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E-learning meets iTunes at Demo 08

Iâ''ve attended several Demo conferences over the years. The Demo format gives people with new companies, products, or technologies six minutes on stage, to introduce the audience of journalists, investors, and other entrepreneurs to their innovation.

Inevitably, as I chat in hotel halls and elevators with people getting ready to present at Demo, someone will ask me for â''tips.â'' I havenâ''t uncovered one sure route to Demo magic over the years of observing, but I have one thing I always say (itâ''s my pet peeve, anyway). That is, whereâ''s the money? How are you going to support the business and eventually show a profit?

Way to many entrepreneurs tell me they envision â''multiple revenue streams,â'' a â''three-legged stool,â'' or â''all sorts of ways of generating income.â'' Bzzzt! Wrong answer. Thatâ''s telling me youâ''re hoping you can get money somehow, but really, you donâ''t have a clue.

Thatâ''s why meeting the team from iVideosongs was so refreshing. They may not be using the flashiest new technology, but they know where theyâ''ll be looking for that revenue stream. And since my family will likely be sending some cash their way, Iâ''m qualified to say, theyâ''re looking in the right place.

IVideosongs is, at its most basic, selling e-learning. Ho hum, nothing new there, e-learning has been around for a long time, typically nichy stuff. Ivideosongs, however, has picked a hot nicheâ''music, in particular, amateur musicians looking to learn hit songs. (Clearly a lot of them need lessons, browse some YouTube videos of people imitating their favorite stars; theyâ''re not all virtuosos.) IVideosongs licensed the publishing rights to a wide range of popular music, theyâ''ve convinced artists (like John Oates) to give the lessons, theyâ''ve hired musicians to make the videos when the artists arenâ''t available. And each package is downloadable, music plus lesson, DRM free (that is, it can be moved from a computer to any device, burned to a CD, whatever). The price is $4.95 for downloaded lesson from a no-name artist, $9.95 for a lesson from the original artist.

My 16-year-old son is in the target market; aspiring musician who goes to the Web whenever he wants a new song, looking for guitar music, performances on YouTube; both often has errors, making learning the song a struggle. IVideosongs is in Beta; heâ''s already downloaded two lessons, Heaven (Los Lonely Boys) and Sweet Home Alabama (Lynryd Skynyrd). He reported that the downloads took a while, 30 minutes for one, nearly 40 for the other; the way the lessons are presented seem to be the way he wants to learn, and heâ''s eager to get started. Iâ''ll give you an update once he gets a break from homework.

MEMS in Hems: Is technology the new fashion statement?

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Last week, I helped run a conference with the London College of Fashion , earnestly entitled â''Micro and Nanotechnologies for Fashion and Textilesâ''. But I prefer the title used by one of the speakers for their presentation: â''MEMS in Hems."

I have helped organize other conferences that focused specifically on the impact of nanotechnologies on the textile industry. But this was the first time we tried to really hone in on the idea of how micro and nanotechnologies are impacting the way fashion designers and retailers approach their craft and business.

The guiding principle was if technology is the new fashion statement (with the understanding that people purchase iPods as much for their fashion qualities as for their technological capabilities), what new directions is this opening up for fashion and fashion designers.

While noted fashion designers like Helen Storey offered their latest work that brings together the disparate worlds of science and fashion: Wonderland, the question of how nanotechnologies are changing the way designers approach fashion is still somewhat unanswerable.

Technical textiles, such as stain resistant and odor resistant garments, offer new functionality, and ski jackets with an MP3 player built in are becoming increasingly de rigueur, but it has not quite reached the point where designers are imagining new styles, they merely see more functions.

In other words, we are not going to see on the runway soon biomimetically inspired coats that change color depending on the weather. But measured by the enthusiasm of students, who presumably will be the next generation of designers, we may very well see such things in the future.

Pen computing: not just for kids

The clever pen computing technology developed by Anoto, a Swedish company that developed a system that combines a digital camera and paper covered with a dot pattern, is enabling two new consumer products, both launching at Demo 2008 this week in Palm Desert, Calif.

The Tag Reading System from LeapFrog Enterprises and the Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe, in some ways, couldnâ''t be more different.

IMG_1748.JPGTag is for kids. It talks. A child uses the pen-like reader to touch spots on a childrenâ''s book. The book itself looks like an ordinary hardcover book; the dot code, for the most part, is well hidden. The pen responds by reading whole pages, saying individual words, scoring learning games, or chiming out sound effects. The reader will sell for around $50; the hardcover titles for about $14 each.

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The Pulse Smartpen is for adults. It listens. It actually functions as a pen, and writes on any kind of paper. When you write on the dot-covered paper, it stores what youâ''ve written in digital form. (This has been done before). The new twist: the Pulse also can record speech while youâ''re writing, and files that recorded speech with your notes. So, in a meeting, you can take abbreviated notes and use these to navigate a sound file later. A USB connection lets you move the notes and the sound to a computer for long-term storage. Because the Pulse does optical character recognition as you write, it also can do simultaneous translation, displaying the translation on a tiny screen on the side of the pen. The Pulse Smartpen will sell for around $200 for a 2 gigabyte version, $150 for a 1 gigabyte version. The special coded paper, in various notebook forms and in single sheets will, the company says, cost about the same as comparable unencoded office supplies.

Besides being connected by the Anoto technology, these two technologies share another bond. Tag is the second pen computing product from LeapFrog; it follows the Fly Pentop Computer, a product used for notetaking, calculating, and learning games. Electrical Engineer Jim Matggraff designed the Fly for LeapFrog; in 2005 he left that company to start Livescribe as a subsidiary of Anoto; the company spun out in 2007.

My kids have outgrown the picture books that make up Tagâ''s world; I think itâ''ll be a successful product, but I wonâ''t be buying it; I'm sure my friends with young kids will, however. The Pulse Smartpen I want now. Actually, last week. I can immediately see just how much time it will save me, just how useful it will be. And, to judge by the hum around me in the conference ballroom as Livescribe concluded its demo, and from the crowd around Livescribeâ''s booth later; Iâ''m not the only one who wants to record meetings and then instantly go back and find the two minutes I really want to listen to again without trying to scan the entire file.

Unfortunately, while the PC version will be available in March, Livescribe says Iâ''ll have to wait for the Mac version until summer.

Where Will U.S. Spy Satellite Fall?

By now, if you're even the least technically inclined person, you've heard that a large U.S. satellite in orbit above us has lost the ability to control its position and is slowly drifting back to earth. U.S. officials conveyed the information to major news outlets, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, on Saturday under anonymous conditions. Though the officials were cautious to categorize the nature of the machine, independent space experts quickly pegged it as a crippled spy satellite.

"Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, replied when asked about the matter after the news was leaked. "Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage this satellite may cause."

Beyond that, he would not comment on the status of the satellite or what measures might be employed to control its descent.

However, one intelligence expert who would go on the record, John Pike, told an AP reporter that spy satellites typically are disposed of through a controlled re-entry into the ocean to render the spacecraft inaccessible and he discounted any notion that the U.S. would try to destroy the object in orbit with a missile, as that would create an even more uncertain outcome for it.

Pike, the director of the defense research group globalsecurity.org said the vehicle in question is most likely an NROL-21 earth imaging satellite, which failed in its mission shortly after lift-off a year ago. For purposes of comparison, he told the AP that the slowly descending object is about the size of a small bus.

On its Web site, globalsecurity.org described the situation in these words:

A Delta II lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on 14 December 2006, carrying the NROL-21 USA-193 satellite. The NROL-21 spacecraft failed within hours of its launch. By January 2008 the satellite was expected to reenter the Earth's atmosphere in late February or March. Although some of the spacecraft would burn up on reenty, the uncontrolled reentry could result in some heavier pieces of debris reaching the Earth's surface. The odds were about three in four that the debris would hit an ocean area. Although the safety hazard of the impacting debris was small, there was some concern that secrets of the spacecraft could be compromised if the debris were recovered by a hostile intelligence agency.

As to why the satellite failed in the first place, another expert told the New York Times it was essentially a matter of communications. "Itâ''s not necessarily dead, but deaf," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In light of the toxic substances spy satellites use in their missions, he added: "For the most part, re-entering space hardware isnâ''t a threat because so much of the Earth is empty. But one could say weâ''ve been lucky so far."

With a timeline of a month or so before the orbit of the NROL-21 decays to a point where it plummets through the atmosphere, there will be plenty of opportunitiy for scientists to calculate its probable crash site. The odds are good, though, that it will not be situated near your neighborhood or anyone else's.

Out of Africa: every (digital) picture tells a story

Digital photography remains relatively expensive in Africa. An American graduate student, Eric Green of the University of South Carolina, has found a way to introduce the power of documented visual images to among the poorest children in the world.

Green is studying psychological reactions of people living in â''displacement campsâ'' in northern Uganda. The camps are usually clusters of traditional huts built along roads and in the center of villages in a remote, impoverished part of Uganda. As a sideline, Green loaned two digital cameras to 12 teenagers in the Opit camp, about 45 minutes outside the provincial capital of Gulu. Last fall, the teens took thousands of pictures of their peers, parents and environment.

â''So many people study refugees and speak for them,â'' Green told me by phone. â''My idea was to let the kids speak directly.â''

Green calls his project â''Photovoice.â'' None of his kids, ages 12 to 16, had ever used a camera before. The dozen teenagers took turns taking shots over a period of weeks.

I met several of the Opit teens in a school classroom near their camp earlier this month. On a hot and dusty day, I found them pining away for the chance to take more pictures. Green paid for the project out of his own pocket, and only loaned cameras to the youths, who last took photos in September.

Catherine Achan, one of the kids I met, clearly grasped the power of photography, an old technology undergoing rapid change of late.

â''Pictures are factual,â'' says Achan, who is 16. â''We can use pictures to fight deceit.â''

Peter Oola, another youth in the project, talked about how he could capture the everyday labor of ordinary people in his camp. His favorite photo is of a man selling boiled maize, a tasty dish that goes for a few pennies.

Oola, who is 14, says his photos â''give clues to other people about how we live.â''

At the end of September, about a thousand photos were projected on a wall in a community center. The Ugandans watched the images for hours. â''What was most remarkable to the adults was that children took these photographs,â'' says Jimmy Bentham, who coordinates the project.

Putting digital cameras in the hands of poor African youth, while a modest initiative, highlights the way that information technologies alter the self-image of those who use them, especially in the developing world. â''I felt special with a camera,â'' Achan says. When other children, and even adults, followed her around while she snapped photos, â''I felt important,â'' she recalls.

Achan misses not having a camera. She wants a camera in her hands â'' and to feel important again.

Big Brother and Nanobots

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Do you ever get the feeling that all the interest groups that have positioned themselves in opposition to nanotechnology are doing so more out of perceived threat of authoritarian governments, or worse, big business, than any real concerns about the specifics of nanotechnology?

It would probably be a worthy study, but in the meantime, let me offer you the latest in a paranoid dystopian future where â''advances in nanotechnology will allow swarms of nanobots (or â''nanoidsâ'')â'' to search our private property.

Thereâ''s not much here in terms of specifics of nanotechnology, but there is plenty of rant on the recent warrantless surveillance conducted under the Bush administration.

Spurred by the potential for the future that is predicted by 2040, the Foresight Institute urges the drafting of guidelines for responsible use of these nanobots, I suppose just regarding privacy issues.

Is self-parody in their lexicon?

If you donâ''t think this is funny enough, take a read of the comments section where by coincidence just such a study is being proposed for the National Science Foundation.

I am not sure which I should be more perturbed by as a taxpayer that the government in cahoots with the telecoms is eavesdropping on my international phone calls or that the government would fund research into nanotechnology and privacy issues.

Bluetooth Offers Wounded Veterans a Leg Up

Doctors with the U.S. military are using prosthetics equipped with Bluetooth transceivers to help badly injured combat veterans walk again. A news article on CNN online today reports that rehabilitation specialists at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., are fitting soldiers and marines who have lost both lower limbs in fighting in Iraq with artificial legs that use Bluetooth (an IEEE standard) to communicate their relative position and momentum between each other. The result is greater effectiveness in controlling their new legs for the recovering vets.

The CNN article focuses primarily on the status of Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bleill, who lost both his legs above the knees when a bomb exploded under his Humvee while on patrol in Iraq in October 2006. He has 32 pins in his hip and a 6-inch screw holding his pelvis together, according to the news service. Medical engineers created innovative prostheses for Bleill that employ wireless communications chips that use Bluetooth to signal one another about what the marine is doing as he moves his upper legs. The chips then send instructions to motors in the artificial joints of the legs so that their knees and ankles can move in synchronized fashion.

"They mimic each other, so for stride length, for amount of force coming up, going uphill, downhill and such, they can vary speed and then to stop them again," Bleill told CNN. "We've compared walking several laps in both sets of legs and one, your legs come out burning and tired and these, you know, you sometimes are not even breaking a sweat yet."

Bleill has not mastered the new technology sufficiently to walk without the help of a cane, but he says he is determined to do so as soon as possible. Plus, he has offered some important feedback to the prosthetics researchers on ways they can improve their invention.

"It's only going to react to how I move," Bleill noted. "Unfortunately, sometimes I don't know those reactions, I don't know what I'm doing to make it react. So sometimes the leg kicks harder than I want it to, or farther, and then I start perpetuating, and I start moving faster than I really want to."

While he's far from being a bionic man, Bleill understands the opportunity he's been given to return to a semblance of normalcy after his war experience and rehabilitation. He plans to look into ways he can "give back" to his country once he returns to his home in the Indianapolis area by seeking work for a charitable organization and to "just carry on a normal life."

It sounds like he's well on his way to that goal already, with a little help from skilled doctors and technicians.

[Editor's Note: IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette toured Iraq in late 2005 to report first-hand on the reconstruction of the war-torn nation's infrastructure and published a series of award-winning accounts on the facts on the ground at that time, such as "Re-engineering Iraq". He currently is revisiting the scene as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army and is filing updates on the renewed recovery effort in our Tech Talk blog. Look for further updates from Zorpette as they become available, as well as future feature-length reportage once he returns to the United States.

Plus, next week, look for a Spectrum report on inventor Dean Kamen's latest marvel, the Luke Arm. Named for the sci-fi prosthesis Luke Skywalker was fitted with in the "Star Wars" saga, Kamen's innovative artificial arm is now pending approval (and research funding) from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a technology suitable for military personnel returning from combat with lost upper limbs.]

American Superconductor Secures Project Hydra Contract

Last year, the best-known and hardest-charging company commercializing the so-called high-temperature superconductors, American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC), came under fire in connection with a contract to upgrade the New York City power system. The basic idea, which was new and untested, was that by using superconducting cable in the New York distribution grid, not only could the capacity of the system be increased up to ten-fold, but the intrinsic properties of superconductors could be exploited to damp excess currents.

AMSC and its subcontracting partner in the plan, New Yorkâ''s Con Edison, obtained a commitment to fund the project from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. DHS saw the project, which it dubbed Hydra, as an opportunity to demonstrate technology that could be used to fortify grids against breakdown and attack everywhere in the country. But because of a pattern of sole-source contracting between AMSC and U.S. government agencies, and the role of one person in particular in negotiating such contracts for the government, Project Hydra came into the sights of Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), surely the most feared investigator on Capitol Hill.

AMSC had obtained contracts to develop superconducting electric motors for the U.S. Navy, when Rear Admiral Jay M. Cohen was Chief of Naval Research, and now this very same Cohen was giving AMSC another big contract as a research director at DHS!

AMSC and Project Hydra appear now to have survived Dingellâ''s challenge. The company announced yesterday that DHS has signed a contract with AMSC to proceed with demonstration of the companyâ''s Secure Super Grids technology in New York, using its second-generation â''344â'' cable. DHS, having already paid AMSC $3.8 million under a letter agreement, will now pay up to a total of $25 million to complete the project, contingent on demonstrated performance, step-by-step.

What Dingell may have missed, as emphasized in the analytic story IEEE Spectrum published about Project Hydra last November, is that this is basically a research and development project: as it proceeds, new technology will be developed and tested, and only if it pans out at each stage will the next phase of the project be funded. But if Dingell is confused, heâ''s not to be blamed. The company itself, seeking to project a confident image and to persuade the world that this is a wholly done deal, has obscured the projectâ''s experimental character.

One New Year's resolution checked off: I'm finally on Facebook

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Iâ''m usually the early adopter in my family (among the adults, anyway), so I was a bit chagrined late last year when my husband got a Facebook page before me. And then, at CES, a few people, besides handing me a business card, said â''Friend me on Facebook.â'' Clearly, I needed to do this. It went to the top of my to-do list for 2008; I didnâ''t care if â''Over 40 is Facebook Creepy.â''

It wasnâ''t as simple as it was supposed to be. First, Facebook didnâ''t like my name; apparently, and flagged it as fake. I had to send an email to customer service and wait for a real person to override the system and let me sign up. Then, since I typically use Eudora (I know, old tech, but Iâ''m not the only one hanging on to it), it couldnâ''t hunt my web-based email list to automatically find friends. Instead, I cut and paste a few of my mailing lists into Facebookâ''s Friendfinder. The first list it sorted the addresses into two sections, indicating who among my friends were on Facebook and would be contacted. The second time I loaded a list it choked; I wasnâ''t sure if any invites went out, but later got a few responses, so it apparently worked.

In spite of those glitches, it was pretty simple, and I now have a Facebook page and 35 friends. I now know that one of my friends is addicted to online scrabble and another

reads a lot of blogs.

The first few days on Facebook I checked pretty frequently; it was fun watching peopleâ''s pictures pop up in my friend screen. I definitely need a much hipper picture, the classic Facebook photo seems to be something involving a tilted head partially obscured by a door or a computer or a hand; mine is boring, though I changed it to black and white to make it a little more artsy. I scanned through some of the more popular applications; none really grabbed me. I donâ''t really want to take movie quizzes, collect virtual fish in an aquarium, or track my reading on a virtual bookshelf. But Iâ''d better pick a few soon, my page is pretty dull.

Iâ''m not sure how useful Facebook is going to turn out to be. When Iâ''m traveling, I expect Iâ''ll flag that information in my â''statusâ'' line; every now and then I find out that someone I know and I crossed paths during travel; it would be great to know that ahead of time. And likely when my son goes to college in a year and a half, I may come to love Facebookâ''s updates on his activities.

Richard Branson: 2008 Is "Year of the Spaceship"

Yesterday, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur famed for his airline and music businesses, unveiled his latest space transport designs for a system capable of carrying passengers on sub-orbital flights on a paid basis to his Virgin Galactic operation. The designs of the new spacecraft and its launch craft, respectively named SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two, expand upon the work done by aeronautics legend Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., which won the coveted Ansari X Prize in 2004 by becoming the first private endeavor to achieve human spaceflight. Virgin Galactic said that the new spaceship and mothership will begin flight tests this summer in New Mexico.

"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," Branson said to the gathered media yesterday, according to an account from BBC News. "If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology. This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and Internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

The construction of SpaceShipTwo is reportedly 60 percent complete. It is being built to accommodate a crew of two pilots and six passengers, who will fly sometime in 2009, if all goes according to plan, from a facility called Spaceport America, near Upham, N.M. The overall flight should last about 2.5 hours and reach an altitude of 110 kilometers (the defined edge of space), where it will provide passengers with the experience of weightlessness for approximately 6 minutes, as well as a view of the planet below that only a few professional space travelers have seen before. In recompense, the spacecraft's first 100 passengers will pay Virgin Galactic US $200 000.

The company announced that it has already received tens of millions of dollars in deposits from some 200 individuals who would like to be early participants aboard the new spacecraft, which will be christened VSS Enterprise. The list of civilian pioneers includes actor William Shatner, famed for helming the fictional ship of the same name in the TV series "Star Trek", as well as other celebrities such as Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Hawking, according to Virgin Galactic.

Branson also said at the New York press conference that SpaceShipTwo will be made available to research groups interested in launching payloads into near orbit at a fraction of the price of rocket delivery.

"As far as science is concerned, this system offers tremendous potential to researchers who will be able to fly experiments much more often than before, helping to answer key questions about Earth's climate and the mysteries of the universe," Branson told the media.

On its Web site, Virgin Galactic noted that the White Knight Two mothership will be powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines, 'which are amongst the most powerful, economic, and efficient engines available', as part of a call on Branson's part to make the entire project as environmentally responsible as possible.

In a prepared statement on the site, Branson said yesterday: "[W]e are all very excited about the prospect of being able to develop a bio-fuel solution for the space launch system and we are looking forward to working with Pratt and Whitney and Virgin Fuels to trial an appropriate bio mix for the PW308A engines that will be powering our new carrier aircraft."

To herald the advent of the new era of civilian space travel, the marketing department at Virgin Galactic is dubbing 2008 as "The Year of the Spaceship."

It should be quite an auspicious calendar to keep track of.

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