signature that can be detected with an infrared sensor.  With infinite combinations possible, there are countless types of light that can be produced – different colors, sizes, wavelengths.  And this is where the burgeoning applications come in. 

At first, nanocrystals were used to fight counterfeiters  The Department of Treasury puts nanocrystals in cash for added security.  If you hold a $20 bill up to an infrared sensor, you’ll see faint streaks of blue and green light – impossible to duplicate. A major credit card company will be putting the crystals into credit cards next year.  Lycra puts nanocrystals in its clothing to detect knockoffs.  If you hold a sensor up to your socks right now, you’ll see the crystals glow.

But the magic rocks aren’t just for security anymore.  They can be used  to improve the efficiency of solar cells.  Researchers are using nanocrystals to illuminate and track lung cancer cells in patients (a key development, because tumors can now be tracked without cutting open a patient’s chest).  Cosmetics companies could create nanocrystal infused makeup that creates a pinkish glow when exposed to sunlight.  Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute developed an auto-guiding car that senses and follows a trail of nanocrystals on a white line on the road. 

Is this the dawn of the Rare Earth age?

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The Battle Over Violent Games Continues

On November 2, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about a controversial California ban on the sale of explicit games to minors.   Warren Spector, acclaimed designer of Deus Ex and the upcoming Epic Mickey, has taken up the cause saying that "This is a case of great significance to you and me -- to all people who play or create games and believe in the First Amendment."

On Monday, October 19, an advocacy group called the Video Game Voters Network will be holding a National Day of Action.  Here's more info.  

This battle isn't new.  It cuts to the misperception that video games are for kids.  This fight began, in many ways, back in early 90s, and the ruckus over Mortal Kombat. Compared to innocuous hits like SimCity 2000 (a city simulation from Will Wright) and Super Mario Brothers All-Stars (the winning collection of Nintendo’s erstwhile platform game), Mortal Kombat shocked the parents and politicians who believed that games – video or otherwise - were for kids.  The fact that the blood-soaked version of the game for the Sega Genesis was outselling the bloodless version of the game on the family friendly Nintendo Entertainment System three-to-one only made them more nervous.

The Mortal Kombat panic reached a sensational crescendo in the United States on December 9, 1993, when Senator Joseph Lieberman held the first federal hearings on the threat of violent video games to children.  While culture warriors in the U.S. had played out similar debates over comic books in the 1950s and rock and roll after that, the battle over violent games had an urgently contemporary ring.  Gamers were the new outlaws.

“Because they are active rather than passive, [video games] can do more than desensitize impressionable children to violence,” warned the president of the National Education Association at Lieberman’s hearings, “They actually encourage violence as the resolution of first resort by rewarding participants for killing one’s opponents in the most grisly ways imaginable.”

Of course, video games have never really been for kids in the first place.  They rose up to prominence in the college computer labs, where shaggy geeks coded their own games on huge mainframe PCs.  From there, the so-called “golden age” of home consoles like the Atari 2600 and arcade machines like Pac-Man lured a new generation of players into the fold.  By the early 90s, these legions of kids were now tinkering with their own PCs at home.  A burgeoning underground of edgy, even violent games like Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom had become a phenomenon among diehards. 

To ward off the threat of legislation as a result of the Lieberman hearings, the video game industry creating the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group representing their interest (now know as the Entertainment Software Association).  They also launched the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to voluntarily assign ratings to their game. With Mortal Kombat panic still griping the world, the media fed the flames in the UK.  Video games were “dangerous, violent, insidious, and they can cause everything from stunted growth to piles,” as one journalist frothed, “It's not just your children that they want, it's you, your pocket money and all your available free time. They cost a fortune, they'll be outdated in 10 minutes anyway, and they're nothing but an incomprehensible fad designed to warp and destroy young minds.”

Now here we are 16 years later.   Warren Spector's email is copied below:

-------Forwarded Message-------
From: Warren Spector
Date: October 13, 2010
Subject: Games are art

Dear Friends,

Computer and video games are art, a form of artistic expression deserving of and, currently, protected by the First Amendment.

That hasn't stopped states though from trying to restrict the rights of our medium's artists, storytellers, and technical innovators. On November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a California law that would restrict the sale of video games. This is a case of great significance to you and me -- to all people who play or create games and believe in the First Amendment.

Let's not beat around the bush -- if the Court's ruling goes against us, this law could lead to the future censorship of games, could irrevocably harm developers and would validate the absurd notion that video games are somehow a lesser form of creative expression.

We must act now. On October 19, I'm asking you to join me in urging all of your friends and co-workers, real-world or virtual, to stand up for video games by joining the Video Game Voters Network, an advocacy group fighting for their First Amendment protection.

Many people, including some of my personal heroes, like Stan Lee, have already encouraged us to take a stand. Now is the time for gamers to come together and spread the word through our social networks. Now is the time to ask every gamer we can reach to stand up with us and protect our First Amendment rights.

Here's the link:

http://www.videogamevoters.org/nocensorship

On October 19, please tweet this:
Games=Free Speech. Stand w/ @VideoGameVoters on 11/2 as #SCOTUS decides future of games http://vgvn.org/act #GamersUnite

Post it on Facebook and on your blog. Talk about it in interviews, on podcasts and with your colleagues. Encourage everyone you can to do the same. It's time for all of us who are tired of games being treated unfairly to band together and let our collective voice be heard.

Thank you for considering this call to action.

-- Warren Spector

A Belt for Better Balance

Veterans with balance disorders will soon have the chance to try on an unusual fashion accessory: a vibrating belt. Using what's called vibrotactile feedback, the "balance belt" warns wearers with vibrating pulses when they are about to tip too far in any direction. This month, the Veterans Administration will begin a 4 to 6 week pilot study to test three of these belts.

A variety of research groups are now studying haptics technologies, which employ users' sense of touch, to help physical therapy patients. Some devices, such as this treadmill-like machine, actually push people into the required positions, in this case to build the muscle strength required for walking. Others are more subtle--like this theoretical device that could use small electrical currents, basically "noise" to the sensory system, to improve touch and also balance.

The balance belt falls somewhere in-between; it doesn't physically keep wearers from falling, but provides perceptible vibrating cues when the wearer seems liable to fall.

The belt's developer, Conrad Wall, a professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, first imagined a balance vest. In early tests he had those with balance disorders stand on a platform while researchers "made life difficult for them." When the platform moved, the patients stumbled. But Wall says his vibrating vest changed that: "They put the device on and they didn't fall over anymore. It was pretty dramatic, actually." 

IEEE Spectrum described a much different balance vest in April. Instead of vibrations, pneumatic actuators inflate portions of that vest to warn wearers of an impending stumble. In that article, creators of the inflating vest argue that users might get used to and ignore vibrations--especially given long term feedback, as would be necessary for amputees, for example.

Wall imagines that his device will be worn temporarily, to help users train their muscles as part of physical therapy "homework" exercises, but he hasn't ruled out the possibility of giving the belts to patients with longer term balance problems.

The current version of the device comes from a collaboration with Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA, which helped him to turn a "cumbersome research device", a vest with 48 vibration points, called tactors, into a belt with 4 tactors, orchestrated with a microprocessor. He imagines that in the future, if this pilot test is successful, a mass-produced, single-user device might cost about $1,000. 

Image: Draper Laboratory

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