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CES 2011: In The Chips

Two days does not a trend make…or does it? The consumer electronics show in Las Vegas has always been about what the products do—show big pictures, communicate blazingly fast. Secondarily, CES typically has a couple of standards subtexts, for the industry learned in the bloody Betamax/VHS battle over videotape, it ignores standards at its peril. But little attention has typically been paid to the chips inside of all these shiny new devices—even the flashy Intel Inside campaign a number of years ago didn’t change that.

But this year, the chips are taking a bow. Yesterday, it was Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors that had their moment in the spotlight.

Today, JVC at its press conference referred repeatedly to its new Falconbrid (that’s not a typo for bird) microprocessor that will soon power a new generation of products, including displays with 4K by 2K resolution and high-speed cameras. The processor will also be the heart of the company’s new high definition 3D camcorder that ships in March.

Over at Samsung, booth representatives were well-trained in describing the way that company's BSI CMOS sensor were making its camera's better than ever.

Will a nod to the processor become as common to consumer electronics product introductions as thanks to mom are at Academy Award acceptances? Stay tuned.

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

CES 2011: Ready to Trade in Your Computer for a Phone?

If you’re really living in the cloud, do you need a computer? Motorola Mobility, introducing the Atrix 4G mobile phone, a stand-alone company that separated from Motorola Inc. yesterday, seems to think that the answer is no. All you need is a phone.

Well, maybe just a phone with a few accessories. At a press conference on the eve of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Motorola piled on accessories in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite movie scenes of all time, when Steve Martin in “The Jerk” keeps adding random household objects to his list of  "the only thing I need."

Motorola started with the Atrix phone, a very nice and powerful dual core processor phone with 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage. Of course, if you’re going to do real computing with it, you need to hook it up to a few things, so you’ll need a handy dandy little dock. And a keyboard. And a big screen—a monitor, or maybe a television, so you can watch streaming HD video if you get tired of working. But that won’t fit on your lap, so you’ll need a faux-laptop (a screen, keyboard, and dock in one package).

No word yet on what it all will cost.

CES 2011: Do PCs really need to be vastly more powerful? Intel hopes you think so

Intel launched its 2nd Generation Intel Core Processor family, code named Sandy Bridge, today, the day before the opening of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. Sandy Bridge chips are fast—Intel says some 69 percent faster on some benchmarks than the previous generation—and powerful. The new Core processors boast 1.16 billion transistors on a chip, manufactured using 32-nanometer technology. If you were to take the performance boost and apply it to a Boeing 767 aircraft, , the company said, you’d get to your destination twice as fast (not counting check in and security screening, of course).

But do consumers, who this show is all about, need this much power? Intel spent much of its morning press conference make a case that they do. One argument—the extra power means a laptop could replace a game machine, and Intel brought up folks from game companies to prove this point with demos. To make another point in favor of souping up home computers, Mooley Eden, vice president of Intel’s PC Client Group, demonstrated photo organization software, blasting through images and videos organized by person, place, and date. He also pointed out that today people do a lot of format conversion—bringing home videos from camera to laptop to cell phone, for example, and the new Core processors will make this process hugely faster, converting a 4-minute high definition video to the iPod format in 16 seconds.

Finally, he touted the chips’ appeal to the movie industry—they have built in content protection, which, Kevin Tsujihara, vice president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, says will make studios willing to release movies for download sooner and in higher definition.

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

Qualcomm to Sink $1 Billion Into Advanced Display Factory in Taiwan

Engineering jobs will soon be on offer at a factory that will produce energy-saving color displays at the site of the Hsinshu Science Park in northern Taiwan. Qualcomm and Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs reported on 3 January that the chipmaker, based in San Francisco, is investing US $1 billion to build the factory, which will turn out small color displays for a new generation of e-readers and smartphones with built-in e-reader capability that use Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology. The technology is meant to extend battery life by making the screen readable without a backlight. (It takes its name from the words “mira” and “sol,” which literally mean “look” and “sun.”) According to the Taiwanese government, Qualcomm has reserved a seven-hectare lot upon which the plant will be erected. Press releases announcing the Qualcomm investment noted that it will help a Taiwanese chipmaking industry beset by competition from its Asian rivals. There has been no word on the high-dollar investments the U.S. based chipmaker plans to make in order to aid the U.S. economy.

 

Photo: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

Nanolaser Heats Up

Nanolasers just got a little toastier. No, we're not talking about the world's tiniest death rays. The surface plasmon lasers, or "spasers," that IEEE Spectrum described last year can generate visible light in a space only 5 nanometers wide. They seemed a promising step towards the age of optical computing, but the little guys had a serious flaw: The devices, which stimulate oscillating electrons near a metal's surface with electromagnetic waves, needed a frigid 10 Kelvin environment to keep the light from leaking out. In a paper, published on Sunday in Nature Materials, a University of California, Berkeley team reports that they've modified the laser so that it can now operate at room temperature.

According to a university press release, the research team led by Xiang Zhang, a mechanical engineering professor at UC, Berkeley, found the solution by redesigning the lasers to work a bit like whispering galleries. These often dome-shaped spaces (such as the one in New York City's Grand Central Station, pictured below) allow two people to utter secret messages across a room, as the sound waves reflect off the ceiling.

For their ceiling, Zhang's team used a 45 nanometer-thick cadmium sulfide patch--which captured the light in a 5-nanometer magnesium fluoride gap between a silver base and the cadmium sulfide. 

The press release says the Berkeley scientists could then confine the light to 20 nanometers and forgo the cryogenics. According to Zhang, a room-temperature spaser nanolaser could lead to single-molecule biodetectors, photonic circuits, and high-speed optical communication systems. Renmin Ma, also at UC, Berkeley, adds:

"The present square plasmon cavities not only can serve as compact light sources, but also can be the key components of other functional building-blocks in integrated circuits..."

Images:  Renmin Ma and Rupert Oulton, UC, Berkeley / flickr: nickgraywfu

At NYU Show, Tech Takes an Artistic Turn

In their biannual hybrid of an art show and science fair, students from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University gave the public a peek at their recent design projects. 

We first visited with Ginny Hung who let me take a ride in her project, called Channels. Forget joysticks or Wii-motes--Hung and her collaborators let gamers control a virtual boat by splashing around in two buckets. Force sensors in each can determine the direction of the swirling water's flow and therefore how the gamer is paddling. She says one challenge was finding the perfect force probe that would bend in the water without breaking. The answer: plastic spoons.

 What could be even more relaxing than a boat ride? A rocking chair. But this suped-up rocker isn't meant for grandma--unless she has really good rhythm. Dan Scofield's Cadence Chair reveals a hidden video if you rock just right and press two buttons on the handles evenly. The "standard issue" chair, he says, has an accelerometer strapped to its back.  

After all that sitting, I was ready for Lucas Werthein's augmented reality exhibition Atomos. A projector shines a series of spots on a wall and instructions ask users to push them (virtually) into circles also projected on the wall. Werthein says the system works similarly to the Xbox Kinect--an infrared projector and camera to track people and objects and control video games. Werthein says the show is a great chance for game testing. 

Eszter Ozswald's Silhouette Play is already tapping the Kinect's power. In another augmented reality project, she asks users to plaster a white wall with their own shadows. The goal is to cover up as much white space as possible without overlapping. If you overlap too much, the game ends and you lose.

The show continues tonight, so check it out if you're in the New York City area.

Video by Joshua Romero

Amazing New Motion Capture Tech Makes Games Look Like Films

Check out this amazing new video on YouTube.  It's a short clip on the making of the upcoming video game, L.A. Noire.  Specifically, it focuses on a new motion capture technology called MotionScan, which creates the most lifelike scenes yet. 

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Brendan McNamara, lead developer  for L A Noire, has said that “We’re definitely blurring the lines now. I want this game to be the flashpoint where people start to think of games and film as being on the same level, because I’m confident they already are.”  It's hard to argue after seeing the footage.  The company behind MotionScan is depth Analysis, based in Sydney, Australia.   Depth Analysis announced the innovation earlier this year, and gave a few hints about how it works. 

"MotionScan uses 32 High Definition cameras to capture true-to-life three-dimensional performances at up to 30 frames per second," the company revealed. "Capable of capturing up to 50 minutes of final footage and processing up to 20 minutes of facial animation automatically per day, the technology revolutionizes traditional motion-capture and post-production animation. MotionScan records every emotional detail, mannerism, and facial nuance accurately frame by frame as 3D models.  No markers or phosphorescent paint needs to be applied to the actors at the time of recording, and no manpower is required to clean up data and animate the finer details by hand after the shoot. For directors and cinematographers, an additional advantage of MotionScan is the ability to view an actor’s performance from any angle and re-light in any way from one take without the need for multiple camera and lighting setups that quickly drain production time and budgets."

This comes at a momentous time for motion-capture innovation.  Microsoft, of course, recently rolled out the Kinect motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360.  The Kinect is sort of the DIY version of MotionScan, letting gamers transport themselves into the action.  It'll be interesting to see how this increased realism impacts game development in the coming year.  Perhaps most significantly, it may lead more A-List Hollywood actors into games.   After all, as one can see by the LA Noire footage (which features an actor from the hit show Mad Men) there's more "acting" that can actually come through now given the mocap precision.

LA Noire, which is made by Rockstar Games, will likely be a breakthrough title, ushering in a new era of cinematic game play.  With so much attention focused now on smaller, social games like Farmville, cinematic epics are primed for reinvention.   I have no doubt that while gamers may be spending more time on iPhones, there's always an appetite for big brash immersive epics like LA Noire.  

Electronic Cigarettes: Unregulated and Untested

The U.S. Appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled last Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration lacks the authority to regulate electronic cigarettes as either a drug or a device, leaving the FDA with only as much regulatory power as it wields over tobacco products. The ruling came just days after researchers in California published a study detailing safety and marketing concerns with every brand of e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are designed to look like tobacco cigarettes, but they deliver hits of nicotine vapor. When the smoker draws on the mouthpiece, air passes through and activates a battery-powered atomizer that vaporizes liquid nicotine from a disposable cartridge. Manufacturers market them, in part, as a safer alternative to smoking (one company calls its product the "Safe Cig"), and as an aid to quitting.

These claims, however, have never been established to the satisfaction of the FDA. And in April, the agency moved to ban imports of e-cigarettes into the country until companies gained approval for the devices, a process that would require rigorous proof of their safety and efficacy. Nicotine patches and nicotine gum were held to similar standards before eventually gaining approval.

In turn, Sottera Inc., a company that makes and imports e-cigarettes under the name NJOY sued the FDA, claiming that the gadget should be classified as a tobacco product, although it contains no tobacco.

Just days before the ruling, a group of researchers in California published a study calling into question the safety of e-cigarettes. The group claims that the toxicity level of vaporized nicotine is virtually unstudied. They also found various design flaws with the devices themselves, including leaky cartridges and insufficient labeling. Another study in January warned that e-cigarettes may not be any healthier than tobacco cigarettes. 

The debate has attracted passionate opinions in the blogosphere. For now, at least, the courts have resolved the issue in favor of e-smokers.

WikiLeaks Demonstrates Web Resiliency

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably heard that WikiLeaks has been feeling the heat after publishing confidential cables between the U.S. State Department and its overseas missions. But many of the technical details behind these current events might be confusing.

For example, almost everyone knows by now that WikiLeaks had been using Amazon’s Web Services to host its Website. It chose to use Amazon apparently because its prior Web hosts became subject to a denial-of-service (DOS) attack. But what exactly does that mean?

Such attacks have many variations. The archetypal example involves the use of as many as several million individual computers spread throughout the Internet. At some point, the people operating those computers inadvertently downloaded and installed software that allowed their computers to be manipulated surreptitiously from elsewhere. These computers then became part of a “botnet,” which some distant master could then activate at a later time for malicious purposes.

The compromised computers could, for example, send a connection request to the servers of the targeted Website. The Website’s file servers are, of course, configured to establish such connections. But the attacker purposefully arranges things so the connections are requested but never completed. If the servers are inundated with too many such requests, they will not be able to service the legitimate requests for connections from people who genuinely want to visit the site.

The assault on WikiLeaks.org differed from this scenario, though. It was a denial-of-service attack, but not a distributed one. It appears that an online vigilante who calls himself “The Jester," using a single computer running software tool of his own making, targeted WikiLeaks.org and succeeded in temporarily silencing it.

When this happened to WikiLeaks, it decided to use Amazon Web Services. Amazon soon booted it off its servers, though, ostensibly because WikiLeaks violated Amazon’s terms of service, although the impetus may have been questioning Amazon received  from the staff of Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

WikiLeaks’ troubles keeping its Website online didn’t end there. Next up was the notice it got from EveryDNS.net that it was to be terminated. EveryDNS.net provides domain name system (DNS) lookups. WikiLeaks had been using this company’s name servers to translate the human-readable “WikiLeaks.org” into the numerical code—the Internet Protocol or IP address—needed to find the Website’s servers on the Internet.

Actually, if you had tried to surf over to WikiLeaks.org before this happened, it’s unlikely that your computer would have queried EveryDNS.net’s name servers to get such a translation. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) probably had WikiLeak.org’s IP address already stored on its own name servers. That’s the usual way things work. But the information on your ISP’s name servers gets periodically refreshed from the authoritative sources that each Website owner specifies. So at some point, your ISP’s computers would need to consult EveryDNS.net to find out how to route its customers to WikiLeaks.org’s servers. EveryDNS.net itself became subject to a DDOS attack, at which point it decided that it couldn’t responsibly keep trying to service WikiLeaks, which would have threatened its ability to provide similar service to other Websites.

How did WikiLeaks fare after all that? Its response to Amazon ousting it was simply to shift Website hosting to OVH in France and Bahnhof in Sweden (which it had used previously). It found alternative name servers, too, 13 of them at this writing. And it began using the WikiLeaks.ch domain name instead of WikiLeaks.org, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

One possibility is that WikiLeaks felt jittery about further name-server disruptions. To understand why that might be the case, you should know that in 2008, a U.S. District Court handling a civil suit against WikiLeaks issued a order to Dynadot, the US company that registered the WikiLeaks.org domain name. A domain-name registrar acts as an intermediary between the person or organization that sets up the domain name and the company that maintains and operates the relevant top-level domain’s name servers—here the .org name servers.

The idea was to force WikiLeaks offline by coercing its domain-name registrar to delete all records of it existing. That court order was quickly reversed and the suit dropped, but the threat of such actions was probably still weighing on WikiLeaks. So you can understand why at this point it might not want to depend on any company in the United States for hosting, maintaining its domain-name servers, or even for registering its domain name. But why switch from WikiLeaks.org to WikiLeaks.ch?

That’s still a bit of a mystery, but I can speculate. First I have to confess that my earlier description of what happens when your ISP needs to update its name server didn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the ISP’s name server starts by sending a query to a name server that handles the relevant top-level domain, .org in the case of WikiLeaks.org. The .org name server then provides an IP address for the name server that knows the IP address of WikiLeaks.org.

The name servers for the .org top-level domain are run by a U.S. company called the Public Interest Registry. In theory, the Public Interest Registry could configure the .org name servers not to point to the name servers for WikiLeaks.org. That seems a remote possibility, but you can certainly understand why WikiLeaks might want to avoid any such vulnerability. Switching to WikiLeaks.ch means that the name servers that begin the process of translating its domain name into an IP address are controlled from Switzerland rather than the United States. That better insulates WikiLeaks from the influence of U.S. courts or government agents.

What’s more, a Google search of “WikiLeaks” now turns up a numerical IP address for WikiLeaks.ch, perhaps because so many others have linked directly to this IP address. So it’s difficult to see how any attack on or suppression of name servers could at this point cut off the site.

And even if WikiLeaks itself were to go offline, the information it has put out would hardly be suppressed. Unlike most other publishers, which guard their offerings, WikiLeaks has urged others to copy its content, giving detailed instructions for doing so on its Website. This creates what are called “mirrors”—multiple sites with different names in different places that all look and work like WikiLeaks.ch. As of 10 December, WikiLeaks.ch shows that there are 1559 mirror sites scattered around the globe, a number that grows day by day.

It just goes to show, I suppose, what we’ve all known for a long time: For good or bad, once someone pours a bunch of juicy information into cyberspace, there’s no putting it back in the bottle.

Unmasking the "Anonymous" Hackers

This week, there has been a lot of breathless press surrounding Wikileaks cyber-warring minions, Anonymous.  The loose-knit collective of hackers is being credited with some impressive technical feats, as ABC News trumpeted:   “What’s most surprising about "Operation Payback," cybersecurity experts say, is the simplicity of its approach to wreaking havoc on the web.  The massive hack attack appears to have been orchestrated by a handful of organizers with control over a virtual army of tens of thousands of computers. The networks -- called botnets -- can inundate their targets with denial of service attacks, so overwhelming a site's server that regular customers can't get through.”

So who are Anonymous?  Anonymous didn’t start with Wikileaks.  They formed, more or less, on 4chan.org, a website where people upload and discuss random images culled from the Web.   A monster truck DeLorean.  A pink-eyed chinchilla.  The images must be legal, other than that anything goes.  Whenever a thread is particularly weak, discussants mark it with an image of Guy Fawkes, the pyrotechnic 16th century revolutionary, as re-imagined in the Wachowski Brothers’ dystopian movie V for Vendetta.

The point, besides laughs, is free expression, and to foster it they register on 4hcan under the same handle, Anonymous.   Compared to ordinary life offline - where, like everyone, they have to watch what they say - the power they feel while cloaked is awesome.  They can say anything, and some do with abandon.  As the FAQ on 4chan reads, “Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of 4chan.  He is a god amongst men.”  

Empowered by anonymity, Anonymous began doing online pranks they called Raids.  Once, hackers in the group busted into an online children’s game, flooding an animated swimming pool with their own characters.  Another time, they posed as kids to entrap an Internet pedophile.  Critics have accused them of more nefarious deeds, from flooding a guy’s MySpace page with pornography to calling in bomb threats at the Super Bowl.  Because they’re unknown and anyone can claim to be among them, you never really know what, if anything, Anonymous is responsible for at all.

Anonymous went wide in 2008 when they waged a global protest against the Church of Scientology, which they accused of censorship and unjustified tax exempt status, among other things.   It was an epic battle waged from YouTube to Utah. Scientology websites got flooded with denial of service attacks and crashed.  Prank calls rang at Scientology headquarters off the hook.  Black faxes spooled through Scientology faxes depleting the ink.  Pizzas arrived at Churches around the world, including a reported 300 at the headquarters in Amsterdam alone.  The Church of Scientology released a statement calling Anonymous members “cyberterrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity.”

Anonymous marks something far larger and more interesting:   all the fears and fascination of online anonymity made real.   As one member of Anonymous told me, “We identify with Guy Fawkes.  He’s a symbol of reform.  He’s mysterious.  You never know who he is.  You never get his identity.” 

 

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