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Behind the Scenes at the Nanosys Quantum Dot Factory in Silicon Valley

Next month, Samsung’s first Quantum Dot televisions begins shipping to consumers; Hisense plans to start rolling quantum dot televisions off its manufacturing lines mid-year, and other TV manufacturers, including TCL, Skyworth, ChangHong, Sharp, and LG also have unveiled quantum dot TVs that will likely come to market soon. Sony introduced a version of the technology in 2013.

Quantum dots, nanoscale semiconductor crystals, turn blue light into narrow-spectrum greens and reds. It’s these narrow wavelengths of light that allow quantum dots to make traditional LED screens produce the brighter and wider range of colors that make quantum dot televisions stand out. (More on how that works here.) But before quantum dots can create brilliant colors, someone has to make the quantum dots. A few companies are doing so, either using their own or licensed technology, including Nanoco, QD Vision, Quantum Materials, and Nanosys. Turns out one of those is doing its manufacturing here in Silicon Valley.

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March Madness at Stanford: Robots Shoot and Dunk

As college basketball teams around the country began playing their way down to the Final Four, Stanford engineering students had their own March Madness, complete with a cheering crowd and heated competition. This year, for Stanford’s annual battle-of-the-bots, a competition held since 1995 as part of a mechatronics class, went basketball-crazy, with the theme “scoring machines.”

Inspired by this year’s Golden State Warriors players Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the students set out to build robots capable of shooting balls into baskets as efficiently as those basketball stars.  (Thompson recently set an NBA record of 37 points in a quarter; Curry had a 50-point game.)

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Starbucks, Ikea Enter the Wireless Charging Fray

My local Starbucks recently swapped out some furniture for tables with built in wireless chargers. It’s one of 200 Starbucks cafes in the San Francisco Bay area and 10 in London to do so; the company plans to eventually install the technology in its stores throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

This month, Ikea announced a line of tables, lamps, and desks that double as wireless chargers, shipping in April.

So wireless charging, after years of CES demos involving charging mats and charging bowls and other not particular-appealing gadgets, is finally here, yes? Not exactly. Many battles over consumer electronics standards are quietly fought out in private conference rooms before the technology in question goes on the market, but that’s not what’s happening here.

Starbucks and Ikea have embraced two different and incompatible approaches to wireless charging.

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Apple’s Watch is the Next Big Geek Icebreaker

Remember when you first saw an iPhone? Unless you’re an Apple fanboy, it was probably not at an Apple store, but instead was during a business or social event. Someone pulled an iPhone out of his pocket to “check a message,” and quickly drew a crowd as he demonstrated a few fun features. And then we all tried swiping through his family photos—swipe was new then, and it was pretty amazing. And, for a while anyway, the guy with the iPhone was the most popular person in the room.

It’s been a while since tech has given the early adopter access to that kind of conversation starter. Yes, there was a time when fitness bands had a cool factor, before everyone had one, but you couldn’t easily demonstrate a fitness band, and talking about your step count just wasn’t that engaging.

But today Apple announced that on 24 April its latest crowd-magnet, the Apple Watch, will hit retail stores and the doorsteps of those who preorder the gadget. So this spring and summer, it’s going to be much easier to start a conversation in Silicon Valley, expediting the formation of partnerships of all kinds. In the same way you can predict a bump in the birth rate nine months after a major power outage, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bump in the birth of new companies and technologies after the introduction of this kind of geek magnet. It brings people together who otherwise might think they don’t have anything to talk about, and out of such synergies new ventures are often made.

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"Crabots" and Giant Transparent Tents Key to Google's Reconfigurable Campus

Apple is building a new corporate campus in the form of a spaceship straight out of science fiction. For its newest building, also under construction, Facebook puts a park on its Frank Gehry-designed roof. And now Google has unveiled plans for a unique expansion of its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters that would add 300,000 square meters of space.

And it is definitely different. Google plans transparent bubbles connected by walking and biking trails that wind between and through the structures. (Though, like Apple, it is taking the parking underground and bringing green pastures back to Silicon Valley. Of course, if the California drought continues, it may turn out that the only green pastures in Silicon Valley are contained in greenhouses.)

And, because Google isn’t exactly sure what businesses it will be involved in in the future, it is determined to make these workspaces extremely reconfigurable. Says Google vice president of Real Estate David Radcliffe, in a video released by the company last week, “In a traditional building, reconfiguring from office space to automotive to biotech would take months or years.”

Google plans to be able to change its plans far more quickly, with walls and floors intended to be “like Lincoln Logs,” so you “can pile them up and assemble them differently,” as Radcliffe puts it. Or like “giant pieces of furniture,” says Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who designed the new campus with English designer Thomas Heatherwick.

Of course, to move giant pieces of furniture you need a giant. Or something like a giant, say, an autonomous robotic construction crane. And that indeed is Google’s plan.

According to the San Jose Business Journal, which got an early look at the 225 pages of documents submitted to the Mountain View City Council, the floors would resemble oven racks and “Crabots”—or autonomous cranes—would stack walls and floors upon them.  Google hasn’t exactly invented the Crabot yet, but it will take a while to get the campus design through the planning process before breaking ground, so the company has time to figure it out.

Around the Crabots, says Radcliffe, the plan is to “dissolve the building into a supertransparent ultralight membrane…draping it over some tent poles.” That’s gives Google a bit of harmony with the tent-like structure nearby that is the Shoreline Amphitheater, and will give me, and future journalists, the opportunity to use the “circus” metaphor for Google’s activities whenever appropriate.

Google plans to demolish current roads and parking lots and replace them with green spaces, with the goal, says Heatherwick, of creating spaces you “would choose for a weekend to be” at. Google obviously made it clear to Heatherwick and Ingels that their design would need to advance Google’s general efforts (like onsite haircuts, oil changes, and dry cleaning) to keep its employees on campus 24/7, or as close to that as possible.

Facebook Comes Out on Top, Google Slips to Third, in Survey of Corporate Interns

Vince Vaughn took a camera crew onto the Google campus to film the 2013 comedy, The Internship, skewering both the clueless and the cutthroat and introducing film audiences to Google’s over-the-top perks, not all of which were fictional.

And indeed, back in 2013 Google was the best spot in the country to land an internship, according to recruitment website operator Glassdoor. One survey responded then noted, “Google treats interns better than fulltime employees.”

But in this year’s Glassdoor survey of corporate interns, released just in time for internship-hunting season, Google slipped to number three, behind Facebook and Chevron. Why?

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Is Apple “Poaching” or Just “Hiring” For Its Rumored Electric Car Project?

The rumors about Apple’s move into the electric car business have been rapidly proliferating. There’s enough smoke that there’s got to be some kind of fire at its source, though Apple has yet to confirm anything. If you’ve missed the buzz, the short version is that Apple has launched “Project Titan” and is planning to start production of an electric minivan, possibly self-driving, as early as 2020. The company reportedly has several hundred engineers working on its electric vehicle program, which may or may not be related to the blue minivans cruising around Silicon Valley.

While Apple has been able to keep many of the details of its project under wraps, it has had less success keeping its hiring activities quiet—after all, the vast majority of experienced engineers the company is bringing in are leaving a current—or future—competitor.

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The Oscar Goes to… Engineer Larry Hornbeck and His Digital Micromirrors

At some point during Sunday’s Oscars telecast, in between actresses in stunning ball gowns, actors trying to redefine the tux, movie clips, dance routines, and acceptance speeches cut off when they go on too long, there will be a nod to the technology that makes it all possible. An announcer will talk about the Academy’s Science and Technical Awards, presented earlier this month, then an Oscar-winning engineer will wave from the audience. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.

This year, that engineer will be Larry Hornbeck, who developed the digital micromirror device (DMD) used in Texas Instruments’ digital light processing (DLP) projectors. He gets the Academy of Motion Pictures Award of Merit (that’s the official name for what most of us call the Oscar) for the invention.

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A Snapshot of Software Engineering Salaries at Silicon Valley Startups

Software engineering salaries at Bay Area startups were up in 2014, for an average senior engineer with Java experience. The big job growth was in San Francisco. And while knowing C/C++  and Java gives you a little boost, it’s having experience working with Hadoop that really gives you an edge.

That’s all according to a recent analysis by recruitment firm Riviera Partners. Although the firm was using its own limited data set of 500 engineers who took jobs at venture-backed startups in 2014, Riviera believes its numbers are representative of the bigger picture. (The analysis did not include data on stock options or other equity grants that may have been made to hires.) Here are some of the numbers for senior engineers; lead engineers and managers make a little more, mid-level engineers a little less. The engineers in the study had an average of eight years of experience.

The language differential. For engineers who haven’t yet moved into management, according to the Riviera Partners’ study, C/C++ and Java developers pulled in an average of $143,000 annually, with Python developers slightly behind at $141,000. (Spectrum’s most recent ranking of popular programming languages puts Java on top.) For engineers with some experience in working with distributed-computing framework Hadoop, however, the average salary jumps to $150,000. These numbers are all up from 2013, when Riviera found that senior engineers specializing in Java averaged $135,000 and C/C++ $119,000; Hadoop experience wasn’t analyzed at that time.

The picture changes somewhat when engineers move into management. In 2014, managers of C/C++ teams had the edge, at $161,000, followed by Python at $159,000, Hadoop at $152,000, and Java at $151,000.

Where the jobs are.  San Francisco came out on top here, with 62 percent of new hires crowding into San Francisco’s 47 square miles. Twenty-nine percent landed on the Peninsula, generally defined as the area south of San Francisco extending as far south as Mountain View. And just nine percent ended up in the South Bay, an area that tends to be more of a hotspot for hardware folks rather than software specialists. (Silicon Valley author and historian Mike Malone recently said, “They code stuff up there, we build stuff down here.”)

School spirit. Where did these recent hires get their education? Not surprisingly, the biggest group came out of the University of California at Berkeley, which is well connected in the Bay Area tech network. (Many, of course, also came from Stanford, tied with UCLA and Cornell for the number three spot.) Number two—the University of Waterloo—came in as a surprise for me, but it shouldn’t have; Waterloo is reportedly the largest feeder school to Silicon Valley and I’ve met a number of Canadian entrepreneurs launching through local incubators, like YCombinator.  Interestingly, Waterloo wasn’t in the top five in the Riviera study last year, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in at number three and Tsinghua University at number four.

So the net-net if you want a job at a Silicon Valley startup? Go to Berkeley or the University of Waterloo, learn Hadoop, and find an apartment in San Francisco. That last to-do just might turn out to be the hardest to check off.

California’s No Drone Zones

Do property owners have control over their airspace? That’s the question on the table when the California legislature considers bill SB 142, which bans trespassing by drones.  The legislation would only cover drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters); above 400 feet, the airspace is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA is still working out its drone rules, but at this point the regulations require hobbyists to keep their drones below 400 feet.

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
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Tekla Perry
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