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The Department of Magical Thinking

The cutting edge in 21st century defense technologyI love sci-fi technology as much as (or more than) the next guy, but the military obsession with high tech panaceas might be doing more harm than good. There's always been a pipeline from charlatans to the defense money train, and the worst chicanery usually happens when thorny, headache-inducing policy problem are addressed with spiffy future tech.

The BBC reported on the latest head-desker earlier this week: The ADE-651 "magic wand" bomb detector, which was supposed to detect TNT, among other things, doesn't work. Jim McCormick, the director of British firm ATSC, promised that his wand could identify bombs with its "special" electronic card (which his company also makes).

In tests undertaken by BBC Newsnight, the device turned out to contain nothing but the sort of anti-shoplifting store merchandise tag that makes the door beep if the saleslady forgot to cut the tag off your new pants. This would be funny had the uselessness of the device in question not led to "hundreds" of alleged deaths caused by faulty devices failing to predict suicide truck bombs.

Never mind that the thing looks like a staple gun attached to an old TV antenna. In a previous interview with BBC News, McCormick asserted that his device operates on the principle of dowsing. You know, finding water with a divining rod. A psychic stick. Gizmodo reported on the questionable science behind this wacky device back in November.

But hey, snake oil salesmen with ridiculous magical devices have pilfered money from defense coffers since time immemorial.

The latest variation is the “machine that can read your thoughts at airport security lines." The US Department of Homeland Security is spending $7 million a year trying to develop technology that can find the bad guys by reading their minds. Here's the basic idea: as you wait in line at the airport checkpoint, thermal cameras lots of sensors will read your body temperature, your heart rate and respiration, your skin's moistness, and the look in your eyes. And so, as one commenter astutely pointed out, if you take a Xanax to conceal the explosive load in your pants, you’ll be fine. But if you have a fear of flying, it’s off to Gitmo.

At least DHS is using psychobabble, not actual magic--or outright fraud. Back in 2003, another of these magical devices led to one of the first of a seven-year oscillation of yellow-orange threat level flip-flops. (An absurdity which culminated, this past December, in an inevitable "orange to orange, only more so" status adjustment following the underwear bomber's fail-o-rama.)

The 2003 yellow-to-orange bump was caused by a CIA contractor's claim to have found hidden terrorist strike information in Al Jazeera footage. [Caveat lector: This excellent and thoroughly researched article appears in Playboy, which means that even thought the text is safe for work, the ads probably aren’t. I suggest turning off images in your browser before you visit.]

Brief summary: Self-proclaimed "scientist" Dennis Montgomery convinced the Bush White House, the CIA, and the Air Force that he could predict terrorist attacks. Specifically, he asserted that the Al Jazeera TV network was transmitting data to Al Qaeda sleepers, consisting of "latitudes and longitudes and flight numbers." Hundreds of canceled flights and holiday disruptions later, it turned out that the government contracts were based on faked demonstrations. Because his technology did not actually work, Montgomery was staging rigged demonstrations, faking the results of his "special" image processing algorithm by having someone hide behind a wall and press a button, reminiscent of the Great and Terrible Oz.

Meanwhile, "Magic Wand" McCormick has been arrested, and Britain has banned his nefarious cards from being exported. But even after all that, Iraq's security forces insist that actually, the guy just didn't want to explain the magic to a bunch of Americans. And they totally work, sure, 100 percent of the time. And they're worth every penny of the US $85 million they've cost Iraq.


Dispatch from Port-au-Prince

Engineers are making progress in their efforts to network NGOs in Port-au-Prince. Last Friday, Inveneo's team in Haiti, Mark Summer and Adris Bjornson, began deployment of the first of 15 long-distance WiFi Internet links for NetHope partner organizations across Port-au-Prince.

According to an account sent late last Friday to IEEE Spectrum by Inveneo's Joel Pliskin, Summer and Bjornson "started by connecting an Inveneo R4 Hub Server to the VSAT satellite Internet downlink from ITC Global and installing a local access point for the CHF International headquarters. Then they created two long-distance WiFi links from the headquarters CHF International, to two different offices of Save the Children in Port-au-Prince. The first link was around 2.5 kilometers long. Later this afternoon they established a third link to the offices of Catholic Relief Services."

"This is the start of the network we plan to establish within the next two weeks," Pliskin continues. "The final result will be a redundant, high-speed Internet connection shared via long-distance WiFi antennas with 15-20 NetHope member agencies. This new connectivity will open the flow of information within and among agencies and speed the delivery of critical relief services."

In an email sent to Inveneo's San Francisco office via the VSAT link he helped establish, Summer describes the scene in Port-au-Prince:

“Driving around you see many collapsed or significantly damaged buildings, often right next to completely intact ones. Here in the hills the damage is significantly less then down in the center of PaP where in it seems that in many areas more then 50% of the buildings are gone or beyond repair.

"We've seen buildings that have had two or three stories and now no higher then 5 feet of the ground - it seems as if walls just turned into sand...

"Many Haitians now live in parks, parking lots or simply in the street (often a whole road is closed because people now live it in) under tarps or in tents. You see people bathing on the side of the road, cooking in the street or parking lots etc.

"Currently the weather is very pleasant warm (in the 80s) but not too humid in the day and a nice cooling off in the evenings but not too cold. Once it starts to rain here things will be decidedly more unpleasant for the people living in the parks, streets and back yards.”
Inveneo's Pliskin says that the non-profit has already received requests for assistance from other organizations in Haiti. "As we gain a better understanding of local conditions and local partner resources, we hope to expand our impact and establish lasting ICT capacity in Haiti."

Nethope is covering equipment costs, while the EKTA Foundation has supported the initial deployment.

War Gamers

If Google really is on the front line of cyberwar, then who are the next generation warriors?  This is a question I got to ask Lieutenant General William Lord, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, when I met him in 2008 at Barksdale Air Force in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the Air Force had set up a provisional Cyberspace Command.  His answer:   take a look at WarGames.

Lord will never forget the moment he plunked down in a movie theater 24 years ago and watched the movie WarGames.  In the film, Mathew Broderick plays a bowl-cut teenage hacker who decides to play a simulated battle of thermonuclear war on his chunky 1980s computer.   When the game turns real, Broderick’s braniac gets recruited by the military to save America from the brink of World War III.   Such a vision has long been the stuff of science fiction like Ender’s Game, the cult novel about videogamers who get recruited to fight a pixilated war turned real.  But as the audience around him shoveled popcorn, Lord sat on the edge of his seat for a different reason:  this wasn’t a fantasy, he knew, it was real. “Maybe the nature of warfare can change,” Lord told me.

“What if you can get into a military command and control system, and make half of them dark?”  He said, “and make the other half think they’re a Maytag washer in a spin cycle as opposed to a missile system, and say they can’t use their weapons and can’t command and control their forces.  What happens when we want to zero out all the bank accounts of your nation’s armed forces, and they can’t go to work the next day because their spouses are angry with them?  You begin to scramble the brain of the enemy so much that they don’t have the ability to wage war.”

Lord called these tools “weapons of mass disruption,” and suggested that they can, in effect, create a war without bloodshed.  “We have principally focused on kinetic side of warfare:  blowing buildings up,” he says.  But cyber-warfare can reinvent the very idea of conflict, he suggests, by getting the enemies “to change their mind before you have to drop a 2000 pound bomb on them.”

The tougher part, Lord said, is finding the right kind of person to man the controls.  “We’ve got to recruit a different kind of kid,” he explained, “and I think we as institution will have to change culturally because of that kid.  Maybe the warrior of the future, we won’t care how fast they run the mile and a half.” Instead, it’s the inherent skills of the digital natives – the ones who grew up pawing a mouse – that come into play.  “It’s the kind of kid coming up today,” he said, “the multitasking kids who are doing instant message chat with three different activities, talking on a cell phone, having two websites up, and doing a John Madden.”  So much for Rambo, Uncle Sam wants the all Broderick team:  the quick-thinking, fast-thumbed, big-brained squad.  

IEEE Establishes Haiti Rebuilding Fund

Dear IEEE Members:

The tragedy in Haiti is still only in the first stage of triage with valiant efforts being made to alleviate the immediate suffering and provide the basics for sustaining human life. However, challenges just as daunting lay ahead for reconstruction. One of these will be the re-establishing of engineering and technology education and professional activities in Haiti.

As a global transnational organization with nearly 400,000 members and as a leader in advancing technology for humanity, IEEE is uniquely positioned to help address these challenges. To this end, IEEE has established the IEEE Haiti Engineering Educational and Professional Development Rebuilding Fund. Individuals may contribute online or donate by check to the IEEE Foundation and mail to the IEEE Development Office, 445 Hoes Lane, Piscataway, NJ 08854. Donations from IEEE organizational units (societies, sections, conferences, etc.) will be made using existing governance processes. IEEE will match the first US$50,000 in donations. Because Haiti is in IEEE Region 9, disbursements of funds will be coordinated through that Region.

The IEEE Board of Directors just last November developed a policy that allows IEEE and its Organizational Units to contribute to third-party nonprofit organizations that provide disaster relief. The disbursements may be in the form of grants to academic institutions, charitable organizations, or used for such things as equipment, services, scholarships and classroom and laboratory materials. They also may be used to support programs developed for retraining or other professional activities to help engineering and technology professionals in Haiti.

IEEE continues to encourage donations to other organizations for the immediate relief effort and to help bring some semblance of stability to the lives of the people of Haiti. But we are hopeful that the generosity of our members – and others associated with IEEE -- will also add to the long-term development of Haiti through this IEEE fund.  

Please direct any questions to the IEEE Contact Center at


Pedro Ray
2010 IEEE President and Chief Executive Officer

Engineers Race to Restore Communications after Haiti Quake

With thousands of doctors, nurses, aid workers and troops descending on Port-au-Prince in the last week to join more than 800 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already there, reporters on the ground have observed that the damage done to the telecommunications infrastructure is hampering coordination efforts. But in an ironic twist, it turns out that Haiti's Internet connectivity is robust precisely because its telecommunications infrastructure is so underdeveloped. Specifically, most Haitian ISPs connect to the Internet via satellite and are not dependent on the country's lone undersea fiber optic cable link, which was knocked out the during the quake. The challenge for engineers now is the proverbial last mile--getting local connections to satellites restored so NGOs can get online.

Basic telecommunications aide was quick to arrive, but it was limited to helping first responders. Telecom sans Frontieres based in Pau, France sent two teams last week at the request of UNICEF and the UN Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination teams. According to TSF, its engineers “installed reliable and durable connections for local authorities and emergency responders.”
Late last week, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union dispatched engineers to assess the damage to telecom infrastructure along with 100 satellite terminals—and the personnel to operate them—in an effort to help coordinate rescue efforts. According to a press release, “ITU will also set up a Qualcomm Deployable Base Station (QDBS), a reliable, responsive and complete cellular system designed to enable vital wireless communications aimed at strengthening response and recovery mechanisms in a disaster zone.”

Trilogy International Partners, which owns the Voila-Comcel cellphone company, says that its network is operating 80 percent of its cell sites and is providing 20,000 phones and service to relief agencies at no charge. Meanwhile, Digicel Group, which serves 2 million Haitian cellphone customers, said Sunday that it is working to restore 30 percent of its base stations; the other 70 percent are functional.
Alongside efforts aimed at restoring basic communications, programmers around the world have been organizing around the Crisis Commons wiki and live meet-ups dubbed Crisis Camps in places like Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, London, and Wellington, New Zealand to create, among other things, a Google map for use by NGOs and the Tweak the Tweet project to optimize the microblogging service to coordinate the efforts of relief workers.

But to take advantage of the new applications being developed, NGOs need Internet access. That would seem to be a big problem because the lone undersea fiber optic cable linking Haiti to the rest of the world was severed during the quake. Consulting group Telegeography spoke with a representative of Bahamas Telecommunication Company, owner of the Bahamas Domestic Submarine Network, which links to Haiti, who said that there's no telling how long it will be before the cable is repaired. However, most ISPs in Haiti--and in much of the developing world--rely on satellites for Internet connectivity and so were not affected.

Stephan Beckert of TeleGeography told IEEE Spectrum today that the cable outage isn't as big a deal was one would imagine. "I just chatted with James Cowie, CTO of Renesys. He confirmed that the cable outage didn't have much impact on connectivity to Haiti, because most of the ISPs in Haiti are still reliant on satellites."

To help increase bandwidth availability in Haiti, SES World Skies announced on January 14 that it "is donating satellite capacity on five of its spacecraft and access to teleport facilities in support of relief efforts, disaster recovery and in order to cover vital communications needs....The SES WORLD SKIES satellites provide inbound and outbound connectivity for the disaster zone as well as internal communication links."

At least one NGO network wants to take advantage of satellite connectivity to coordinate relief efforts. NetHope, a “collaboration of 28 of the world’s leading international humanitarian organizations” is working with San Francisco-based Inveneo to provide “Internet connectivity via VSAT / Wimax [Correction: according to Inveneo's Joel Pliskin, engineers will install long-range WiFi links, not Wimax] link in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. This connection will be available to all of NetHope's members in Haiti. Requests for access points are chosen based on power, security, and line-of-sight.”

According to an Inveneo press release “This network will support Internet access in and out of the country, carry voice communications until the cellular networks are repaired, and allow for collaboration and sharing of resources among NGOs. Establishment of networks like this is a cornerstone of our core competency and provides an avenue for us to deploy additional ICT infrastructure and participate in longer-term capacity building and reconstruction opportunities in country.”

Reached by email over the weekend, Inveneo CEO Kristin Peterson told IEEE Spectrum that Inveneo co-founder Mark Summer and engineer Andris Bjornson were bound for Haiti on Tuesday with the assistance of CHF International, which Peterson says “is helping us with the logistics to get in to Haiti.” They are bringing with them more than 330 kilos of equipment, including climbing gear, power drills, powerstrips, electrical cords, coax cable, wireless routers, 18 5 Ghz RocketDish parabolic antennas, and 10 Linux mini-servers. Summer and Bjornson are slated to stay for two weeks, though that may change depending on circumstances. 

Images courtesy of Inveneo. Top image: Mark Summers left, Colm Pelow right, check equipment. Bottom image: Briah Shih gets a palette of RocketDishes ready for shipment.

Tweet Kings

Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are the hottest geeks in Silicon Valley.  But there’s one title they can’t claim:   coining the word “tweet,” the zeitgeist slang for Twitter updates.  The term was invented by some anonymous user and, truth is, they don’t want the credit anyway.  “I never wanted to endorse it,” Stone says, “I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to be cute.”

Though Twitter has been around since 2006, celebritweets last year transformed it into the most cloying obsession of the navel-gazing nation, and the fastest-growing community online – up more than 1300% this year, and outpacing Facebook and MySpace combined.  But there are problems.  Though using Twitter is free, a Nielsen study found that 60% of the people who sign up never return after the first month.  And a lack of an apparent business plan is only fueling the speculation of coming flameout. One tech industry analyst recently questioned whether the company would find a way to survive "until the next cool Web 2.0 social networking concept comes along and Twitter tweets no more."    

Now the pressure’s on Stone and Williams to make sure Twitter doesn’t go the way of Friendster or other over-hyped start-ups.  “When you’re moving this fast, it’s very exciting, but it’s easy to trip yourself up,” says Williams, “our biggest danger now is a self-inflicted wound.”  Stone agrees. “We risk being that child actor who grows up all weird,” he says, “it’s important that we think about that now, and how the culture at the company reflects the product.”

That culture starts with their digs - open, airy loft offices overlooking the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.  Flocks of birds are silhouetted on the walls, along with puffy clouds, deer, and trees.  The interior design, created by Williams’ wife, started out as a play on the idea of tweeting birds.  “It reflects the aesthetic of the site and brand – playful and simple,” says CEO Williams, a clean-cut former farm boy from Nebraska.

For Stone, who plays the role of company visionary and is prone to Deadhead style soliloquies, the surroundings have deeper meaning too.  “It reminds us that people are animals,” he says, “this is about the triumph of humanity, not the triumph of technology.”  Rather than modeling Twitter on Facebook or Google, they’re taking cues from nature.  “The idea is based on biology and emergent behavior,” says Stone.  At the office, he and Williams eschew hierarchy for group-think, and host weekly “Tea Time” gatherings with guest speakers from scientists to MC Hammer (for real), just to see what ideas might bubble up. 

This kind of crowd-sourcing strategy spills over online.   Despite rumors of buyouts by Google or Apple, Stone and Williams claim to be more interested in empowering people than selling out.  They believe the key to Twitter’s success – and future – isn’t built on the code, which really just comes down to 140 characters of text updates.  It’s about creating a simple tool that can be easily modified and shared.  “We’ve really adopted some of the things that Twitter has taught us,” Stone says, “that creativity can come from constraint, that, with a few things, you can make something really cool and beautiful.”


CES 2010: My Quest for the Perfect Point-and-Shoot Camera

My list of hot new technology to check out at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show held last week in Las Vegas, Nevada, did not initially include cameras. Camera technology hasn’t changed dramatically in the past year, and there were many other products there far more revolutionary—3-D TV, e-readers, devices with tiny built-in projectors.

The list changed about twenty minutes after I picked up my badge. I pulled out my trusty Canon PowerShot SD camera, a point-and-shoot that had been my reliable sidekick for the past three years. I tried to take a photo of the latest watch-phone. The camera lens began to extend, flailed madly for a moment, then the screen went dark except for a few tiny characters in the bottom left corner—E18. I went through the usual electronics fix-it attempts—turn it on and off, pull out the battery—then gave up until I could get online. Later, over dinner, a colleague used his iPhone to search for “Canon E18”. The bad news—this was a common and often fatal failure, so common that several websites are devoted to discussing it and one is taking names for a class action suit. The good news—there are a number of things you can do that sometimes fix it. The bad news—these fixes often don’t work. (They didn’t.)

So I added point-and-shoot cameras to my “check out at CES list,” because I suddenly need a new one.

A few things have changed since the last time I was in the market for a digital camera. I thought the 7.1 megapixels of my Canon, a big step up from the 3.0 of the previous generation, was amazing resolution. Today, the average pocket-sized camera boasts 10.2 megapixels, and that seems to be where the pixel race is stopping (though a few manufacturers have gone to 12.1 megapixels); imaging advances are now coming by increasing the size of the CMOS sensors. Video has improved vastly, from VGA resolution to 720P (progressive scanned) high definition. The screens are bigger.

And the latest cameras have some tempting new features. Casio’s High Speed Exilim EX-FH100 has an impressive 10x optical zoom and a burst mode that records up to 40 frames per second, and either allows you to select the best image from the set or does so automatically. Kodak’s EasyShare cameras let you tag photos or videos when you take them so later, when you attach the camera to your computer, they automatically upload to Facebook or YouTube. Canon’s new PowerShots boast 24 mm wide angle lenses and touch screen controls. Nikon’s CoolPix S1000pj has a built in projector for instant slide shows.

But somewhere along the way, the viewfinders disappeared.

My old Canon had a viewfinder. I used it pretty regularly for shooting outdoors—on the beach, in the snow, and at outdoor press events—since LCDs are notoriously hard to see in bright sunlight. The new cameras, for the most part, do not have viewfinders (I did see a few on some low-end cameras; these viewfinders, however, were so small as to be essentially useless and the other camera features were far back on the curve.) If I want a viewfinder, it seems, I have to go to a digital SLR; which would be nice to own, however, since it doesn’t easily slip into a pocket, I know it would get left behind more often than not.

So I started asking the folks behind the camera displays at CES. Why don’t these new point-and-shoots have viewfinders?

I figured the people representing the manufacturers would try to convince me that I didn’t really need a viewfinder; I was impressed to find out that no one tried that tactic; all were honest in their responses. Essentially, consumers these days judge cameras by the size of their screens, and removing the viewfinder leaves more real estate for the screen.

Representatives from both Canon and Casio told me that current LCD screens, with higher resolutions, do better than previous generations in bright light, but that in some special situations, like on a sunlit beach, the screen image would not be visible.

“There is no way,” a Canon representative told me, "that we or anyone would say that these cameras will always be usable at the beach or in snow, but they have gotten better.”

He suggested that, in my quest for a viewfinder, I might be showing my age. “A viewfinder is old school. The kids don’t even know it’s there.”

Can this problem be solved? A Samsung spokesperson promised me that I’d be impressed with the OLED displays built into some of their point-and-shoot models; that these displays do much better in bright light than the more common LCD. I’m going to check that out. Kodak’s point-and-shoot video camera, the PlaySport, switches its display to sepia or black-and-white in bright light; the representative I spoke with promised me that this would make things better, but, again, not perfect.

I got a little obsessed with the viewfinder thing, so have yet to investigate the other features on my wish list—fast shutter response so I don’t miss half my shots; an easy-to-use interface, since camera interfaces are anything but standard; and a flash-on option for situations in which I need a fill flash. (I don’t need fancy special effects or thousands of preset shooting modes; they’re just too complicated to figure out.) And I’d like this all to cost not a lot more than $200.


Photo: This shot, taken last month with my three-year-old Canon PowerShot SD, would have been impossible to produce without a viewfinder. Credit: Tekla Perry

Illinois Engineers Discuss Damage in Haiti

The earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital and largest city, Port au Prince, on Tuesday revealed a not altogether surprising fact: buildings weren’t designed to any code, electrical infrastructure was mostly nonexistent, and the challenge now—after the aftermath—will be to rebuild the right way.

“These are just ‘a roof over your head’ kind of houses,” says Krishna Pagilla, associate professor in the Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering department at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). “They would never pass any kind of code.”

Krishna has traveled to Haiti with students through IIT’s Haiti Outreach and Engineers without Borders chapters, which are working on sustainable water and electricity engineering projects in and around the central plateau town of Pignon, about 95 km (60 miles) from Port au Prince.

According to Krishna, the country doesn’t have the materials, building codes, or workmanship necessary to have protected its infrastructure from earthquake damage. Even electrical wiring, where it exists, wouldn’t have been done to any standard, he says.

The major problem with Port au Prince’s concrete buildings was the lack of steel reinforcement, or rebar. A block of concrete is strong, says Krishna, but not flexible. Once the earthquake’s strength—particularly its horizontal forces, like waves on water—overcomes the concrete’s strength, the building crumbles.

Rebar, on the other hand, allows a structure to bend or sway, giving it flexibility in addition to strength, and the ability to withstand those horizontal forces—at least for a little while. When the building does finally start to crack, the rebar holds it together long enough to slow the process, giving people inside a chance to get out.

The school Pagilla’s students designed and built in Pignon in 2007 and 2008, using reinforced concrete, is still standing, though the group hasn't been able to confirm for comparison whether other buildings in the town were damaged.

But from photos of the devastation in Port au Prince, Pagilla can tell that no such reinforcement was built into its structures.

Pagilla adds that many parts of Port au Prince didn’t have electricity even before the earthquake. Afterwards, well, with damage of this magnitude, “nothing flows through wires, pipes, or roads.”

Could it have been avoided? Only with proper building codes and enforcement. But “there is so much to do in Haiti, they have so little,” Pagilla told CBS in a TV interview. It’s clear that infrastructure just wasn’t the priority. “I think it’s like a bad break to the people who have the least,” he said in the interview. “They will probably have to rebuild the city from scratch,” he told IEEE Spectrum.

Adam Nizich, a recent IIT graduate who traveled to Haiti last summer to help install solar panels at the Pignon school, hopes that they’ll rebuild the capital correctly. “It would be a big step just to get building codes, and enforce them,” he says.

Pagilla says that IIT will be more engaged than ever in Haiti now. His group believes in a model of aid where the community has a vested interest in the project, versus just getting a handout. So while the students are currently focusing on raising money for relief, they know the longer-term challenge will be continued engineering development.

Three IEEE members are currently located in Port au Prince. We hope they and their families are safe.

Learn more about IIT projects in Haiti.

Why Plastic Logic's QUE E-Reader Was the Most Impressive Device at CES

It felt like there were two technologies that loomed over the Consumer Electronics show this year: 3-D televisions and content, and e-readers. As I discussed in this week's podcast, a lot of the e-readers on the show floor seemed to be copycat devices. They looked a lot like the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, with a small tweak thrown in here or there. It's hard to get excited about a product that has the same features with a different brand name.

But after I got my hands on Plastic Logic's QUE, I instantly saw what all the hype was about. The reader is thin and slick, worlds away from the beige boxiness of the Kindle. And rather than sporting chintzy little keys and buttons, the entire surface of the QUE is a capacitive touch screen that seemed more responsive than any other I tried. Additionally, the software and graphics were top notch. Although it's priced way higher than bargain e-readers ($649 for the basic Wi-Fi model and $799 for a 3-G wireless model when they're available in April), I'm willing to bet there will be plenty of potential buyers. Plastic Logic has tailored the QUE to mobile professionals, which makes sense, because they're the ones who can actually afford it.

To get a feel for the QUE's features and see it in action for yourself, check out the video below.

What sets the QUE apart is right in the company's name: plastic. While the QUE uses the same E-Ink frontplane as most e-readers, Plastic Logic replaces the traditional glass backplane with one of thin, flexible plastic. When the company first started working on the device, they wanted to exploit the advantages of plastic by designing for a bendable screen. They even spent considerable R&D time figuring out how to house all the rigid components in a binding along the side. But when users got their hands on prototypes, they hated the flexibility- it was difficult to hold a floppy screen with one hand, and tricky to write on. 

So Plastic Logic redesigned the reader to have a traditional tablet form-factor. The flexibility of the plastic still comes in handy, though; it allows the reader to be durable and super-thin at the same time. When I first picked up the QUE, it was so light that I worried about breaking it. This was unfounded. Plastic Logic claims it should survive normal drops and bumps as well as a typical cell phone. (When Spectrum toured the fabrication facility last year, one of Plastic Logic's vice president demonstrated that the screen could even take a punch.)

So far, it looks like Plastic Logic's unique technology (combined with an Apple-esque sense of design and usability) has placed it far ahead of the pack. I wouldn't be surprised if at next year's CES, the QUE becomes the new standard that other manufacturers try to rip-off.

(For the record, I shouldn't be so surprised that the QUE is so great. Back in 2007, Spectrum readers voted that Plastic Logic had a winning technology by a margin of 15-1. To pick winners and losers this year, check out our annual "You Tell Us.")

CES 2010: Technology for Folks Over 50

They called it the Silvers Summit, the day of panels at CES designed to talk about technology from the perspective of the over-50 generation. But the heads in the room weren’t all that silver. These folks are already using technology (of the hair-care kind) to fight the signs of aging, and expect to continue to use technology (of the high-tech kind) to keep fighting.

Yes, I’m a baby boomer, so these are my peeps. (Though I never thought I’d be in a room where discussion about the new 3-D TVs was followed by a Viagra joke.) Like the rest of the folks in the room, I have to grab for reading glasses to send a text message. And I don’t like it. I’m also trying to help older relatives adapt to the new technology, from digital television to the Internet, and can use any help in that struggle that I can get.

The message from panelists at the Silvers Summit to the creators of consumer electronics: Don’t design us out! Abilities fade—eyesight, hearing, manual dexterity, memory (this was getting really depressing)—but we expect to keep using technology and it’s going to tick us off if you make it hard for us to do so, so much so we actually might stop buying it.

Gary Kaye, a journalist with the Fox Business Network kicked off a discussion on gadget design with a rant about the new Google phone and it’s failure to include an easy text zoom comparable to that on the iPhone. “I’m not happy,” he said. “It’s a great piece of technology and they excluded me.”

On his list of new technology that doesn’t exclude the silvers market is the Sanyo hybrid bike, which charges with regenerative breaking then gives riders a boost up hills; a remote from TV Ears with simple buttons that turns the TV off should you fall asleep in front of it; and the Intel reader, which you use to take a photograph of print and then either blow up the text or have it read to you.

Other panelists pointed out the MyGait Go Computer, a simple device with a large-letter keyboard designed for easy web browsing and email, and the Sound Design SD-400, a Bluetooth headset that can act as a hearing aid when your cell phone is off.

But given the speed at which the post-50 market is growing, it was surprising how little technology is out there (beyond the “I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up” kind of alert devices).

Said George Dennis, CEO of TV Ears, “We’re getting older, but we’re not going down easy.”

“What’s more important,” he continued, as he urged manufacturers to pay attention to this market. “To let an 85-year-old in a nursing home hear the TV [that may be her only entertainment] or let a 35-year-old stockbroker watch Ironman in 3-D?”

Photo: MyGait Go Computer


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