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Introducing the IEEE Spectrum Mobile Web Site

We're excited to announce a mobile version of the IEEE Spectrum Web site. If you navigate to spectrum.ieee.org from an iPhone, Blackberry, or Android phone, you'll be automatically redirected to our mobile site. (Automatic redirects for other phones will go into effect soon as well. To get a preview, you can visit m.spectrum.ieee.org directly.)

We do feel a little sheepish that we've ignored the small screens of mobile devices for so long, but we feel the new version is better late than never (especially now that we've named smartphones the #1 most important technology of the last decade).

The first thing you'll notice about the mobile homepage is that the content has been reorganized so that the latest news is right at the top. Below that, you'll see additional featured content, selected by the editors throughout the week. At the bottom of the homepage, you'll find direct links to all our blogs.

We were able to create this mobile site with the help of Mobify. Their unique service allows users to select certain blocks of HTML from the primary Web site and use them to build mobile-specific page templates. They also help shrink images to more manageable dimensions and file sizes. In addition to being easier to navigate, the new mobile site should be much quicker to load on bandwidth-limited phones.

Multimedia content can be a bit tricky to support on mobile devices. If your smartphone browser supports Flash, you should have no problems watching videos, listening to podcasts, or viewing slideshows. If your browser lacks Flash, but supports HTML5 <audio> and <video> elements (I'm looking at you, iPhone users), you should still be able to see everything, albeit with limited functionality. If your mobile browser can't do either, you won't be able to view videos or slideshow, but you can still listen to podcasts by clicking the "Download mp3" link.

We wanted to keep things basic with this initial version. You'll find that navigation by subject, commenting, and other features are not included in the mobile site. If you miss any of those, or other functions, you can always use the large  "Full Site" button to navigate back to the main site.

As we look to continually improve both versions of the site, your feedback is immensely helpful. Let us know how you're using the existing features, and let us know which missing features you'd most like to have. Leave a comment below (if you're at your computer) or email me directly at j.j.romero@ieee.org.

A New Steganography System Aims to Secure Digital Documents

We can thank a Russian spy ring for a new found interest in steganography, or the techniques for hiding important messages in seemingly innocuous files (often images). The US caught the Russians passing notes in pictures this past summer--and, as an earlier Tech Talk post explains, their relatively outdated system made them easy targets. Mitsuo Okada, a graduate student at the Kyoto University in Japan, demonstrated a new steganography system at the 2011 Consumer Communications and Networking Conference earlier this month. Okada doesn't claim that his prototype software is any match for the CIA, but he does note that you can use it on your iPhone.

Okada is more interested in using his steganography to secure documents rather than hide them. He wants to give electronic files the equivalent of watermarks on a paper check, which allow users to determine authenticity by simply holding the document up to a light.

The problem with most steganography techniques, says Okada, is that you need an extraction program to ferret out the secret. Former IEEE Spectrum editor Sally Adee explains one simple algorithm in her 2008 article Spy vs. Spy:

To embed a message in an innocuous image of a cat, for example, a commonly used steganography algorithm called LSB takes advantage of the way computers digitally encode color. The algorithm hides the fugitive file inside the so-called noncritical bits of color pixels. Noncritical bits are just what they sound like—the least important information in a pixel. A gray pixel in the cat’s uniformly gray fur, for example, is coded as a number that looks something like 00 10 01 00. By changing the least significant bits—the last two—you introduce one-millionth of a color change, an absurdly subtle alteration that no human eye could detect.

Okada notes that the casual user can't verify that the extraction program is legit and, what's worse, that program's existence leaves it vulnerable for reverse engineering.

His alternative starts with an original black-and-white image and a separate message. The embedding algorithm modifies the brightness of the original image to encode the message. If a pixel is white, it increases the brightness, and, if a pixel is black, it decreases the brightness--all by an amount according to the brightness of the message. 

To decode, all you need is a semi-transparent inverse of the original. Drag it on top of the encoded original, and you'll reveal the watermark.

In this case, it's a dog hidden in peppers!

Okada's team has created two test sites where you can try this for yourself (one for PCs and another for iPhones and iPads--it's currently not working for Macs). He has also cropped, compressed, and added noise to the picture to show the robustness of the system. 

For top secret messages it seems would-be steganographers have less-traceable options (as described IEEE Spectrum's February of 2010 article Vice over IP: The VoIP Steganography Threat). I do wonder how secure Okada's system is--or how easy it is for counterfeiters also to add the brightness-based watermark. If he could provide some guarantees to the system's security it definitely has its ease of use going for it--along with its inclusion of puppies.

Alternatives to Holograms for Real 3-D Displays

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, it was 3-D everywhere the eye could see--well, everywhere that two eyes could see. Many of the displays that we looked at use stereoscopic techniques, which present a different image to each eye to give the illusion of depth. Of course, when you only have one eye, or a standard video camera, the illusion vanishes; instead of bikini-clad beach-goers bursting out of the screen (a subject starring in an uncomfortable number of demonstration videos) your camera will capture only a blur.

But at least two companies at the show have created more camera-friendly 3-D displays. One reflects light from three glass plates and another uses lasers to create glowing plasma in air and water.

The Taiwanese company InnoVision presented their HoloAD display. The devices have slanted glass on three sides and an opaque straight backing on the fourth. A hood above these glass plates houses downward-facing 2-D displays. As viewers move 180 degrees around the device, they can see the overlapping images reflected on the glass. A manager at the company, who goes by the name Bear King, notes that the device is meant for advertising products, as the non-reflective side has a door to insert a real three-dimensional object. In one of his display models, an iPhone appears to project a 3-D globe. In another, a cartoon fish swims laps in a glass bowl.

SoongBae Dong in the research and development department at another, Japanese company, Burton Inc., says their product provides a "real" 3-D image--as the light viewers see is actually located in three dimensions. While some have imagined holographic displays that project light on mist or smoke, Burton's device, dubbed Aerial 3D, creates laser-induced plasma in precise locations in air or water to make an image. The display at the show used water as the medium, and created a pulsating blob, a rotating face, and a man walking. The product is not commercially available (and Dong has no estimates for a product's release) but the company's website hints that future applications could include a crossing signal for use over roads and a tsunami warning system. The images are currently monochromatic, but Dong says that multicolor displays are already in the works. One can only guess if plasma bikinis will follow. 

CES 2011: The Best Tablets

For months, we've known that this year's CES would be overrun with tablets from a myriad of manufacturers. Now that we've seen the collective industry response to the iPad, it's easier to see which companies are on the right track, and which are still struggling. Here is our take on the three iPad competitors to keep an eye on.

Motorola Xoom
Motorola was the first tablet-maker to cause a big stir at the show. Their Xoom was the first tablet announced that featured Google's Android 3.0 operating system. Android 3.0 (nicknamed "Honeycomb") is the first Android version that's been built specifically for the large screen size and more powerful processors of tablets. Google has insisted for months that the current 2.x versions of Android were never intended to make the leap from phone to tablet, but that didn't stop manufacturers from rolling out lots of Android 2.2 and Android 2.3 tablets anyway.

The Xoom looked and felt great in the hand, but it was hard to get a sense of the real software. While the demo units were actually running Android 3.0, all attendees got to see running were video demos of Android 3.0. Still, the tablet-optimized version seems worth the wait, with much better layouts, menu, and browser options.

Notion Ink Adam
After seeing the progress in Android 3.0, I think its a safe bet to avoid any Android tablet that isn't built on Honeycomb, with one exception: the Adam, by Notion Ink. Although we didn't get to try the Adam ourselves, its unique features still place it near the top of our list. To start with, the Indian startup company spent much of the past year working on the Eden UI. It's an interface layer that sits on top of Android 2.2, but completely changes the way applications are handled on a tablet. Eden breaks up the screen real estate into three vertical bands. Here, each application can run in a semi-interactive mode (think widgets, with more functionality) without using the resources required by the full app.

The Adam also has some unique hardware features. The Pixel Qi display gives users the ability to read outside, while sipping power and extending battery life. The Adam also has a unique rolled edge, which can be gripped in both portrait or landscape mode. And the camera is on a swivel, that allows it to face forward or backward. (This seems much simpler than having two different cameras, which almost every other tablet featured.)

Still, there are some reasons for concern. The Eden UI means that the Adam can't support stock Android apps or the app market. Notion Ink plans on launching its own app store, but the burden will be on them to make sure Adam users are getting ported version of the most popular apps. And Notion Ink is running out of time to actually ship a real product, with the current run of Adam's already sold out. How the rather untested startup can handle the demand is still an open question.

RIM PlayBook
Research in Motion was looking to make a statement with their new PlayBook tablet, and they largely succeeded. Multitasking on the PlayBook seemed to work great, and the user interface both looked good and felt responsive.

RIM has always marched to the beat of their own drum, and their tablet offering is no different. Rather than running Android or Windows (as almost every other tablet at CES did), the PlayBook runs an operating system developed by QNX. QNX made its name by building multi-threaded operating systems for embedded systems. Because of that background, the PlayBook really seems to take advantage of its dual-core processor.

But even though the PlayBook was a very impressive piece of hardware, RIM may be at a disadvantage when it comes to app ecosystem. Developers have flocked to both iOS and Android, but its unlikely that a third tablet OS can generate its own developer ecosystem. That will leave the burden to RIM to populate the PlayBook with competitive apps, all while they continue to support their BlackBerry 6 operating system on smartphones. RIM plans to eventually move their smartphones to the QNX OS as well, but Google and Apple won't be sitting still.

A Revolution At the Computer History Museum

On Thursday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., opens up what its president, John Hollar, calls “a technological wonderland” in the form of a new permanent exhibit, “Revolution: the first 2000 Years of Computing.” Since its inception in 1996, the museum has been, says Al Alcorn, cofounder of Atari and creator of the arcade game Pong, “kind of a private club, where old guys get together to reminisce.”

The museum was always open to the public, but in the past, says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, “you could come in this building and see a lot of incredible equipment—after reading the books and studying it on your own.”

But now, after a two-year, $19 million renovation, the private club feeling is gone, and the museum is understandable as well as accessible to the non-expert, to people who didn’t live through the past decades of computing history but want to know where all the gizmos in their lives today originated.

And indeed, the new design, with curving pathways that gently guide the visitor through 19 galleries, is a far cry from the Computer History Museum of the past that, in my recollection, was all hard edges and dead ends. Each of today’s 19 galleries traces a different aspect of computing chronologically—there’s calculating, starting with the abacus; analog computing; storage and memory; the silicon chip; robotics; graphics; and more.

Today, at a sneak preview for the media (the renovated museum opens to the public Thursday), many of the visits added a touch of living history; besides Alcorn and Wozniak, Don Knuth, author of the Art of Computer Programming, chatted about the history of software; Steve Russell played SpaceWar, the game he developed on the PDP-1 that’s widely considered to be the first computer game ever; and others tended their bits of computing history. (See them, and other scenes from the sneak preview, in the slide show below.)

The “Revolution” exhibit will open to the public Thursday, 13 January. Regular museum hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $15.00, children 12 and under are free.

Honeywell's RQ-16 T-hawk drone joins Florida police force.

The Miami-Dade police department has purchased a T-Hawk drone from the military contractor, Honeywell, and is now awaiting FAA approval to operate it in domestic airspaces.

WSVN news in Florida reported on the acquisition here last week, but seems to have used images of the wrong drone, a General Atomics creation called the Predator. The T-Hawk is a far less nefarious cousin of the Predator. It's a camera-equipped, unmanned aerial vehicle originally developed by Honeywell as a surveillance drone to be used in anti-terror campaigns. It weighs 17 pounds and can fly at an altitude of 10,000 feet for more than 40 minutes, according to Honeywell.

The T-Hawk has been used by the British Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan to scout out particularly threatening bits of terrain. But, if the FAA gives it the green light, its duties in Miami will likely be quite different—aiding SWAT teams and search and rescue operations.

Drones have proved to be a politically volatile issue in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the news that they will soon be used as a domestic surveillance tool is already drawing criticism. As with similar technological expansions, the concerns have to do with privacy and with how much money was spent.

With Denver Project NVIDIA and ARM Join CPU-GPU Integration Race

It’s all about the graphics.

At CES, Intel and AMD chatted up their efforts at integrating graphics functions into their CPUs. For AMD, this has been a long road that began with its purchase of leading GPU maker ATI. For Intel the first steps came with its Larabee project and seem to have come to fruition with Sandy Bridge.

Now think, who does that leave out? The other GPU maker, NVIDIA, that’s who.

But no longer. At CES NVIDIA announced that it plans to build high-performance hybrid of a CPU and GPU based on the smartphone sustaining, low-power loving ARM architecture. The CPU/GPU (codenamed Project Denver) will go into everything from PCs on up to supercomputers, says NVIDIA.

In an article in I wrote for the January 2011 issue, AMD’s Chuck Moore explained why graphics is the next step in CPUs:

What will keep computing marching forward, according to Moore, is the integration of CPUs and graphics processing units (GPUs) into what AMD calls an accelerated processing unit, or APU. Say you want to brighten an image: Just add 1 to the number representing the brightness of every pixel. It'd be a waste of time to funnel all those bits single file through a CPU core, or even 16 of them, but GPUs have dedicated hardware that can transform all that data practically at once.

It turns out that many modern workloads have just that kind of data-level parallelism. Basically, you want to do the same thing to a whole lot of data.

That key insight drove AMD to acquire a leading GPU maker, ATI Technologies, and start work on jamming their two products together. So a future processor, from AMD at least, would probably contain multiple CPU cores connected to several GPU elements that would step in whenever the work is of a type that would gum up a CPU core.

Besides keeping NVIDIA from feeling left out, the deal could be a good fit for ARM, too. Intel, with it’s x86 Atom platform, is encroaching (or trying to, anyway) on ARM’s smartphone and tablet turf. And its fighting back by going up the computing food chain, with some companies working on ARM-based servers. A tie-up with an established PC player like NVIDIA could help it gain some traction against Intel. (And AMD I suppose, but really Intel.) Microsoft says a next generation of Windows will work with ARM processors, by the way.

Wait, you say. Doesn’t IBM make CPUs too? Well, yes, and you could argue that they got in on this parallel/graphics stuff earlier than everybody, with the Cell processor. For that same article, I interviewed Jim Kahle, who led the design of Cell:

With Cell, the processor released in 2006 to power the PlayStation 3, IBM has already gone in that direction. Instead of actual GPU functions, it developed a more flexible core that specializes in executing the same instruction on several pieces of data at once. IBM, with help from Toshiba and Sony, stuck eight of the new cores on the same chip with a more traditional processor core. But that's not quite where Kahle, who led the Cell project, sees things going in the future. Instead he expects to see a mix of general-purpose cores and cores specialized for one task—encryption, decryption, video encoding, decompression, anything with a well-defined standard.

(Some interesting thoughts of Kahle’s got cut from the final article. He went on to say that, because today’s specialized task might be totally irrelevant a few years down the line, IBM is working on reconfigurable special-purpose cores.)

If you stop and think about what IBM does today, a direct integration of GPUs doesn’t make sense. IBM, for example, has 100 percent of game console market and zero percent of the PC market. Game consoles are probably always going to require stand-alone GPUs. (Even with Sandybridge, that’s the case: in December NVIDIA crowed about the 200 new products that will feature both Intel’s SandyBridge and it’s GeForce GPU.) So IBM, as they say, has no dog in this fight.

Even so. It should be a really interesting fight. Stay tuned.

CES 2011: From Surround Sound To Surround Smell

We expect to see movies and games in 3D and listen to them in surround sound. But will we soon expect to smell them as well?

Folks have tried to implement surround smell for decades. AromaRama, Smell-O-Vision, and Odorama, lie among the attempts that just never caught on.

A little company called Scent Sciences is taking another run at it. Its ScentScape is a USB peripheral for computers and game systems that emits odors on cue—be they the smells of spices to accompany a cooking video, pictured, or the smell of a forest or ocean as avatars move through a game environment.

The company is selling its peripheral for $20, with software that allows consumers to add scents to home movies. Truthfully, that’s not something I’m likely to do; transferring movie files to DVD is already enough of a chore. But, the company is not placing its bets on the home movie package; it hopes other manufacturers will incorporate its system into next generation game and other products.

CES 2011: There's 3D Printing... And Then There's 3D Printing

Two companies at the 2011 CES are featuring 3D printing, but they are most definitely not talking about the same thing. I first spotted MakerBot’s 3D printers—they build objects from plastic according to instructions you send them from your computer via a USB cable or store on a memory card. At $1225 each, they are vastly cheaper than the hundred-thousand-dollar commercial 3D printers that have been available for several years; the only catch—you have to build the printers yourself, your $1225 just gets you a kit, you have to put the circuit boards and motors together yourself.

I hadn’t walked very far before I saw another sign advertising 3D printing; did MakerBot have competition? Not exactly. Instead, Kodak is including 3D printing software with its new printers. Take a picture with a regular camera, shift a little bit to the side and shoot again, and it prints out as a 3D image; a modern twist on the stereopticon.

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

CES 2011: Duel of the Color E-reader Displays

Post updated January 8, 2011

E-readers with E-ink screens (like the Kindle) require less power and look better in the sun than their backlit LCD counterparts. But they’re missing one important thing—color (OK, they're also missing video playback speeds, too). Back in March, we did an in-depth examination of new, sunlight-readable display technologies. And at this year’s CES, we got to see and compare two of the alternatives with our own eyes. Qualcomm showed off their latest Mirasol color display, while Hanvon showed off the first e-reader with color E-ink.

The display on Hanvon's reader was about the size of A4 paper. It works basically the same as the black and white E-ink screens, with electrophoretic pixels that reflect and absorb ambient light. These pixels display color after a voltage applied to tiny capsules moves charged pigments.

Hanvon made news in November of last year when it announced that it would be first to market a color version of this technology. But at the show, the device seemed painfully slow: It took 2 or 3 seconds to refresh each page. In addition, the color was far from vivid. It was more like hints of color that worked better for the comics on the demo unit than they would for photographs.

Qualcomm's Mirasol display, on the other hand, looked generally great. We were impressed with Mirasol at last year's CES, but this year the prototype unit was out on its own, without any special lighting or display. (If anything, the booth lighting was a harsher lighting environment than most people would choose to read in). Although there was no announcement of a commercial device yet, continual leaks from PocketBook make it appear likely that a reader will be announced soon.

In addition to displaying color magazine and book images, this prototype unit was also running at 30 frames per second, allowing smooth video playback. Mirasol is based on interferometric modulation technology. It uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to reflect specific colors of light (a bit like the wings of a butterfly--Mirasol's logo). The company claims that an image can remain on the screen with near zero power consumption. 

When it comes to novel display technologies, the big question is always manufacturing. Qualcomm recently announced a billion-dollar new display fabrication plant in Longtan Science Park in Taoyuan, Taiwan has started making the displays for uses in devices. Again, the first might be a line of Pocketbook e-readers, if we believe the rumors spreading around the show, but both Pocketbook and Qualcomm are keeping mum.

Posted by Joshua Romero and Joseph Calamia

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

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