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iRobot unveils gutter-cleaning and teleconferencing robots

iRobot announced two new products today.

Looj is a gutter-cleaning bot. It's remote-controlled. You put it up in a gutter, step down the ladder, and direct its movement while the bot does the cleaning.

The other is ConnectR, which iRobot describes as a "virtual visiting robot." It's equipped with speakers and a camera, and the idea is it enables real-time "virtual visits" over the Internet.

The Looj is available now, but ConnectR isn't out yet -- and robot aficionados have the opportunity to be part of a pilot program this year.

To know how to sign up, continue reading at Automaton...

Forward Bias

September 28, 2007

This Weekâ''s Theme: Unmanned

UAVs are branching out. We now have:

The Robo-Copter (via Danger Room)

The flying robo-ethernet hub

Various Robo-Peppered Moths

â''Swarms of mini unmanned aircraft infiltrate ventilation systems, perch somewhere or morph into the scenery and await the opportunity to personally deliver their one-pound explosive.â''

and a Robo-jet-ski!

(An unmanned maritime reconnaissance vehicle, from QinetiQ, a "UK defense contractor with poor spelling.â'')

But, you may ask yourself, how will I carry all my drones around?

Why, in the UXV Combatant Warship Made for Drone Battles, of course.

Beautiful Pictures

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Pictures like the piece of Irish moss above were submitted by the winners of the 2007 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored jointly by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation. The contest is in its fifth year of challenging scientists to think like artists.

"The winning entries communicate information about the stunning details of the 15-centimeter-wide feathery Irish moss under natural light, the complex anatomy of the human nasal passage and sinus of a 33-year-old Chinese woman's examination for thyroid disease, the fluid flight motion of the short-nosed fruit bat in Southeast Asia, the effect of smoking on the brain, hurricane rain clouds and the stratosphere and how hurricanes may intensify, and more."

Check out a slideshow of the winning entriesappearing in the Sept. 28 issue.

When broadband flows like a river

Tuesday night, at the WiMax World 2007 conference, Motorola herded a hundred customers, staff, press, and industry analysts last night onto a cruiseboat on the Chicago River. The scenic ride, replete with beer, wine, and appetizers, was more than a junketâ''the company claimed it was the first public demonstration of a fully mobile WiMax network based on IEEE 802.16e, the current version of that standard.

Mototolaâ''and a number of other companies, notably Sprint, Samsung, Nokia, and Intelâ''have made heavy bets that WiMax is a key technology for mobile broadband. So the demonstration was a welcome proof that things are on track, especially welcome for Sprint, which will be rolling out a nationwide WiMax-based service beginning in January. The first two metro areas are Chicago and Baltimore-Washington D.C.

WiMax is still only occasionally in the news, and sometimes it seems both too old and too new to talk about. Spectrumâ''s first article about it was way back in 2003. And yet, itâ''s also just coming to market, and outside of Korea, no one has really seen it in mobile form. The IEEE 802.16 standard, on which it is based, has had a variegated, if not particularly troubled, history. It started out as a way to offer a wireless version of the classic T1 (1.5 Mb/s) last-mile data connection between a business and the Internet.

It was clear early on that WiMax, unlike Wi-Fi, could create fast point-to-multipoint data connections between individuals and a base station. Unsurprisingly, some companies began to offer equipment that offered, in effect, a wireless DSL service. Soma Networks, earned our Winner designation in January 2006 for just that.

But it was some South Korean engineers who first took WiMaxâ''s potential to an obvious conclusion by adding mobility. They called their version of the standard â''WiBroâ'' and by 2005 they had made it work. Launched in June 2006 by Korea Telecom, the service is widely available today there, if still little-used. WiBro is now considered one â''profileâ'' of the 802.16e standard. Though there are significant differences between it and the current main line of 16e development, Samsung has used its WiBro experience to good effect in developing equipment for Sprintâ''s network.

Both Motorola and Samsung are key equipment suppliers in what Sprint calls its WiMax ecosystem, for which it is creating a separate brand and business unit called Xohm. So is Nokia. That gives the ecosystem the #1, 2, and 3 manufacturers of handsets. Motorola has also already shown a laptop card and a home transceiverâ''the wireless equivalent of a DSL router.

The ecosystem already includes a number of companies. Intel and Fujitsu, and a number of smaller manufacturers, Sequans, WaveSat, Comsys, picoChip, Runcom, and Beceem. Motorola, Samsung, and Nokia make chipsets as well, but only for their own equipment. They wonâ''t be selling them to others.

WiMaxOnTheRiver.jpg

The river cruise showed off Motorolaâ''s ability to maintain streaming video sessions and voice-over-IP phone calls even during handoffs from one base station to another. The company had erected base stations atop four office buildings along the Chicago waterfront. (Sprint may or may not keep those base stations in its network deployment.)

WiMaxHandoffs.jpg

Particularly impressive was a laptop that used as a modem a Razr phone with Motorolaâ''s WiMax chipset in it. The Razr looked only a tiny bit thicker than a regular Razr, probably still the most popular cellphone on the market today.

WiMaxWorld-Claudio%20Krieghoff-Motorola.jpg

The laptop ran diagnostic software that could â''seeâ'' all the network activity including the handoffs. Claudio Krieghoff, a Motorola network engineer in charge of the diagnostics, said he was seeing data rates of 11-14 megabits per second from the base stations and 3-4 Mb/s up to it. Krieghoff, who is normally based in Florida, said that besides the slow-moving riverboat, the setup had been tested the week before in cars driving up and down the lakeside, with similar results.

WiMax towers can be found other places besides the Chicago riverfront. Sprintâ''s own test network is in Herndon, Va. And Clearwire, a relatively new Seattle-based wireless operator, has been testing the same Motorola equipment in Portland since early this year. Clearwire and Sprint have been developing a partnership agreement that will allow them to each develop WiMax in separate cities and allow customers to roam between the services.

Sprint expects its first two cities to have full commercial service in April, after a final four months of public testing. The company says its coverage will be available to 100 million people in the U.S. by the end of 2008. Clearwire will cover another 30 million. Clearwire already operates wireless phone and broadband service in 34 U.S. markets using Motorola equipment that it calls â''pre-WiMax,â'' and in many cases it will be upgrading these existing networks, keeping them backwardly compatible with the current service.

WiMax is almost here, and once it starts, itâ''s going to come in a rush.

Just because you can build the app, doesnâ¿¿t mean you should

In the Web 2.0 world itâ''s getting easier and easier to build all sorts of applications. But just because you can build the application doesnâ''t mean it should be a company.

Falling into that category at Demofall 07, is MixGet. The premise is simple. Since cell phones can make sounds, and a lot of cell phones in a room can make a lot of sounds, why not orchestrate a piece of music by assigning â''partsâ'' to the different cell phones? The lead cell phone acts as the conductor, all parts are synchronized, and bingo, surround cell-sound.

My guess was that the inventor of MixGet, from Moscowâ''s RedSquare Ventures, got the idea while sitting in a meeting, perhaps, or a crowded bar, when, coincidentally, a number of cell phones rang at once. But I was wrong. Company founder Sergey Tatarchenko told me that he was sitting at home with two cell phones. He got a call, they both rang, and bingo, he thought (OK, not bingo, but I don't know the Russian equivalent), I could make a business out of this.

Heâ''s a nice guy, so Iâ''m sorry to say that I donâ''t think business success is likely anytime soon. But hereâ''s the demo, what do you think?

Tech you can actually use, today, really, this afternoon

Wednesday morning at the Demofall conference, held this week in San Diego, was not about breathtaking technology or cute gizmos. Rather, the standouts were simple to understand (but likely not all that simple to implement) solutions to common problems. And some of which (at least the Mac-friendly ones) Iâ''ll probably find myself using soon, particularly because, at least for now, theyâ''re free. Thereâ''s Tungle, that lets people coordinate meeting scheduling across multiple calendar platforms; Vello, a web-based interface for setting up conference calls that call the participants instead of vice-versa; and Yuuguu, a simple tool for letting someone in another location look at your computer screen and, if you choose, take control of your mouse and keyboard. (Memo to Spectrum Art Director. We are seriously using this next time we try to discuss a diagram!)

Most interesting to me this morning were Tubes and FeedHub. Those of us in the publishing business have for years wrestled with various complex and expensive document sharing systems, that make sure documents are updated appropriately and multiple versions of the same document arenâ''t being circulated simultaneously. Tubes solves this problem for traditional and multimedia files elegantly, using a pneumatic tube metaphor. Create a tube that connects to one or multiple people and drop files into the tube. The system replicates the file, and any updates go out to all copies of the file. Bad news for us Mac users, though, at this point tubes can only be created by Windows users (though we can view and update files through the companyâ''s web site). The company promises a Mac version down the road.

Iâ''ve avoided getting heavily into subscribing to RSS feeds because of the guilt factor. (Same reason I donâ''t Tivo.) That is, if I have time to read news or blog sites, I figure I can always go to the sites and read them, but news and blog feeds piling up would just make me feel stressed (at which point Iâ''d have to take a 10-minute break and pick up the PiP tool demonstrated here yesterday). So I really liked FeedHub from mSpoke, a tool that studies your RSS feeds to figure out what youâ''re really interested in, filters them, and condenses them into a single feed with just the good stuff. At least thatâ''s the promise, try it and let me know if it works for you. FeedHubMemes.jpg

And one last mention from this morningâ''s demonstrationsâ''Matchmine, a recommendation engine intended to work with multiple sources of content, including blogs, music, and movies. The companyâ''s intent is to sell the technology to sites that provide the content; they recently signed Peerflix on as a customer. The heart of their technology is a mathematical array that captures a userâ''s media profile and adapts ad it learns. Iâ''m not sure how well it works, or if it will ever get enough customers to make any sense at all. (After all, I doubt Amazon or iTunes are going to be willing to cede control of their recommendation engines.) But the visualization of this mathematical array, a virtual gizmo the company calls the MatchKey, is gorgeous.matchmine-matchkey72dpi.thumbnail.jpg

The sound of silence

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration at Demofall 07, being held this week in San Diego, came from one of the youngest entrepreneurs in attendance. Twenty-four-year-old Michael Callahan, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, attended the conference as part of a group of three young innovators identified by the Kauffman Foundation.

During panel discussion with these young entrepreneurs, a departure from the usual one-company-at-a-time-for-six-minutes Demo format, Callahan stood silently staring at his computer, wearing a sensor placed against his neck, and made the computer speak for him. The technology, which he calls Audeo, as reported in Spectrum's automation blog, requires the user to think about talking without moving his lips or using his breath, and translates the neurological signals into speech. Callahan, and his new company, Ambient, expect the first customers for this technology to be people with ALS or other disabilities that inhibit speech; that product will be out in about a year. Down the line, Callahan expects the Audeo technology to migrate into the consumer market and enable silent communication with computers and videogames.

While Callahan may be young to lead a start-up effort, heâ''s been heading down this road for a long time. Years ago he set a goal of starting a company before he turned 30, he reported. And the thought sensing aspect? Well, back in preschool, Callahan recalls, â''At nap time, I didnâ''t want to just lay there like a dead fish, I wanted to do things. So I asked my friend next to me, â''tell me if you can hear this.â''â'' Callahan tried talking to his friend in his head, and was pleased to find out that his friend could hear nothing, which meant he was free to think all he wanted without disturbing anyone.

And now he can talk to his computer without talking. Or typing.

Next for Callahan? Ultimately, he told the audience of entrepreneurs, press, and venture capitalists, he wants to develop a technology that can transfer human memory directly into a handheld device.

And no one blinked. Callahan is one innovator that this crowd, at least, will be watching.

Beyond search, sharing, and social networking

Search, sharing, and social networking. Demofall 07, a two-day new product showcase being held in San Diego, had plenty of products in each category, many blurring the categories, most adding a new twist. Attendi, for example, searches for experts instead of web pages, and connects you to volunteers willing to chat with you about your particular problem. Your Truman Showâ''s V-Linker maps video viewing and can plug a map onto Facebook pages, connecting video search and social networking. SceneCaster lets users design a 3-D scene, with real products in it, to organize online shopping or, again, stick into a Facebook page. None of these evolutionary applications really blew me away.

But Iâ''ve yet walked away from a day at the Demo conference without some new product to love. Today Iâ''ve got two; PiP from Vyro Games out of Dublin, Ireland, and FixMyMovie from Motion DSP out of San Mateo, Calif.

Pip, for Personal input Pod, is a biofeedback gizmo intended to help people relax. Sure, Iâ''ve seen attempts at consumer biofeedback devices for years, but this one gets it all right, for once, I can actually envision myself using it. I liked it so much that it could even be a reason to get my high-stress tween daughter a cell phone. But Iâ''m getting ahead of myself.

PiP is a wireless cellphone peripheral. It uses a Bluetooth connection to control software installed on the phone. Held between the thumb and forefinger, it tracks the electrical conductivity of the skin to determine changes in the userâ''s stress level. IMG_1492.JPGThe Vyro Games folks demonstrated a two-player dragon racing game (the more you relax, the faster the dragon moves, from a slow plod to speedy flight). Dragon racing made for a good short demo; but better for a real relaxation session is the storm application, in which the user tries to clear up a thunderstorm and replace it with sunny skies. The company announced but did not demonstrate a lie detector application.

I got a chance to play a quick round of dragon racing. It wasnâ''t easy to relax in the noisy demo hall, but I did briefly get my dragon airborne, and then got so excited with my success that it quickly landed. I lost my race.

Vyro expects to release PiP early next year; the company is hoping to attract business partners, like cell phone providers, to market the gizmo. Company representatives arenâ''t yet talking price.

Vyro Games onstage at Demofall

The demo by Motion DSP also rang the â''winnerâ'' bell for me. Motion DSP originally developed its â''FixMyMovieâ'' video enhancement technology for use in military intelligence (one of its backers is the CIAâ''s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel). FixMyMovie is aimed at a broader marketâ''consumers who take videos using cellphone cameras or digital still cameras, rather than higher resolution dedicated video cameras. FixMyMovie reduces noise, removes blocky artifacts caused by dropped data, and adjusts color and lighting, turning horrible quality videos into acceptable onesâ''not great, true, but certainly better and, for most applications, good enough.

The company envisions wireless carriers and videosharing sites offering FixMyMovie to their customers, but until then, anyone can use it at the companyâ''s website for free. (When I looked at the site, the company had prices listed for different services, like downloading a cleaned up version of a video or making high-quality still pictures from a video, but company representatives told me these are fictitious prices, and the whole thing runs for free, at least for now.)

Americans Getting Dumber about Nanotechnology

In a country where nearly one-third of young Americans (18-24) couldnâ''t locate Louisiana on a map and nearly half were unable to identify Mississippi, should we really be surprised that the US population seems to know less about nanotechnology this year than they did last.

According to a poll commissioned by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, only 6 percent of Americans -- or fewer than one in 16 -- say they have "heard a lot" about nanotechnology, as compared with 10 percent in 2006.

If you donâ''t find that information terribly enlightening, the announcement of this poll came with the further blatantly obvious insight: â''Individuals with less education and lower incomes are least likely to have heard about nanotechnology.â''

I suppose this is supposed to heighten our awareness of the knowledge gap in nanotechnology, but it merely indicates to me that people who donâ''t have much education are likely not to know much about a whole range of subjects, like where the country of Iraq is on a map (thatâ''s 60% in the US).

The â''fear factorâ'' of this report is that if something bad happens with nanotechnology (such as some â''falseâ'' alarm about safety or health), then there could be a dramatic and unwarranted backlash against nanotechnology.

Yes, well, ignorance is a dangerous thing. But when people donâ''t read newspapers, or even watch the news on the boob tube, do you really expect that you are going to educate the masses on the complexities of nanotechnology?

I can hear the clarion cry now, â''Yes, but we must try.â'' I am almost tempted to say that we may be better off making sure that no one knows about nanotechnology, lest we suffer through the tedium and expense of trying to educate people who are so resistant to learning anything.

But that is the elitist in me, the pragmatist in me says, maybe we should abandon the â''Think Tankâ'' approach with the accompanying endless stream of White Papers that only people already in the know read.

Letâ''s get those American kids where they really pay attention: Video Games.

Hereâ''s one for you . Itâ''s not Doom, but itâ''s not supposed to be pure entertainment, itâ''s education in nanotechnology that is entertaining.

So, enough laments from white towers on how ill informed Americans are on nanotechnology, letâ''s try to engage young Americans in the way that they want to be engaged.

Biometric sensor can't fall into the wrong hands

If youâ''re using your cell phone in Japan right now, thereâ''s a good chance that you have to swipe your finger over a thin gold bar like this in order to gain access.

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You might also use one of these sensors to log into your PC or in place of a key to open your front door. And if youâ''re doing that, youâ''re probably not going to bother with your wallet the next time you buy a cup of coffee, paying instead by briefly holding your cell phone to an RF reader. The early adopters of fingerprint authentication are Japan and S. Korea, but Florida-based AuthenTec is hoping to make the technology ubiquitous.

If this seems crazy to you, youâ''re not alone. A major concern about fingerprint biometrics is the possibility of faking or transferring fingerprints. Or worseâ''in movies and reality alike, the bad guy has been known to cut off someoneâ''s finger to get around the fingerprint security device.

But AuthenTecâ''s sensor aims to discourage the removal of fingers to gain secure access.

â''It only reads live skin,â'' AuthenTec representative Brent Dietz says. â''So you couldnâ''t cut off someoneâ''s finger and then use it.â'' Dietz says other technologies only look at the fingerâ''s surface, which can be adulterated by cuts, oily skin, or worn fingerprints. But this sensor (actually an RF scanner) looks at what Dietz calls the â''true fingerprintâ'' in the live skin deep beneath the surfaceâ''so deep that you can see individual pores. A lost or stolen phone becomes completely useless.

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And the sensors do more than just verify your identity: You might swipe your index finger to log into your PC, but your middle finger will open your e-mail application, and your ring finger will pull up a Word document. AuthenTec says the rate at which companies are adopting the technology is a "hockey-stick" growth curve. Where last year one in ten laptops shipped with fingerprint sensors (half of them AuthenTec), Dietz says this year is on track for a number closer to one in five.

I wouldnâ''t mind being able to use my phone in place of a Metro card. Dietz says thatâ''s exactly the kind of application short-range wireless/mobile payment was made for. Hereâ''s how it works: you swipe your finger over the sensor to turn your phone onâ''but that doesnâ''t allow you to buy anything. To make a purchase, you must graze your finger again, and then you have ten seconds to hold the phone to the short-range RF reader, which authenticates you and sends the transaction over a dedicated leased-line circuit. Even a fingerprint-unlocked phone would not allow transactions in the wrong hands.

But for implementation in the United States, a major stumbling block is the lack of a mobile payment infrastructure. In Japan, AuthenTec partners with DoCoMo, a partially government-subsidized cellular provider that serves about half of Japanâ''s mobile market and provides the wireless infrastructure for mobile commerce. Unfortunately, DoCoMoâ''s combined financial and wireless stake in biometrics technology has no analog in the US wireless market. Wireless carriers simply donâ''t have a real incentive to set up the infrastructure, as Spectrum reported last July.

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