Tech Talk iconTech Talk

CES 2009: First Hardware Switch for Booting Multiple Operating Systems

This product gets my vote for most awesomely geeky gadget at CES:

For my personal use, I have no need for the device; one partitioned drive works fine for me. But I can see Ken's switch catching on, even if it's for niche applications. And he already has a product that solves his own problems. So far, he's self-financed the whole development himself, and he's still working on bringing down the manufacturing price. So what do you think? Would you find this device useful?

Steve Jobs Steps Down Temporarily as CEO of Apple

The iconic leader of Apple Inc. has decided to take a medical leave of absence until this summer. Late today, Steve Jobs informed his employees that he will temporarily step aside as Apple's chief executive officer because his well-publicized recent health issues are "more complex" than he originally expected.

In a companywide email note, Jobs wrote today:


I am sure all of you saw my letter last week sharing something very personal with the Apple community. Unfortunately, the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction not only for me and my family, but everyone else at Apple as well. In addition, during the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought.

In order to take myself out of the limelight and focus on my health, and to allow everyone at Apple to focus on delivering extraordinary products, I have decided to take a medical leave of absence until the end of June.

I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for Apple's day to day operations, and I know he and the rest of the executive management team will do a great job. As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out. Our board of directors fully supports this plan.

I look forward to seeing all of you this summer.


Jobs, 53, announced last week prior to the firm's Macworld conference that health concerns would prevent him from delivering his annual keynote speech to the Mac faithful in San Francisco. At the time, he described his condition as a "hormone imbalance," which was under treatment. The announcement partially quelled rumors that Jobs' health was deteriorating dramatically, as evidenced by a noticeable weight loss in his physical appearance over the last year. The Apple co-founder has successfully fought off pancreatic cancer in the past.

Today's news caused shares of Apple to drop 8% (to US $78.40) in after-hours trading, according to an item from CNN/Money online.

Nanotechnology and Public Engagement: Is there a benefit?

Richard Jonesâ'' Soft Machines blog has a lengthy discussion--well worth reading in its entirety--on the impact of public engagement in scientific research, and in particular in the area of nanotechnology.

Andrew Maynard has written a reaction piece on Jonesâ'' work that provides some US context to Jones who was focused primarily on the UK experience.

I am afraid that I fall into the category that Jones describes as â''cynicalâ'' when it comes to the usefulness of public engagement, which seems often to be â''exercises that are intended, not to have a real influence on genuinely open decisions, but simply to add a gloss of legitimacy to decisions that have already been made.â''

But the real root of my concerns regarding public engagement is not that it is some ruse cooked up by the powers that be to appease the public, but that science may be governed by the ignorance of the mob. As Maynard describes it, â''The challenge is to develop and enact ways of achieving this that are socially responsive and tap into the â''wisdom of the crowdâ''â''rather than the â''madness of the mobâ''.â''

My cynicism was turned on its head when I discovered that the two scientists: Jones and Maynard, are strong proponents for the usefulness of public engagement, arguing that it actually may lead to better science.

Maynard sees that maybe with a new Obama administration poised to take office and powerful new networking tools public engagement may be able to beneficially influence science and technology decision-making processes. I just hope that the networking tools can help to overcome the deficit in the public understanding of science so we can get more of the â''wisdom of the crowdâ''.

CES 2009: Duck Hunt Without the Video Game Console


Here at Spectrum, weâ''ve covered our fair share of remote-controlled, flying toys. There was the rotary wing Bladestar featured in this yearâ''s gift guide, the indoor plane from 2007, and the Micro Mosquito palm-size helicopter from 2006. But with each toy, the basic experience is usually the sameâ''fly the vehicle around for a minute or two until it runs out of power.

At CES this year, however, the flying toy market got injected with a welcome dose of novelty (and nostalgia for the original Nintendo Entertainment System). Interactive Toy Concepts (the company behind the Micro Mosquito) had a representative in full hunting gear showing off their new Duck Hunter toy/game. After you hand-launch the lightweight, flapping, electronic fowl, it's time to pick up the included light gun and take aim. Each time you "hit" the duck, it will temporarily stutter. Land three shots during the 30 seconds of flight time, and the bird will drop like a stone.

Video of the duck in-flight after the jump:

The company is looking to sell the toy for about $30 when it hits stores in the spring. They're also developing a two-player version, where a second player takes control of the duck for evasive maneuvers. All we'll need then is a robotic, laughing dog to mock our poor marksmanship.

Nano News Aggregators Unintentionally Humorous

In order to keep up to date on nanotechnology news I use a variety of Internet tools to follow the latest developments in the world of nanotech. The most recent one I have started to acquaint myself with is Alltop.

Once I managed to get over the omission of the â''nanotechnologyâ'' entries made into this TechTalk blog, which are now nicely displayed here, I looked over the list of stories and web sources.

The one that really struck me was a blog called Nanonews, which describes itself as â''News about the newsâ''. But it really isnâ''t. Itâ''s all about Salvia Divinorum, and defending its lawful usage.

Why this subject would give itself a website title â''Nanonewsâ'' or why it would describe itself as â''News about the newsâ'', I have no idea. But what is more perplexing is how this rather odd blog managed to get on a list of web sources for the subject of nanotechnology.

Omission of IEEEâ''s Tech Talk aside, there are a number of other worthy blogs that cover the subject of nanotechnology, such as TNTLog and Nanobot--both of which represent blogs that have been around longer than most and actually have points of view as opposed to being merely press release stenographers.

But knowing something about the subject you are aggregating news items for does not seem to be a high priority. Rather tools for identifying the highest traffic websites that use the term "nano" has become the only way to define a source of information on nanotech.

CES 2009: And the CES congeniality crown goes to...Texas Instruments and Yahoo


The consumer electronics industry is not always a place where companies play nice together. Indeed, factions and standards battles are the norm.

But at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, two companies seem to have recently made a lot of friends (or at least managed to have a presence in a lot of booths): Texas Instruments and Yahoo.

Pico projectors, tiny video projectors designed to be carried in a pocket or built into a cell phone, were clearly the hottest new product category at the consumer electronics show. They make it possible for a group of people to view images or movies stored on a personal device by projecting the image onto a wall or ceiling. Most stand-alone projectors cost something around $400. And, while there are several technologies that can power these devices, including liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS) from 3M and reflective interferometric modulation, a laser-based technology, from Qualcomm, it was Texas Instrumentsâ'' DLP projection technology that will be shipping in the most products this year (all the samples pictured above use TIâ''s DLP Pico chipset). DLP creates an image using an array of small mirrors illuminated by LEDs. So far, TI announced that DLP Pico will be built into products from Samsung, WowWee, Optoma, Acer, BenQ, Dell, and Toshiba.

Yahoo is also taking images from a small screen to a big screen, in a different sort of way. Many television manufacturers at CES showed televisions with built in Internet capabilities; convergence between the TV and the Internet, talked about for years, may finally be arriving. For the most part, these televisions donâ''t include standard web browsers, but more simple and dedicated Internet interfaces that are easy to control with a standard remote. And while a variety of Internet companies are built into TVs from one or two manufacturersâ''including Netflix, Youtube, Picasa, and Amazon Videoâ''Yahooâ''s Connected TV, which lets users access a widget library, was most ubiquitous, appearing in televisions from LG, Toshiba, Samsung and Sony.

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!


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.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More