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Movie studios commit to digital cinema


Just over a year ago, in the December 2006 issue of IEEE Spectrum, author Russell Wintner predicted that computer servers and digital projectors were poised to blast film projectors out of commercial movie theaters. It was a brash prediction; at that point only 2000 of some 36,000 theaters in the U.S. and Canada were projecting with bits instead of film, and North America was ahead of the rest of the world.

Wintnerâ''s company, Access Integrated Technologies, one of several companies that sell digital cinema systems, along with industry veteran Technicolor, had an idea of how to spark the change; they proposed charging movie studios a virtual print fee. That is, the vendors of digital cinema equipment would install the equipment in theaters at no charge, and, since the cost of providing a movie in digital form is far lower to the studios than the roughly $1200 to $2000 cost of a movie print, the movie studios would pay a fee for every digital â''printâ'' loaded onto the theater servers until the vendors were reimbursed for the equipment cost and then some.

Well, it looks out like itâ''s going to all work out just as Wintner told us. Last week four motion picture studiosâ''Disney, Fox, Paramount, and Universalâ''agreed to pay virtual print fees; in return, Access committed to installing 10,000 digital cinema systems in U.S. and Canadian movie theaters, on top of the 3750 installed in the last year or so. That means, if you live in the U.S. or Canada, digital cinema will likely be coming to at least one of your local theaters soon.

If you want to read Wintnerâ''s article detailing digital cinema technology in general, Accessâ'' system in particular, and the companyâ''s virtual print fee plan, look here. If you want to find out how digital cinema will bring about a burst of 3-D offerings, look here.

Nanotechnology in Russia is Boomingâ¿¿or is it?

In a brief report from RBC (RosBusinessConsulting), which describes itself on its website as â''the first Russian information agency, specializing in business newsâ'', Russian sales of nanotechnology products are expected to amount to $700 billion in 2008, according to First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at a Federation Council session.

Iâ''m not sure if we can believe that number because in another blurb distributed at the same time, the publication reports that by 2015 sales of Russia's nanotechnology products would amount to some RUB 900bn (approx. USD 38.25bn). Quite a drop. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and deduce that they meant RUB 700bn, rather than dollars, it's still a large number and shows little growth over the ensuing seven years.

But with either sum, letâ''s give you a little context so you can judge for yourself whether these numbers are to be believed. According to organizations whose job it is to come up with these kinds of market estimates, the entire global market for nanotechnology (including semis) in 2007 is somewhere between $130-$150 billion. And the projections of the market by 2015 estimates between $1 to $1.5 trillion.

So according to the first report, Russia alone will have nanotechnology-enabled products valued about 5 times the size of the entire global nanotechnology market in 2007. Thatâ''s impressive, albeit somewhat dubious.

What makes this particularly doubtful is how recently Russia even decided to have a nanotechnology program. In June 2006, just under 2 years ago, President Vladimir Putin announced a grand strategy to make Russia a leading player in the field of nanotechnology that came with a pledge of $5 billion in initial spending, with other reports claiming that $7 billion would be spent in the first 8 years of the program.

Thatâ''s certainly putting your money where your mouth isâ'¿but the Economic Development and Trade Ministry objected to the proposal to start the program in 2007 and proposed launching it in 2008 and completing it five years later. As a result, according to published reports, the government announced an allocation of about $150 million for nanotechnology in the federal budget for 2007. Not quite the billions of dollars everyone was all excited about.

But even if Russia had allocated billions of dollars into nanotech on January 1, 2007, there is little chance that the money would buy the necessary equipment, fund the research, etc., etc. in just one year. The problem is further exacerbated by reports that while Russia has some great scientists and has some history of doing ground breaking work in nanotechnology its infrastructure for performing cutting-edge nanotechnology research is sorely lacking.

In addition to doubts about Russia actually being able to do the R&D that would lead to new nanotechnology-enabled products is that they donâ''t have a lot of industrial sectors that could use nanotechnology other than the oil industry. According to the RBC blurb, Ivanov indicated that â''nanotechnology research had made it possible to manufacture ultra-strong cutting faces for various instruments and rocket fuel with a great burn rateâ''. Wowâ'¿just that accounts for $700 billion?

To provide you some more context, take Taiwan for example. Itâ''s a small country, highly industrialized with some key industries such as electronics and textiles that can start using nanotechnology today and making an impact. And they recently reported that after six years under a clear program to come up with nanotechnology-enabled products and $615 million in funding, they believe they can show an economic impact of $9.68 billion. Thatâ''s a far cry from Russiaâ''s claim of $700 billion.

No, this figure for 2008 is not to be taken seriously, and the far smaller number for 2015 seems a wee optimistic. Either itâ''s a mistake or someone is hyping the numbers. If it is the latter, it is somewhat troubling since it may be an indication that the whole Russian nanotech program, which has been burdened with doubters, who believe that corruption will rule the way things are done, may be getting off on the wrong foot.

Intel, Microsoft give $20 million for multicore programming

Intel and Microsoft are clearly concerned that programming is not keeping pace with the increasing number of processor cores on chips. They say they will spend $20 million to create two "Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers" (UPCRC), aimed at accelerating developments in mainstream parallel computing (read as multicore processors) , for consumers and businesses in desktop and mobile computing. The new research centers will be located at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). An additional $8 million will come from UIUC, and UC Berkeley has applied for $7 million in funds from a state-supported program to match industry grants.

This is actually Microsoft's 2nd big move in this area. It decided that it needed a nice big supercomputer to simulate all the possibly hundreds of processor cores on future chips. So it struck a deal with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center essentially, to examine some of the same things that Cal and UIUC will be looking into.

In our article about that we called on Cal's David Paterson, who will be heading up one of the new Intel/Microsoft centers for comment. He called the move to multicore "a rare ­opportunity to reinvent computing entirely."

You can see how concern about this topic has been growing simply from our own coverage:

We first talked about it when we profiled Sun's Niagra chip.

Then we started to worry out loud about software in our story about IBM's Cell processor.

We saw that worry in action when we profiled Insomniac Games as they struggled to make use of the Cell in a PS3 game.

And then we looked at possible solution to the programming problem when we profiled RapidMind.

Cal's David Patterson been worrying out loud about the state of multicore programming for some time. He said it to us two years ago in an article about the loss of U.S. Defense Department research dollars. Then, he told us:

"We really don't know how to write software in this new model," Patterson notes. "It's absolutely critical for the future of IT in the United States and around the world that we figure it out."

Still true today.

Famed Author Sir Arthur C. Clarke: 1917-2008

The legendary futurist who first proposed orbiting satellites be used as telecommunications relays passed away earlier today in a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was 90 years old. Sir Arthur C. Clarke will remain a legend to millions who came to know of his farsighted ideas through his many works of fiction, nonfiction, and even movies -- such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sir Arthur was kind enough to grant us a long-distance interview last October as part of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I (please see "Remembering Sputnik: Sir Arthur C. Clarke").

His last in-person interview may well be the one conducted by our correspondent Saswato R. Das at his bedside in the Apollo Hospital in Colombo in January (an account of which will be published in our pages online tomorrow). An audio copy of this final interview is available now on Spectrum Radio, "Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Final Interview".

We wrote this of him in October:

To some readers, an introduction to Sir Arthur C. Clarke may be necessary. To others, no introduction will suffice.... Although he is more revered for his role as an author, Clarke has well deserved the title of futurist for his groundbreaking thinking on space exploration. In October 1945, he published a paper in the magazine Wireless World called â''Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?â'' In it, he predicted that geostationary satellites would soon become the basis of global communications. And in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, he describes a space elevator that would ferry passengers and cargo to a docked space station, a concept that is currently undergoing its first primitive implementations.

Clarke was born in 1917 in Minehead, England, where he developed an early interest in science and science fiction, from reading pulp magazines and comics imported from America in the kit of sailors on shore leave. After secondary school, where he excelled in math, he found himself unable to afford a university education and took a position as an auditor in the pensions section of the Board of Education.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and was involved in the early-warning system that contributed to the RAF's success in the Battle of Britain. After the war, he earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics at King's College, London. He then got involved with the nascent British Interplanetary Society, serving as its chairman from 1947 to 1950.

In 1948, Clarke published his first book of short stories, The Sentinel, which includes a story by that name that eventually became the basis of his most well-known effort, the screenplay to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has inspired generations.

Over the years, his opus of over 100 books included some of the most influential works of speculative fiction and nonfiction. He won numerous awards for his famous novels, such as Prelude to Space (1951), Childhood's End (1953), Earthlight (1955), The Deep Range (1957), A Fall of Moondust (1961), Glide Path (1963), The Nine Billion Names of God (1967), and Rendezvous With Rama (1973). His nonfiction books and essays, meanwhile, influenced science, particularly astronautics. They include Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (Temple Press, 1950), The Exploration of Space (Harper, 1951), The Making of a Moon: The Story of the Earth Satellite Program (Harper, 1957), Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age (Harper & Row, 1965), The Promise of Space (Harper & Row, 1968), and The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972).

In 1953, Clarke married Marilyn Mayfield, a 22-year-old American with a young son, but they separated after six months, although their divorce was not finalized until 1964.

In 1956, Clarke moved to the Indian Ocean island of Ceylon, destined to become the nation of Sri Lanka. As Das informed us, he was first attracted to the locale by its beautiful offshore waters, where he could practice one of his favorite avocations, scuba diving.

The next year, he attended an October meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Barcelona, Spain, where word of the successful launch of Sputnik was relayed to him by reporters who immediately wanted to learn the well-known author's reaction to the momentous news. He was thrilled by it.

"While manned spaceflight and Moon landings were widely speculated about, many still harbored doubts about an American lead in space," he told Das last year. "One delegate, noticing that there were 23 American and five Soviet papers at the Congress, remarked that while the Americans talked a lot about spaceflight, the Russians just went ahead and did it!"

In 1964, he met famed film director Stanley Kubrick, who was interested in working with him on a screenplay. What emerged formed the basis of a movie widely regarded as the greatest sci-fi effort ever to reach the screen, known simply since its release as 2001.

He later recounted that one of his signature touches to the film occurred in the memorable scene in which the mad computer HAL is disconnected from its memory core by the lone astronaut left from its deep-space murder spree. He suggested to Kubrick that HAL be reduced to singing a song called "Daisy Bell," as its electronic "life" ebbed slowly away. His inspiration came from the work of the man who had taken Clarke's idea of geostationary communications satellites and turned it into reality by creating the Echo and Telstar vehicles of the early 19560s, John Pierce of AT&T Bell Labs. Clarke had visited Pierce in 1962 at his lab for a demonstration of a colleague's new computer speech synthesizer, which used a vocoder to sing the very same song.

In the print version of his January interview with Clarke, Das notes that he considered his idea for communication satellites to be his "most important contribution." But in his next breath, he added, "And maybe in a generation or so the space elevator will be considered equally important." He came up with the notion of using a giant, space-tethered elevator to reach orbit for use in one of his novels. (Please see Spectrum's August 2005 cover story, "A Hoist to the Heavens" for more on the concept and its earliest prototypes under development.)

He told Das from his hospital bed: "Iâ''m often asked when do I think the space elevator will be built. My answer is about ten years after everyone stops laughing. Maybe 20 years. But I am pretty sure that the space elevator is an important element in future space travel."

While he was waiting to speak with Clarke in the hospital, Das observed that visitors and medical staff who entered his private room removed their shoes prior to entering and then put them on again after leaving. He interpreted the behavior as a sign of veneration on the part of those who were attending him. "In Sri Lanka, almost everyone knows who Clarke is," Das writes. "I took the shoe removal to be a mark of veneration -- Sri Lanka has a long Buddhist tradition, and you take off your shoes before you enter a Buddhist shrine."

When he did get his first audience with the author, Das observed that he "looked pale and in some pain, but he seemed to be in fine humor, except every so often he would have to pause for breath."

What did they talk about first? "We chatted about 'the design faults of the human body'," Das writes.

That shortness of breath, stemming from an on-and-off again battle against post-polio syndrome, which he had waged for nearly five decades, finally ebbed away at the vitality of the man and took his very human life at 1:30 am (local time in Sri Lanka) on 19 March 2008, according to a report from the Associated Press.

In our earlier interview with him from October, Clarke told Das that, if he were granted three wishes for the future of technology, they would be these: "A method to generate limitless quantities of clean energy. [An] affordable and reliable means of space transport. [And] eliminating the design faults in the human body."

To commemorate the legacy of such a noteworthy life, we should re-commit our efforts to making these farsighted ideas come true. It seems the least we can do in return.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Author and Visionary, Dies at 90

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction colossus and visionary, who first espoused the idea of geosynchronous satellites for telecommunications, died today in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He had turned 90 on December 16, 2007.

When I visited him in January, he was in the hospital with severe back pain. Since then, he has been in and out of the hospital. The end came around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday Sri Lanka time (about 4:00 p.m. Eastern today) and was because of breathing difficulties, the Associated Press is reporting. He had been suffering from post-polio syndrome, which left him wheelchair bound; he had a bout of polio in the late 1950s.

I found Sir Arthur - he was knighted in 2000 - to be a warm, funny and magnanimous man. Even though he was in severe pain and confined to a hospital bed, he said he would meet me since I had made the long trip.

He had been interviewed by Spectrum on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1. Here's the link to the piece:

Sir Arthur had a restless intelligence, and a mischievous sense of humor. Though confined to a wheelchair because of his condition in recent years, he kept up his spirits, saying this left him with more time to think and roam the universe with his mind.

He told me that he thinks his most important contribution is his 1945 paper in Wireless World that talked about geostationary satellites and telecommunications. He also added that a future generation may think it is the space elevator - if the space elevator is ever built. He was one of the space elevator's early champions.

He wrote a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction. He was also an accomplished underwater explorer.

The New York Times has posted a good obituary of him:

The world will miss him.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Arthur C. Clarke has died. Or, rather befitting his visionary stature, he dies tomorrow, because as January Magazine points out, it's already tomorrow in Sri Lanka.

I think this L.A. Times obit is right: "It didn't seem possible that we would ever hear such news: Didn't Clarke seem timeless?"

Clarke spoke with Spectrum's Saswato Das this past January. You can listen to his final interview here.

Interactive Brokers Announces Winner of Olympiad Trading Contest

Interactive Brokers Group, a global brokerage and trading firm, announced today the winner of its Collegiate Trading Olympiad, a trading-software contest for college students.

And the top prize of US $100,000 cash goes to...

...Christopher Michalak, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

As I described in an article about the contest last year, Interactive Brokers, headquartered in Greenwich, Conn., created the Olympiad to highlight the need for engineers and scientists in the financial industry -- as well as to spot talented students and hire them.

In the contest, the participants -- 372 students from 32 countries -- had to elaborate a trading strategy and then code an automated trading application to carry out that strategy. Each student started with $1 million in virtual money and had eight weeks to trade equities, options, futures, warrants, bonds, and currencies (the trades were virtual, taking place on Interactiveâ''s simulation system, but the buying and selling prices were based on real market data).


If he decides to go work in the financial industry, Michalak, who grew his account to a final balance of $3,135,104 by the end of the competition, would be the typical "quant." At the University of British Columbia, he works at a lab called the Advanced Numerical Simulation Laboratory on topics like "efficient steady-state convergence for high-order solution of turbulent aerodynamic flows."

As I wrote in my article, the financial industry has long sought to hire math whizzes, physics PhDs, and other prodigy types to work as quantitative analysts, or â''quants.â'' Their job is to concoct pricing models, probe new ways to quantify risk, and mine mountains of data. Now, as automated trading systems take over ever more of the substantive work on Wall Street, many firms are seeking quants who not only know the math but the nuts and bolts of IT systems, too.

For those interested in careers combining finance and technology, the contest is a rare opportunity to see how real-world applications work -- and maybe get some money to help pay for tuition. The contest is awarding a total of $400,000 in prizes to students, including two second-place prizes of $50,000 each and many $10,000 and $1,000 prizes.

If you missed the 2008 Olympiad, wait for the next one later this year. More details should appear at the Olympiad page on Interactive's web site.

Photo: Interactive Brokers technical operations center in Greenwich, Conn.

Low power is the new black

Today, Actel announced a new family of low-power FPGAs (PDF) whose power consumption bottoms out at 5 microwatts. Actel CEO John East told me that low power chips like these will let portable device designers add features while still keeping cost and battery life constant. Think ultrathin phones with Microsoft Exchange.

East proselytizes low-power wherever he goes. Not only are low-power chips one part of the solution to global climate change, but who doesn't want their laptop to have a longer battery life?

Actel is by no means alone in its focus on low-power. At February's International Solid State Circuits Conference, Intel released technical details for a new low-power processor code-named "Silverthorne" (a good name for a bodice ripper) which was just launched this month as "Atom" (not a good name for a bodice ripper). Intel launched the Atom processor specifically for mobile internet devices and computers that are designed specifically (and only) to surf the interwebs.

Actel's low-power FPGAs are part of a larger mission for East that includes re-engineering the country's relationship with nuclear energy and dominating the "Martian" chip market. I don't know if he's just really good at selling it, but he's definitely a great interview.

Out of Africa: the Riddle of Solar Electricity

One of the hottest new approaches to generating electricity today is "solar thermal," a form of capturing sunlight in order to convert water into steam, which in turn drives a conventional electricity-producing turbine. Solar thermal, as a concept, has been around since the 19th century, but in recent years the technology has undergone a revolution, helped by new designs and materials.

I visited last week with Ausra, one of the leaders in the solar thermal revival. Founded by an Australian inventor named David Mills, the company moved from Australia to Palo Alto, California a few years ago at the urging of legendary Silicon Valley financier Vinod Khosla who believed the company would thrive with more capital and the prospect of partnerships with American electric-utilities.

Khosla's vision seems to be coming true. Ausra specializes in providing large-systems to electricity grids and last year the company struck a deal to build a solar thermal plant for PG&E.

The PG&E plant remains years away from generating electricity but Ausra is already getting inquiries from all over the world. The key selling point: national electricity grids, suffering from shortages, can immediately benefit from solar thermal.

While India and China have the greatest needs for electricity going forward, sub-Saharan Africa is suffering from an unprecedented shortage, with South Africa -- the region's biggest economy -- suffering the most. Solar thermal as a technology would seem ideal for sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, Ausra is fielding requests from African governments and electricity companies -- and giving a stock answer, John O'Donnell, an executive vice president for the company, told me.

The answer to the Africans is "be patient."

"We're just saying we want to get proven in the U.S. before we take the next step," he says. "We donâ''t want to get overstretched."

For Africa, with its difficult business and geographic conditions, "you want well-proven systems," O'Donnell says.

"But once some of the technical risks are taken out and we're more experienced, solar thermal is clearly going to be part of the solution to Africa's electricity needs."

Ausra's approach -- providing electricity to a national grid -- runs counter to virtualy all of the current solar approaches in Africa, which is why solar thermal as a technology is worth watching closely. At present, solar in Africa is very small-scale and most often deployed at the level of villages (that are off the grid) or individual homes or buildings in cities (where excess electricity is not even fed back into the grid).

The trouble with these small solar systems is that they are costly, and especially so relative to the electricity generated.

O'Donnell describes proponents of small, off-grid solar in Africa as "romantic dreamers." He thinks the main show in solar should move away from simplistic notions about rural self-sufficiency and instead concentrate on helping to fill the growing demand in African cities for electricity.

Until now, solar in Africa has been dominated by romantics. O'Donnell predicts that will change. "Every African country is looking at solar thermal," he says. "The question is the maturity of the technology, over the next five years, we should begin to get the answers that Africans want to hear."

Reaping what you sow in Nanotech

The Foresight Institute in its blog is a bit disturbed by the promotional copy for a new Public Television series entitled â''Nanotechnology: The Power of Smallâ'' . To their view the ad copy seems to be focusing on the negative aspects of nanotechnology.

Indeed it does. What did you expect? Synthesis and clarity may be pleasing, but discord and controversy interest us. How else do you explain the popularity for so many years of the Jerry Springer show? Or the recent Point/Counterpoint on nanotechnology within the LA Times?

But what is truly so remarkable about the Foresight Instituteâ''s concern is that in at least a couple of the controversies they have contributed mightily to creating these perceptions. Namely that nanotechnology will play some part in compromising our privacy and that we can use nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely (read "Transhumanists").

Both of these technological futures have found a voice through the Foresight Institute, so it seems ironic that they are concerned now that nanotechnology might be painted in a bad light because of them.

Outside of the molecular nanotechnology community there is hardly a word from any other quarters about how nanotechnology will makes us live forever or relegate us to living in a Big Brother society. In fact, with the latter it seems that IT and telecommunications have done a splendid job of taking our privacy away without any help from nanotechnology. So, now that you have created a controversy, where one did not exist previously, you complain that people are using it as marketing copy for a TV special? Odd.

It is likely that the NSF-funded TV series will do its best to hype the controversies surrounding nanotechnology, and then gently reassure you--to a point. A sign of the direction of the program comes from the fact that the Project on Emerging Technology, which has tried every angle to amplify the risks of nanotechnology, not the least of which is to promote its â''long listâ'' of products that employ nanotechnology (is 500 really that long a list?), will be presenting a premiere of the new program. Do you have any lingering doubts about what themes will be discussed? It will probably go something like this: with 500 consumer products on the market incorporating nanotechnology, do we have any idea what nanotechnology is or what it will do to us? Sigh...

While the Foresight Institute has kept a balanced view of the risks of nanotechnology when it comes to human health and the environment, they have helped to create the idea that somehow nanotechnology is going to impinge on our privacy and they have certainly been at the forefront of somehow using nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely. Now they are reaping what they helped to sow.


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