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Bug Me Not

Good software is written in modular fashion. By avoiding interdependencies, we can pull out a chunk of code here and another there to create new programs.

So why do we keep making interdependent hardware?

For one reason, no one has come up with a schema and a platform for its independent functionality. No one has, in effect, created Object-Oriented Hardware.

Until now.

Bug Labs, a new company with staff in San Francisco and New York, has done just that. A 3x8x20 cm base unit is a fully functional, fully hackable Linux computer. It has Wi-Fi, USB, Ethernet, and a small LCD screen along its thinnest side. Up to four thin, square modules can be snapped into it, top and bottom, two to a side.

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Bug has already created four modulesâ''a camera/videocamera; GPS; an accellerometer/motion sensor; and a touch-sensitive, color LCD touchscreen. It has plans for a GSM module and a wish-list of 81 others to come.

Put the camera and the motion sensor together and you have a quick home security system. With a GSM module, it could send you a text message or a photo of the intruder (or your cat). Since it already has Wi-Fi, it could send a message to your computer which could then send out an alert.

Peter Semmelhack, Bugâ''s founder, says one of his favorite combinations of modules was someoneâ''s idea for putting together the GPS unit, the LCD screen, and a little bit of software that would flash your shopping list when you drive up to the supermarket. â''Or for example, when you get to your subway stop, it reminds you to pick up the dry cleaning,â'' the aptly-named Semmelhack says.

I saw any number of good examples where Bugsâ'' idea would improve new products. Magellan, the GPS company, has units with voice recognition, and also video cameras â''to record the experience once you get there.â'' But your digital camera already takes video, and maybe even your phone as well. How many small, built-in videocameras do you really need? Wouldnâ''t it be nice to be able to invest in a single, really good one, and just snap it in? Similarly, your phone and car may already have voice recognition.

The Bug system doesnâ''t slip into your pocket as nicely as a phone or camera. But what Bug does is two things. It creates a mindset of modularity for hardware manufacturers. Second, it provides a platform for developing software that uses hardware that hitherto was too expensive or complicated for the home hacker to work with.

Take the to-do list hack. A teenager could come with the idea, write the basic software, and drive around the neighborhood testing and refining it all in a single afternoon. Think of it as super-rapid prototyping.

New hardware capabilities are showing up in devices all the time. Sony Ericsson has a beautiful new phone, the W760 that has an accelerometer built in.

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You can play a car-driving game on it where you turn by tilting the phone left and right, and speed up and slow down by tilting it forward and back. My iPhone and my camera already have LCD screens and accelerometers. If I, as a hacker, had access to that hardware, I could run the same game on them in an idle moment. And with the right Bug modules, I could come up with new games that could run on all three.

Some will complainâ''in fact they already have, according to Semmelhackâ''that Bugâ''s system obscures the hardware from the user and actually runs counter to the hacking mentality. Thatâ''s wrong in two different ways.

First, Bugâ''s platform is a great one hardware developmentâ''every pin, screw, and software interface of the base unit is exposed and documented. And even if want to create the worldâ''s best accelerometer in order to, say, do camera image-stabilization control in a new way, I hardly want to also have to invent my own camera or LCD screen.

Second, many hackers are just less interested in the basic hardware than stretching the bounds of what you can do with it. Microsoftâ''s Tandy Trower made this very point in an August Spectrum article about robot software development.

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â''We kept hearing that robotics research was popular but challenging,â'' Trower said. â''Students wanted to program robots, but they were spending all their time on fundamental engineering. There was a lot of reinvention of the wheel.â''

The Bug Labs scheme creates a new level of abstraction at which hackers can hack, in much the same way that Basic did in an era of assembly-language programming, and that Visual Basic and Java do today. In every case, new hackers are made out of people overwhelmed or intimidated by the complexity of existing platforms. Let the new era of hardware mashups begin!

CES Video Highlights: The Eye-Fi Gets Photos Out of Your Camera

Here in Las Vegas, there were plenty of gadgets I would have loved to take home, and the Eye-Fi SD card tops that list. Digital camera's are great, but if you're anything like me, you end up with an album-worth of shots that never make it to the computer. Eye-Fi managed to make a 2 gigabyte SD card that also includes a Wi-Fi antenna. This means that once you set it up the first time, you're photos should always end up where you want them, whether that's iPhoto, Flickr or Facebook. At the pre-CES Digital Experience!, Spectrum got the scoop on the new card:

CES Video Highlights: Desktop Climate Control

At Digital Experience!, Spectrum staff stopped by the Herman Miller booth. They were showing off the new C2 Climate Control. It's a new spin on an old technology: a Peltier device that can either heat or cool, depending on the direction of the current. Herman Miller hopes to target the workplace with a desktop device that uses less power than conventional space heaters.

As One Show Winds Down, Another Starts Up

The walk down the long hallway from the Venetian Hotel to the Sands Expo Center was different today. In addition to the earnest khaki-and-polo-shirt CES attendees, there were young buxom women in halter tops, short skirts, and four-inch spiked heels. At the end of the hallway those spiked heels made a right-hand turn and negotiated a long staircase downstairs to the 2008 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which opens to the public tomorrow, the same day CES ends.

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No one knows how big the adult entertainment industry is. Iâ''ve heard estimates from $15 billion to $60 billion. But we do have some idea of the size of the AVN show. Sean Devlin, the showâ''s spokesperson, says it will be bigger than last yearâ''s, which had 30 000 attendees. Of them, 17 000 were fans, 12 000 were people â''from the trade,â'' and 1000 were journalists.

This journalist will be one of them this year. While itâ''s a tricky subject area for a general-interest magazine, itâ''s also one that canâ''t be ignored. The adult industry has driven technologies at least since the early days of photography in the 1850s, and technology has benefited ever since.

Consumers of adult content back up their interest with real dollars in ways that other consumers are less motivated to do. Some pay as much as $60/month to subscribe to individual websites. Modems, graphics cards, and webcams are a few product categories that came to enjoy low prices and broader usage because adult content consumers were high-paying early adopters. Today, mobile video is almost too new to be a hot category at CES, but itâ''s already a major topic at AVN.

When it comes to reporting on the leading edges of technology, we at Spectrum sometimes find ourselves in some pretty unusual places. Tomorrow itâ''ll be in the basement of the Sands, not the ground floor.

CES Video Highlights: First iPhone Dock

It seems like the last thing consumers need is a new a new docking station for an mp3 player—but try plugging your new iPhone into any iPod dock, and you'll be greeted with a rude error message: "This accessory is not made to work with iPhone." Well, those days are now over.

Altec Lansing unveiled the first "Works with iPhone" speaker system at Digital Experience!, Sunday night's event that coincided with CES. They call it the "T162," a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. In addition to shielding the speakers from GSM interference, the unit will pause the music when you get a call. It will sell for $199.

Ambitious Announcements Come Home to Roost for Nanotech Start-up

By announcing that they would have a product on the market out in 2 years going back to 2002 have landed Nantero in IEEE Spectrumâ''s annual â''Winners and Losersâ'' round upâ'¿and not in the winnersâ'' column.

But the nanotech start-up remains unbowed. They still contend that a commercial product is still just around the corner. It just may be, but the market that their product was set to revolutionize back in 2002 has moved on. While it hasnâ''t quite been revolutionary movement, it has evolved enough.

As Philip Ross, the author of the Spectrum article, notes â''That instant-on computer that Nantero sketched out more than six years ago? You can buy one right now for just $400; itâ''s called the iPhone.â'' Brutalâ'¿and true.

This humble blogger is quoted in the piece asking the question that has plagued him since Nantero made their early announcements: all the big flash memory players are just going to step aside and let a start-up eliminate a billion-dollar market?

Too Many Devices?

The average home in 1960 had a television set, probably black and white, and a radio. The number of electronic in the home today is, by comparison, absurd.

Hereâ''s a simple quiz, which we wonâ''t bother scoring.

How many outlets do you have in use today?

How many have extension cords?

Have you ever plugged an extension cord into an extension cord?

I quickly lost count of the number of products here at the Consumer Electronics Show that attempt to manage cable clutter and complexity.

Philips, which came out with its â''Squidâ'' extension cord a couple of years ago, now has a â''mini-Squid.â''

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But more interesting to me was its â''travel strip,â'' which folds into itself two different ways.

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Allsop has a nice little case for managing USB cords and the like.

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Belkin had at least five devices for plugging multiple things into one thing. Not all of them are extension cords.

A high-def multimedia device called â''Flywireâ'' that can throw a signal to a HDTV wirelessly, even if its 30 meters away. You can plug 6 devices into the Flywire transmitter, such as a Blu-Ray or DVD player, a set-top box, or a Playstation. The receiver is the only thing that has to be plugged into the television itself. The Flywire will come out this summer at about $500 list price.

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A KVM hub that lets you plug 4 computers into a single keyboard, video monitor, and mouse set, and switch between them with a press of a button. You can also plug a USB thumb drive into the hub to move files between the computers.

A Plug for USB devices that swivels.

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A bizarre starfish-shaped hub called the Rock Star that lets five people plug in their earbuds and headsets to listen to a single MP3 player. (Set up with five headsets on a round coffee table, it looked like a shared hookah.) Iâ''m not sure why five people would want to listen at once privatelyâ''just play it on a stereo!â''but I can picture three kids in the back seat of a minivan listening to the same iPod. You can even plug in a second music player and switch between them.

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A new â''greeen-friendlyâ'' (my term, not Belkinâ''s) extension cord. Two outlets are always on, the other six (!) are controlled separately. You can optionally control them, by the way, with a wall-mounted wireless switch. The idea is that you can turn your offâ''really off, so not drawing standby powerâ''your television, set-top box, and DVD player, without turning off your broadband modem and your Wi-Fi router. Of course, if youâ''re using a Flywire, those might not even be in the same room, much less on the same extension cord.

The Flywire is an interesting device, by the way, in that it illustrates another, more disturbing trend in consumer electronics. It cannot send an HD signal to two receivers on two televisions because the company believes it would violate copyright law. You can, of course, do that in the wired world with a simple coax splitter. Belkin thinks, however, that â''Hollywoodâ'' would object to â''broadcastingâ'' the signal to more than one television.

An Intimate Gathering For 140,000 Friends

Itâ''s hard to describe the size of this yearâ''s Consumer Electronics Show. There are of course the usual stats, including its 140 000 or so attendees, the largest of any convention in the world. The number of exhibitors is said to rival the number of athletes at the Olympics.

MSNBC reports that "CES could be leaving Las Vegas" because hotel and food prices have gotten out of control. Spectrum's editors compared notes last night, and sure enough, if our experience is any guide, the $5 Vegas breakfast is a thing of the past. And forget about eating at the convention site, for the time it costs as well as the money.

CES fills all three halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Sands Expo Center, itself large enough to hold a mid-sized conference. As well, there are meetings at the Venetian Hotel, adjacent to the Sands, and the Hilton, next to the convention center.

There are maps for each venue that, when folded up, look like ones youâ''d buy at a truck stop. The main show directory is about the size of the Cincinnati phone book. All told, the free backpack handed out to the press weighs in at about 2 kilos.

You need those maps.

When I first got to the convention centerâ''after a 20-minute shuttle bus ride for a trip that would take about 20 minutes to walkâ''I got out at the stop for Registration, at South Hall. Press registration was, however, upstairs at the Press Room, room 229 in the South Hall. I was advised to get back on a shuttle bus. â''Isnâ''t it just upstairs?â'' I asked. Not exactly, they said.

Later that morning I walked from the front of South Hall to the back of Central Hall. It took about 12 minutes, at a fast pace even by New York standards. (Folks from Cincinnati would probably have to double my time or more.)

Still later in the day, I had to go from the Press Room (South Hall 229, remember?) to a panel session in South Hall 104. Youâ''d think that involved going downstairs and down a corridor, right? Better consult the map. The trip traverses the entirety of South Hall, and took 11 minutes at that New York pace. Oh, by the way, it turned out to be exactly the walk that the people who told me to take the shuttle bus from Registration to press registration were advising me to avoid.

Intelligence DARPA Names First Director

Back in September I wrote about the conception of the Energy Department's new advanced research projects agency (ARPA-E). That agency hasn't actually been born yet (NREL's John Dickerson told me that they're still configuring it).

 

However, its slightly older intelligence sector cousin, IARPA, just announced the appointment of its first director, Lisa Porter. Porter's intimidating resume includes a Stanford physics Ph.D., NASA, and a stint as a senior scientist at DARPA's Advanced Technology Office (which seems to have become the Strategic Technology Office since her departure. Deduced via my primitive detective skills, i.e. noticing an automatic redirect from darpa.mil/ato/ to darpa.mil/sto/. )

 

According to Signal magazine, IARPA is the consolidation of the NSA's Disruptive Technology office; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's National Technology Alliance; and the CIA's Intelligence Technology Innovation Center. IARPA will work with 16 intelligence agencies to develop new technologies, "such as high-speed code cracking machines and cloaking devices."

 

We have 16 intelligence agencies?

 

Ford in Sync, But Out of Step

The Ford Motor Company had an impressive demonstration of its Sync system last night at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Impressive, but in the long run, Sync has some serious limitations.

Sync, which is written by Microsoft, manages your phone calls, optionally with voice recognition, by a Bluetooth connection to your cellphone. It can also download your phoneâ''s address book, and even manage multiple family cellphones (and address books). Ford cars with Sync come with hard disks for music, which Sync can also play, with voice recognitionâ''a particularly impressive feature that can even handle hard-to-parse artist names like Sade, U2, and AC/DC. The system can even recommend songs, though it does so only by an internal database of genres and subgenres.

Sync also provides navigation, traffic, weather information, and sports scores through an eight-inch screen on the dashboard. In addition, you can query Sync about things like nearby movie theatres and where the gas station with the cheapest gas is. Sync even does emergency 911â''when an airbag is deployed, the car uses your cellphone to dial 911 after giving you a chance to cancel the call.

All in all, Sync was pretty impressive, and Spectrum will have a more complete video report on it soon. But I couldnâ''t help but think of some of its limitations when I went to a panel briefing on Sprintâ''s mobile broadband network, Xohm, which will be rolling out in a number of cities through 2008.

Spectrum picked Xohm as one of itâ''s â''Winnersâ'' for 2008, and more information is available in a feature article in our January issue. Briefly, though, Xohm uses IEEE 802.16e, known commercially as WiMax, to create a 2-4 Mb/s broadband connection that will work in mobile devices, even a moving car. (I'll have more about the panel discussion in an upcoming post.)

Sync, on the other hand, uses a one-way satellite connection provided by Sirius to deliver its information. Some, such as traffic, comes directly from Sirius, but the gas station price information comes from another company's database, while the music recommendations come from a third. Each relationship has to be worked out in detail by Ford and Sirius. If some other company comes along with, say, better music recommendations, maybe using an Amazon-like â''people who liked X also like Yâ'' system, too bad.

Sync, in other words, is a closed system, just like Verizonâ''s or, for that matter, the iPhoneâ''s. Services get added slowly, when, and only when, Ford and Sirius choose to. A Xohm-based service, on the other hand, would offer a bigger data pipe and it would work in both directions, letting you send video to the grandparents or update your blog directly from the car. You could subscribe to a better music system or a traffic information service you find to be more accurate. E911 would probably also be more reliable coming directly from the car than a phone that for many people would fly into the air from the center console in an accident.

I asked a Ford spokesperson whether he wished Xohm had been available at the time it developed the system. â''Weâ''re very happy with Sirius,â'' I was told. It didnâ''t really answer the question. But perhaps Ford really is happy with a closed system it can control and draw service revenue from, just like a traditional cellular phone company. Ford needs to watch out, though. Thereâ''s this thing called the Internet, and itâ''s going to take over the wireless world, just as it did the wired one.

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