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CES 2009: Are they real? (I'm talking about 240 Hz LCDs, of course)

32S5100_med.jpgAre they real? Itâ''s the kind of question you expect to hear in Las Vegas, but not the question I thought Iâ''d be asking repeatedly as I checked out the latest LCD television technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. The â''theyâ'' in question: the latest twist (ouch, bad pun) in LCD technology, the 240 Hz displays.

A little background. The digital television standard in the U.S. requires displays to put up a new image 60 times a second, or 60 Hz. That works just fine for technologies like cathode ray tube or plasma, in which a phosphor lights briefly whenever itâ''s called for in an image and then goes dark until needed again. Itâ''s not so good for LCD, because each pixel, once illuminated, stays on until the screen is rescanned with a new image; it doesnâ''t go dark in between scans. This doesnâ''t have any effect on still or slow-moving images, but for fast-moving images, the persistence of the pictures causes "motion blur". Motion blur can make pictures seem out of focus, or can make parts of an image seem to momentarily disappear. In sports, that disappearing part of the image is usually the fast moving ball, a real annoyance to fans.

LCD manufacturers figured out a few years ago that they could greatly reduce motion blur by increasing the rate at which new images are displayed on the screen to 120 Hz. Since theyâ''re only getting 60 images a second from the television transmission, they added processing power to the TV sets that generates additional frames by interpolating between existing frames. I looked at these 120 Hz sets at CES back in 2007 and was impressed by the difference, deciding this was one feature that would be worth paying extra for in my next television.

Of course, technology marches on, so it wasnâ''t a huge surprise to see announcements of 240 Hz LCD televisions at this Januaryâ''s CES. I found four such products on the show floor, but it turned out that just because a television is advertised at operating at 240 Hz, it might not be displaying 240 different images a second. LG and Toshiba are generating 120 images per second, but turning the LED backlighting on and off so each image appears and disappears twice, a virtual sort of 240 Hz. Sony and Samsung are interpolating three frames between each transmitted image, so generate 240 different frames per secondâ''real 240 Hz.

Is real 240 better than fake 240, and are any or all of the 240s better than the most recent generation of 120s? Iâ''d like to be able to give you a definitive answer, but the truth is, I just couldnâ''t tell. Each of the manufacturerâ''s lines were displayed at CES independently, so I had no chance of doing a side by side comparison, instead, I ran from booth to booth as fast as I could and back again, trying to hold the previous image quality in my mind. With this highly unscientific method, I couldn't detect a significant difference between virtual 240 and real 240.

And even in exhibits tuned by the individual manufacturers to present their 240 against 120 and 60 Hz models, demonstrations intended to show off the clarity of the 240, I had trouble identifying a significant difference between 240 and 120. I stood with other show attendees, squinting at the fast moving images racing across screens, getting slightly nauseous as I tried to figure out if the 240 was a bit more blurry than the 120. â''Look at the faces in the moving boat,â'' someone suggested. â''You can tell the faces are clearer.â'' Maybe. The only manufacturer that demonstrated an obvious difference between a 120 Hz and 240 Hz model was Samsung, and that difference seemed more due to a really blurry 120 Hz TV than any revolution in 240 Hz technology (the 120 Hz model was in a black box that obscured the brand information, so it may have been a very old model or a very cheap brand).

Pricing, on all of the 240 Hz displays introduced, was not announced, so itâ''s also not clear what the extra 120 Hz will cost, though fake 240 is likely to cost less than real 240. But, so far, Iâ''m not convinced either is worth any premium.

The National Academies Call for Comments on Future of U.S. Space Program

The leading science and engineering body in the United States has issued a call for comments on the direction of the nation's civil space policy.

The National Academies, which represent the engineering, medicine, research, and science communities, has published an online request for comments to serve as input for a forthcoming report to be called "Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program," which will be presented to the Congress.

The academies have formed an ad hoc committee to study the "key goals and critical issues in 21st century U.S. civil space policy."

The announcement stated: "Using its best objective judgment and recognizing other national priorities, the committee will explore a possible long term future for U.S. civil space activities that is built upon lessons learned and past successes; is based on realistic expectations of future resources; and is credible scientifically, technically, and politically."

It said the committee will:

  • review the history of U.S. space policy and propose a broad policy basis for 21st century leadership in space;

  • examine the balance and interfaces between fundamental scientific research in space, human space exploration, robotic exploration, earth observations, and applications of space technology and civil space systems for societal benefits;

  • assess the role that commercial space companies could play in fulfilling national space goals and the role of the government in facilitating the emergence and success of commercial space companies; and

  • highlight options for government attention to address and potentially resolve problems that might prevent achieving key national goals.

The committee is accepting public comments of up to 600 words until 30 January 2009 via an online questionnaire.

Referring to the pending report as a Joint Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Study, the committee will meet in Washington, D.C., from 13 to 15 January this week to pursue its agenda.

Please offer it your assistance.

CES 2009: Telekinesis is Childâ¿¿s Play with Mindflex

Mattel showcased a bunch of new toys at their CES booth, but the one that drew the biggest crowds was Mindflex. Itâ''s a game targeted at 8-year-olds, where players take turns guiding a foam ball through a series of obstacles arranged in a ring. The exciting part? You control the height of the ball with your brain.

Watch below as IEEE Spectrum editor Tekla Perry, dons the headband and earclips, and â''thinksâ'' the ball into the air.

Mattel tells us that the game picks up on theta waves generated by the brain. Concentrate, and the ball rises; relax, and it will descend. Of course, this isnâ''t direct telekinesisâ''the foam ball floats on a column of air generated by a fan, and the fanâ''s speed is controlled by signals from the headset.

As you see in the video, the ball was often slow to respond, and the controls were far from precise. These two problems tend to plague all brain-computer interfaces currently on the consumer market. That's why we named a similar product, Emotive System's Epoch gaming headset, a loser in our sixth annual "Winners and Losers" list.

And some in the blogosphere have bestowed a similar fate to Mindflex. Crunchgear called the game "something that will end up at the bottom of the toybox next Christmas." I agree that Mindflex is built on a simple gimmick...but what a gimmick it is. While driving a video-game car with your brain might be more entertaining, Mindflex actually brings the technology into the physical world.

For that reason alone, I think that many of the $79 games will sell to parents of eager 8-year-olds when they go to market in the fall (despite all the grumblings of disappointed YouTubers).

CES 2009: Analog TV Shutdown: Get on with it already!

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This week date certainâ''17 February 2009â''for the shutdown of analog television broadcasts in the U.S. became date uncertain. President-Elect Barack Obama suggested that, with government funds to subsidize digital conversion running out, the planned shut-off of analog television be delayed. Senate staffers are busy drafting competing bills, one to postpone the date, one to confirm that shutdown go forward as scheduled.

Here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where several panel sessions today addressed the digital television transition, the sentiment, overwhelmingly, was â''get on with it already.â'' More time, industry executives indicated, wonâ''t help the situation. People who are waiting for the last minute, will simply wait longer. And no one, not the FCC, not the consumer electronics manufacturers, not the broadcasters, will know how painful or painless the transition will turn out to be until it happens. Said Roger Goldblatt, FCC outreach and policy advisor, â''People have boxes in the closet and are waiting.â''

Mike Vitelli, executive vice president of Best Buy, thinks that, with the 17 February date so burned into the public consciousness at this point, any change of date will simply cause confusion. For broadcasters, there is another concernâ''dollars. Powering a second transmitter sending out analog signals, said Emily Neilson, president and general manager of Las Vegas station KLAS, can cost thousands of dollars a month. She is strongly against delaying the analog shutdown, providing, she said, that one station in each market keeps an analog signal operational for use in communicating with the public in an emergency.

Lynn Mento, senior vice president of membership for the AARP, did make one point in favor of the delayâ''given that for so many people conversion takes not just a converter box, but a new antenna, February is not the best month for people in northern states to be climbing on their roofs. Postponing transition to a warmer season would be kinderâ''and saferâ''for those who need to install new antennas.

And that might be a lot of people. According to Alan Miles, whose firm Barclays Capital surveyed consumers who experienced the analog shutdown in Wilmington, NC, for some 50 percent conversion was more complicated than simply installing a converter box; they needed a new antenna, new cabling, or couldnâ''t get digital reception no matter what. And Wilmington, Miles pointed out, â'' should have been a layup,â'' for broadcasters need only cover a small geographic region with a flat terrain. KLASâ''s Neilson pointed out that conversion is not all that easy, given that the stationâ''s own camera crews have problems receiving digital broadcast signals with state of the art equipment.

On a later panel, John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG, one of the many manufacturers of converter boxes, said the vast majority of people converting to digital have no problems, and simply can use their old antenna and cabling. I invited him to drop by and try to improve reception at my house.

Is It Time for NASA to Join Forces With the U.S. Military?

The biggest question facing America's human space program concerns the next generation of vehicles to send people to the heavens: should the nation build new rockets following its traditional model or should it drop the barriers separating its civilian and military programs. This question confronts the United States at a time of transition in its government and conflicting ideas as to the direction of many programs, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

 

The current managers of NASA favor the traditional model of designing entire spaceflight systems for singular objectives. This has led to the plan now being pursued of building a new series of launch vehicles to send manned spacecraft back to the moon and, eventually, beyond, which NASA calls Project Constellation. The new rockets under development, Ares I and Ares V, are being designed using components with pedigrees from the last forty-plus years of civilian space programs.

 

The problem, at this time, with the Constellation plan is that it will be expensive and time consuming. NASA has set a timetable for the first Ares I to see mission readiness by 2015. NASA's administrators argue that this long development cycle will be needed to assure that the rocket is fully "human rated" -- or functionally proven safe for a manned spaceflight.

Others inside and outside of the U.S. space agency believe that this timeline could be shortened if NASA's leaders were to compromise on the booster's design, especially by embracing an alternative architecture that employs tested rockets used primarily by the military. Chief among these contrarians, according to numerous accounts, is the new U.S. President and his advisors. Their questions about NASA's current direction have opened a debate that has not seen much discussion in over 50 years: Why are the military and civilian space programs separate?

 

Originally, President Dwight Eisenhower split up the two efforts to deliberately quash any international concern over America's intentions in space when it came to peaceful scientific exploration (please see Remembering Sputnik: Frederick C. Durant III for a personal interpretation of Eisenhower's decision). And that arrangement has stood the test of time for half a century, until now.

 

Now, it has come to the point that the online tech community Slashdot has posted a discussion thread for its members that asks: Why Does the U.S. Have a Civil Space Program?. It has spawned a robust debate among the egghead set, with a full complement of facetious contributions to lighten the controversy. Still, it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed at this time.

 

After 50 years, the U.S. space program has evolved so far that it now needs to rethink even its basic foundations before pursuing its future goals, according to many soon to be in positions of authority.

 

So let the debate begin.

 

More to follow ⿦

CES 2009: Shoot Your Own 3-D Video

I know what you're thinking--compared with other CES exhibitors hyping actively shuttered 120 and 240 Hz 3-D displays and autostereoscopic digital signage (no glasses required)--the output of the Minoru webcam looks downright old fashioned. But the world's first 3-D webcam is far from anachronistic.

Each of the two cameras take 800x600 video at 30 frames per second, and a dedicated processor combines the frames into anaglyph images in real time. This provides both broad compatibility (the computer only sees one video stream) and accessible viewing (any monitor works, as long as you have some cheap glasses). The trade-off? Color. When watching the 3-D video I had a hard time keeping both eyes balanced. The image seemed to veer from reds to blues and back.

And if you do have a fancy 3-D monitor? The Minoru should be able to serve both streams of video at once, for a better stereoscopic experience. Even with cheap red-cyan glasses, the crowd at CES was going wild. A 3-D webcam might seem a bit frivolous in the midst of a recession, but for only $89, Minoru should offer a lot more fun than conventional cameras at a similar price.

Status of NASA Administrator Grows More Tenuous by the Day

It looks like the clock is counting down on the tenure of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

While Griffin was speaking to an industry group today, rumors swirled through the space community that his leadership of NASA was about to end after four years.

The space agency chief said in a speech today that it would cost the U.S. government an additional $3 billion a year to keep the aging shuttle fleet flying after 2010, when current plans set by the Bush administration call for its retirement, according to a report from the Associated Press. The plan calls for NASA to lease rides aboard Russian Soyuz transports to service the International Space Station until 2015, when a new rocket system called Constellation should be ready to fly orbital missions.

Griffin stressed that the current plan not only emphasizes financial concerns but safety issues, as well.

"We would have a one-in-eight chance of losing the crew in one of the 10 flights," Griffin said of the prospects of keeping the shuttles in service for five years.

Still, with a new presidential administration taking office in the days ahead, attention is focusing on what President-elect Barack Obama's science advisors will recommend for the future of NASA (please see our previous entry Will a New President Shake Up the U.S. Space Program?). Obama is well known to prefer that NASA keep the shuttles in operation.

Meanwhile, an editorial today in the influential Orlando Sentinel (which covers Cape Canaveral closely) argues that Griffin should be relieved of command.

"It's high time for him to go," the paper's editors write. It explained:

Mr. Griffin brought unmatched credentials as a scientist and engineer to the administrator's job when he took over in 2005. Under his leadership, NASA completed the lengthy and difficult process of returning shuttles to flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster and got back to building the international space station.

But Mr. Griffin's approach to NASA's next manned mission -- the moon and Mars program called Constellation -- has been my-way-or-the-highway. Coupled with his cavalier attitude toward chronic cost overruns in other programs, Mr. Griffin has become the wrong man to steer the agency forward. His impatience with criticism is a troubling throwback to the days when dissenting views at NASA were suppressed, with disastrous consequences.

The Sentinel concluded with this statement: "Mr. Obama reportedly has been sizing up successors to Mr. Griffin as the agency heads into a critical transition period between programs. Another administrator -- a fresh set of eyes -- with a strong background in space, but more respect for other views, would be ideal."

The incoming Obama administration's gaze has indeed shifted to successors to Griffin, according to multiple published accounts today. And the individual most discussed in those accounts is former astronaut Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden (Ret.), 62, of Houston.

An article in today's Houston Chronicle reports that Bolden, who serves on NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, has said that he has not formally discussed the job of administrator with representatives of the Obama transition team but that he has spoken about the matter with colleagues within the space agency.

(Please also see this account, Will Obama Pick Bolden to Lead NASA? , in the South Carolina newspaper The State.)

"I'm as surprised as anyone," Bolden said about the reports concerning his name surfacing as a leading candidate. He added that he would welcome the chance to speak with the group charged by Obama to chart the agency's course, headed by former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver, about the opportunity.

The Chronicle report also mentions others in the running to possibly succeed Griffin, including: Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida (who ironically flew aboard the Columbia shuttle piloted by Bolden in 1986); Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut; Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor and a former director of NASA's Ames Research Center; Pete Worden, Ames' current director; Ed Weiler, NASA's science chief; and Alan Stern, the agency's previous science chief.

As the days likely dwindle on Griffin's term as NASA's chief administrator, which could extend months into the Obama presidency, the debate over the direction of America's space program moving forward will only intensify, requiring strong leadership from all corners to guide the way.

IBM pulls out of Blue Brain collaboration

UPDATE posted 1-22-2009

Today, a tersely worded note arrived in my inbox from an IBM spokesperson, who said, "IBM Research completed the first phase of the BlueBrain project and we are not involved with the second phase."

This was something of a surprise, given the hype surrounding the future of the Blue Brain collaboration, and the extensive roadmap that had Henry Markram, the project's director, building ever bigger and more complex models on ever more capable Blue Gene upgrades. The final goal was the full-scale, near-biological simulation of a human brain.

The 22.8 Tflop IBM Blue Gene/L currently humming away in the basement of Switzerlandâ''s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne houses 10 000 neurons of a virtual ratâ''s neocortical column, a microcircuit that is in reality about the size of a fine pen tip. Markram told me that the next phase of Blue Brain would involve ganging these neocortical columns together in either a visual cortex or a somatosensory cortex. For that, he said, he would need more computer than the current, 8092-processor machine was capable of.

He also mentioned that IBM would be sending him a new machine in January 2009.

As recently as mid-December, the project was still on as far as IBM's PR people were concerned. "The Blue Brain project is a comprehensive attempt to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations," an IBM public relations minister told me proudly in an email likely lifted from a press release. "Analogous in scope to the Genome Project, the Blue Brain will provide a huge leap in our understanding of brain function and dysfunction and help us explore solutions to intractable problems in mental health and neurological disease."

It would be tempting to blame this on the recession, but IBM just hopped on board the DARPA train to spearhead the SyNAPSE project, which is computational neuroscience-- a different ball of wax from Blue Brain. Here's a detailed explanation of the differences.

If anyone has any insights into what happened there at Big Blue, please email me.

CES 2009: Casio's latest little Exilim cameras win some and lose some (but hey, that's Vegas)

IMG_2624.JPGToday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Casio brought new features into two sets of Exilim point and shoot cameras. First, the high speed photo feature I so admired in its professional cameras last year is now built into the Exilim FC-100 and FC-10 as part of its High Speed line of products (between $300 and $400 retail). These cameras can shoot in bursts of 30 still frames per second, or take video at 1000 frames per second. That means that users can sort through images for the perfect shot, or run action sequences in extreme slow motion.

Kazuo Kashio, company founder and CEO, called this a new way of taking photos, a benchmark for the next generation of cameras. Itâ''s clear to see how such a capability will make everyday picture taking easier and better; I only have to think of how many times I made my kids jump off of a pile of sand on the beach last summer as I attempted to catch them mid-air before abandoning the effort. With Casioâ''s burst mode, I would have gotten the picture I wanted on the first shot.

These cameras also use the high-speed burst mode and some image processing to eliminate blur from shaky hand-held shots and enhance nighttime images, something that would also improve my photo taking dramatically.

Casio didnâ''t stop there, though it probably should have. It introduced a second line of consumer point and shoot cameras, the Dynamic Photo line, with a feature the company calls Moving Image Composite; I think of it more as the Forrest Gump Effect, or Instant Blue Screen.

The idea: take a short video of someone, donâ''t worry about the background. Then swap out the background for a different one, real or virtual. The process, as demonstrated, has several steps: take the video, ask the subject to step aside, take still picture of the background, take a photo of a different background, and combine the two. In the demo, Kashio put a person giving a gift on a birthday background, inserted children into their own artwork, and put a little girl on the moon. Kashio was genuinely enthusiastic about this capability, and demonstrated it extensively, but I just wasnâ''t sold.

It was clever, and seemed to work well, but itâ''s an odd feature for a point and shoot camera, as odd as the color swap feature on my current Canon cameraâ''I can change all the blues in an image to orange instantly as I shoot it, but Iâ''m about as likely to want to do that as I am to want a photo of my kids on the moon.

Intel Says Chip Sales Sank Dramatically in Q4

Intel Corp. advised today it expects that its fourth quarter 2008 sales will be down substantially below its recent forecasts. In a press release, the Santa Clara, Calif., microprocessor giant announced that its revenues for the last three months should come in at about US $8.2 billion, down 20 percent sequentially and down 23 percent year over year.

Previously, last November, Intel said it anticipated earning between $8.7 billion and $9.3 billion in sales in the fourth quarter. It added that its gross profit margins would also slip in the period to about 55 percent, down from a predicted 53 to 57 percent of revenue. The company cited increased weakness in end demand and inventory reductions by its customers in the global PC supply chain as the principal cause of the downturn.

Adding to its problems, Intel said that it will need to write down the costs of its 2006 investment in Clearwire Corp., a provider of the new WiMax wireless broadband technology. Intel will take a non-cash charge to fourth-quarter earnings of approximately $950 million. The company now expects the net gain or loss from equity investments and interest to be a loss of between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion versus a previous expectation of a loss of approximately $50 million.

The microprocessor leader also said it will pare spending on research and development and mergers and acquisitions in the period from $2.8 billion to $2.6 billion.

Intel will formally announce the results of its Q4 earnings on 15 January in a press conference.

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