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Early Videogame Buzz at E3

The first (official) day of E3 videogame convention started today, and already there are clear standouts:3D and motion-gaming, as I anticipated. Here’s my initial take: 

Kinect

Formerly known as Project Natal, Microsoft’s controller-free, voice-command, motion-sensing cam captured much of the buzz after the big press conference yesterday.Is it cool?Yeah – though not entirely for the reasons you expect. Hardcore gamers have been (loudly) grumbling about whether a wave-your-hands-to-move interface will have any relevance for them. Maybe it won’t. I’d still rather play shooters like Halo Reach with the precision of an old-fashioned controller. But hardcore gamers aren’t the sell here. Instead, look for casual gamers to flock to this device. And there are three games here that are reason alone to buy the Xbox 360 add-on. First, Kinectimals. This kid’s virtual pet game is in the vein of Nintendogs. The demo shows a girl playing with a cuddly tiger who jumps when she jumps, purrs when she tickles it, and whimpers when she hides off camera – a must-have for girls under 12. The next Kinect hit, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.This is clearly Microsoft’s Wii Fit killer for cardio and yoga enthusiasts. The game measures you instantly down to your waist size and arm length, tailoring workouts accord to your progress. But the biggest smash – Dance Central, a dance game from Harmonix, creators of Guitar and Rock Band. Dance games like Dance Dance Revolution have a long history of success, particularly in Japan, and Dance Central has all the makings of a global phenomenon. Instead of dancing on pads, you move freely in the game, mimicking the moves of dancers on screen. Score! But my personal favorite Kinect innovation – making my TV viewing remote control increasingly obsolete. In addition to playing games, Kinect lets you choose, view, and manage your videos and films without looking for the clicker. That means all the streaming Netflix and Zune content to the Xbox 360 can be navigated just by flicking your hand or voicing commands. And with ESPN striking an (awesome) deal to bring 3500 on-demand live sport events to the Xbox 360, it means no more rifling for the remote under your couch cushions.

Nintendo 3DS

Yes, it looks like real 3D. I got an early look at the new Nintendo 3DS handheld game unit, the 3DS, and the glasses-free 3D actually works. It’s not quite as in-your-face as, say, watching Avatar, but it definitely pops out at you. Nintendo is touting the beefed-up graphics processor and the two screens of the unit, which enable them to pull off this spectacle-free spectacle. I’m impressed.

Sony Playstation 3D

Because Sony has end-to-end 3D technology, from the game systems to the 3D TVs, the company rightly put its muscle behind this innovation. The demo of this first person action game, Killzone 3, looked incredible – from the waves splashing up against the arctic bergs, to the blood dripping down the contours of your goggles. It almost made me upset that I didn’t buy my 3D TV yet after all. Of course, a lot of people will make noises about how few consumers have 3D yet, but all in due time. Killzone 3 proves that some games – particularly first person shooters – will look waaaaaay better in 3D, since this genre of games has always been aping 3D since its inception. Doom 4 in 3D please.

How Much Water Did It Take To Make Your Cellular Phone?

IEEE Spectrum’s June special report on the water-energy nexus reminds us of how little we know about how much clean water is required to enjoy the comforts of the modern age. Take for instance the electronics we use every day. Just how thirsty is the chip making industry? Extrapolating from recent reports that a new ultrapure water system that GE is designing and building for a Global Foundries semiconductor fab under construction in upstate New York will need to filter millions of liters of water a day, the answer is: very thirsty.

Why? Chip making processes require each wafer to be rinsed more than 30 times. And while the reports made no mention of how much of the facility's wastewater will be recycled, Intel boasts of having received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards for reclaiming 25 percent of its wastewater.

Major Chip Makers Expand Production in the West

A couple of major chip makers seem to be bucking the trend that has seen most of the world’s manufacturing firms scramble to set up shop in places where there are leagues of technically skilled people willing to accept a fraction of the prevailing wages in the United States and Western Europe. Globalfoundries, which was already in the process of building a chip fabrication facility in upstate New York, recently announced that it will tack on an additional 27 800 square meters of clean room space. The move, which will allow the fab to turn out 60 000 22-nanometer wafers per month when it is completed in 2012, will mean dozens of new jobs in the area. The company also announced an expansion of its Dresden, Germany, facility where it will eventually make 28 nm wafers. The output there is slated to reach 80 000 units a month.

Meanwhile, Samsung is readying a new production line at its Austin, Texas, semiconductor manufacturing facility that will create 500 new jobs. The addition, which will be the site of 45-nm LSI logic chip wafer production, is expected to come on line in 2011.

These moves come after Intel’s 2009 announcement that it will spend US $7 billion to upgrade its Oregon, Arizona, and New Mexico factories so they can do 32-nm production. Intel says the investment will create or save about 7000 U.S. jobs.

The Videogame Circus Begins

Last night in Los Angeles, Microsoft herded journalists into a big room, dressed them in weird ponchos, and set loose a troupe of Cirque du Soleil dancers overhead.  

Oh yeah, and it all had something to do with videogames.

The occasion was the kick-off of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo - the bachannalian convention better known as E3.  Microsoft wasted no time hyping The Motion Capture Camera Formerly Known as Project Natal, now christened Kinect.  If you've been reading this blog, then you know that Kinect isn't new - I was one of the journalists who got a hands-on preview of it at last year's E3.   But now it's going wide - expected to hit the Xbox 360 in November.  There was little in the way of games shown last night, but I'll be at Microsoft's press conference today to hear/see more.

Despite the fact that no new videogame consoles are hitting this year, the convention promises to be heavy on hardware hype.  The Kinect camera will be getting much of the buzz, along with Nintendo's new 3D handheld system, the 3DS and, in third place, Sony's after-the-fact motion sensing Move controllers.  Yes, this means a host of new kinds of game experiences on the horizon - but the horizon may be further off than it seems.  A true golden age in gaming - like the one first coined in the 80s - really has nothing to do with technology.  It's about iconic and addictive games that don't necessarily look or feel that impressive at all (see Pong, C64, etc.). 

The last "revolution" in gameplay came with the Nintendo Wii, and some of the most unlikely and ubiquitous titles for that game were not even a faint dream at launch (Wii Fit, for example).  I suspect it'll be several months before we really see games that deliver on the HUGE hype behind Kinect and company.  

Cheap, wireless, automatic backyard sprinkler control

Maybe it’s just because as the editors of IEEE Spectrum have lately been paying a lot of attention to the problem of water conservation, and the coming clash between water and energy, but right now any easy, inexpensive way to cut back on water usage seems like a good idea to me.

And Digital Sun, a startup company based in San Jose, Calif., purports to have such an idea (I have yet to try it for myself). They presented their product, at Launch: Silicon Valley, an annual conference sponsored by the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, held Tuesday, June 8, in Mountain View, Calif.

Digital Sun has developed a system that includes sensor that goes into a hole you cut in the dirt with a wireless receiver that you attach to your existing sprinkler control box. The sensor uses a proprietary wireless communications protocol over a very low power 2.4 GHz signal, sent through the dirt, to override the sprinkler timer if it’s due to start watering cycle already damp ground. Digital Sun CEO Dale Hitt explained the technology to me, in the video below.

Right now, the basic package—one sensor, the receiver, and a tool that cuts a hole in the ground for the sensor—retails for $200. The company attended the Launch conference in hopes of attracting enough venture investment to move their manufacturing offshore, which would enable them to cut their price below $100 and get into Home Depot and other low-cost retailers.

I think they’re on the right track. In fact, I might suggest their product to a few neighbors, whose sprinklers seem set to “create swamp” rather than “water lawn.” Just a thought.

Competition for E-Ink?

The e-reader market took the company E-Ink and its low-power, easy-on-the-eyes digital paper technology mainstream. But no one says E-Ink is perfect; the displays, to date, don’t do flexibility or full color well. And they aren’t cheap enough to move into budget-conscious applications, like the long-dreamed of grocery store shelf tags that could be updated remotely to display new prices.

E-Ink and its brethren continue to advance down their technology development paths. But a startup company based in Saratoga, Calif., says they’re heading in the wrong direction.

The folks at Zikon have figured out a way to make electronic ink out of nanoparticles that don’t need to be packaged in microcapsules to work. Encapsulation, they say, is one of the big reasons today’s electronic ink-based displays are expensive to produce. And Zikon’s unencapsulated particles are so tiny that instead needing a liquid medium in which to float, they can move around in a porous material, kind of like, well, paper.

That means that E-ink can create a high contrast display by using a white background. And that the manufacturing process is similar to printing, a cheap and well-established method.

Zikon says this new form of electronic display may have applications beyond shelf labeling and flexible reading materials, like color-changing fake fingernails. Really. Zikon’s CEO Mateusz Bryning tells me about the technology—and the fingernail application, in the video below, recorded at Launch: Silicon Valley, an annual conference sponsored by the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, held Tuesday, June 8, in Mountain View, Calif. Zikon was one of about two dozen companies selected from 400 applications to present its ideas to the venture capital community at the conference.

Bursts of Low-intensity Ultrasound Make Neurons Fire.

Neuroscientists are well accustomed to making neurons fire artificially by shocking them and doping them. Indeed it's the backbone of most neurological therapies. Now, it seems, we can do it with just sound.

Bioengineers at Arizona State University published an article in Neuron today (it's free online) in which they demonstrate the ability to stimulate neuronal action potentials (electrical impulses) by applying bursts of low-intensity ultrasound to the mouse brain. Other people have shown that this is possible to do in brain tissue, but the Arizona lab claims to be the first to make it work through the skull in a live animal.

If such a technique is to become therapeutically viable it will have fierce competition from another stimulation strategy that excites neurons through the skull with either direct current or electromagnetic induction (called tDCS and rTMS respectively). These two approaches have spawned a veritable deluge of research, raising hopes of alleviating migraine pain, depression, and attention deficit disorder, to name just a few. Despite a lot of encouraging results, rTMS and tDCS have pretty terrible spatial resolution and this is precisely where ultrasonic stimulation may be able to compete and contribute.

In the experiments published today, the researchers looked at spatial resolution in two different ways. First they stimulated areas of the brain that control movement and found that they could isolate specific muscles. Point pulses of ultrasound at one part of the motor cortex and the paw twitches, move it slightly and the tail jerks. This alone is more precision than has been shown with electrical stimulation. (There's a link to a movie for those who can stomach research on restrained mice).

But the group went further and analyzed the biochemistry of the brains to see exactly what parts of the tissue had been stimulated. Their results suggest that ultrasound can be used at a resolution that is about 5 times better than rTMS. They also estimate that they could successfully use 0.5 MHz of ultrasound to stimulate brain regions that are 1 millimeter wide and less.

However, it's not as clean as all that. The sound waves seem to reflect in some instances and can stimulate the tissue unpredictably.

As of yet, there is no solid hypothesis to explain how the ultrasonic waves cause neurons to fire. The most convincing theory is that it produces enough mechanical stress on ion channels to open them. Normally these channels remain gated until the electrical potential across the neuron's membrane changes enough to fling them suddenly open and initiate the cascade effect we call an action potential.

Whatever the mechanism, the side effects on the cell seem to be minimal. Basic tests for cellular death showed no increases after applying the ultrasound.

Organic LEDs Head to the Race Track

One car in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in France, will be sporting a new kind of sponsor logo: one lit up by flexible organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that are integrated directly into the carbon fiber body of the car’s rear view mirrors.

It will be the first real-life application of a flexible OLED device, according to engineers at the Holst Center, an R&D organization in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, which created the light for the French racing team Oreca.

Today’s commercial OLED products, which are still expensive and few and far between, use inflexible glass to protect the organic elements.

But this weekend's race should provide an ideal testbed for flexible OLEDs, because of the extreme conditions of the race, says Ton van Mol, who heads up OLED research at Holst. Not only does the car have to go fast, he says, but it also has to last for 24 hours. OLEDs have gained popularity in research circles as lower power alternatives to other lighting and display sources like LCDs—the race car’s OLEDs run on just 6 to 8 volts—and because they can be made into thin, flexible sheets, which makes them ideal for area lighting, or even a “flat lamp” to carry around in a purse. Ideally, they could eventually be printed using a roll-to-roll process, like newspapers, which would make production relatively cheap.

But because they’re organic, OLEDs are very sensitive to water and oxygen (i.e. air), and they degrade fast. So they need excellent barrier layers built in to protect the organic layers from the outside world—layers that need to work a million times better than the aluminum barrier in potato chip bags, van Mol says. That makes them very, very expensive.

While glass is easy to use and works well as the barrier—hence its use in products like OLED TVs and a few new Samsung smartphone displays—it misses the point, because it’s not flexible. So Holst researchers are working to perfect flexible, multilayer barriers in their OLED stacks to keep them well protected.

Integrating OLEDs straight into the French team’s car (rather than sticking them on to the surface) is made possible by Holst’s collaborator in the project, Switzerland-based Huntsman Advanced Materials, which figured out the encapsulation technology using composite materials from its Araldite brand. The OLEDs on each mirror will actually read “Araldite.”

And, says van Mol, because the race is 24 hours, meaning half of it is in the dark, the Oreca car will be the only one that can show off its sponsor logos throughout the whole race.

That is, of course, “if it lights,” van Mol says. (He's not actually worried on that account.)

There’s still much work to be done on perfecting the barrier layers, in addition to other challenges like increasing OLED efficiency and lifetime, and reducing costs. But in the meantime, it’s off to the races for Holst’s OLED lights. Hope they shine bright.

Note: Costs of press visit to Imec research centers in Leuven, Belgium, and Eindhoven, The Netherlands, were covered by Imec.

Imec gets a bigger fab, kicks off lab expansion project

European nanoelectronics research center Imec is growing up.

Yesterday, the Leuven, Belgium-based center officially opened an extension of its cleanroom, which gives it an extra 1200 square meters of "ultraclean" space for state-of-the-art chip fabrication.

The added area is also vibration controlled, in preparation for receiving the latest extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUVL) tool—ASML's pre-production NXE:3100 scanner—by the end of 2010.

Yesterday also kicked off the construction of additional lab spaces for Imec’s research on silicon and organic solar cells, and for projects on cutting edge biomedical electronics.

And later this year, the company will start building a new, 16-story office building designed by Austrian architecture firm Baumschlager-Eberle. It will house 450 people, an auditorium, and smaller labs.

Rising above the trees at the entrance to the city of Leuven from the Brussels road, the new Imec tower (artist rendering above) will serve as an "icon" of the tech center, Leuven’s mayor, Louis Tobback, told local dignitaries and Imec partners at yesterday’s ceremony. It will be a symbol of the "self-confidence" of the region, and of course, he added, it will also demonstrate who is mayor.

From the press release:

With these extra 18,000m2 cleanroom, lab and office space, imec will have a research campus of 80,000m2 that can stand the comparison with any other high-tech research center worldwide. As such, imec aims at playing an important role in the growth of the Flemish high-tech economy.

Vice minister president (second in charge) of the Flemish government, Ingrid Lieten, was on hand to cut the ribbons at the cleanroom’s opening, along with Imec president and CEO Luc Van den hove, Mayor Tobback, and Intel Labs Europe director Martin Curley, among others (photo at top).

The expansion announcements opened Imec’s two-day Technology Forum, held in Antwerp, Belgium.

Below, Van den hove, Lieten, and Tobback at the fab. 

 

The already-hard-at-work part of the fab is shown above.

Note: Costs of press visit to Imec research centers in Leuven, Belgium, and Eindhoven, The Netherlands, were covered by Imec.

Germany Embraces 4G

Germany has taken a first big step toward next-generation wireless Internet by becoming the first country in Europe to auction off a sizeable chunk of spectrum to deliver the new high-speed services.

Now users in Europe’s largest mobile communications market will have to wait and see if the operators deliver the goods with 4G (fourth-generation) services, such as LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and WiMAX. Operators’ track record with the much hyped third-generation UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service) isn’t anything to brag about. The rollout has been slow and coverage is still patchy. As for the “broadband” speeds and “killer applications,” well, we’re still waiting for them.

The mobile communications spectrum auction in Germany, which ended with little fanfare last week, raised nearly €4.4 billion ($5.4 billion). While the German government can be happy over every additional euro it receives, the total falls far short of the €50 billion generated in the UMTS auction held at the height of the Internet bubble in 2000. Even experts expected more. The accounting firm KMPG, for instance, estimated that the auction would pull in €6 billion to €8 billion.

A big reason for the lower spectrum prices was competition or better a lack thereof. Only the four existing operators participated in the auction. Unlike the 3G auction, this one had no newcomers craving spectrum – the life line of mobile operators – to drive up bidding.  Operators in the 4G auction behaved like gentlemen: They bid but they didn’t go on a binge.

The German government auctioned a total 358.8 MHz of paired and unpaired spectrum in the 800 MHz, 1.2 GHz, 2 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands. In all, it sold a total 41 blocks to Germany’s for existing operators: Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica’s O2 and Royal KPN’s E-Plus. The first three of these operators gobbled up the 800 MHz frequencies, the so-called “Digital Dividend” bands, which had been used for analog TV. The lower frequencies are coveted by operators for two big reasons: wider geographic coverage and better in-building penetration. Both of those benefits convert directly into cost savings – fewer base stations to cover larger cells and no need for picocells and other systems to amplify signals indoors.

E-Plus acquired additional spectrum to increase capacity in urban areas. It’s not clear what 4G strategy the operator is pursuing, if at all. The 2 MHz spectrum it acquired points to a possible WiMAX deployment. The spectrum license are “technology neutral,” meaning that operators can pick their technology. But selecting a 4G technology may not be the issue: Rumors are afloat that E-Plus may be put on the block and that Telefonica could be interested.

By comparison, the plans of the other three are pretty clear: they’re headed down the LTE path. All three see broadband mobile Internet as crucial to sustainable growth.

But the German government, after learning a lesson from the slow and patchy rollout of 3G services, has thrown owners of the new spectrum a bit of a curve ball. They have to deploy wireless networks in step-by-step phases. In the first phase, the must build networks covering 90 percent of the population in villages under 5,000. The second phase requires similar coverage in villages from 5,000 to 20,000 and the third phase from 20,000 to 50,000. Only after they’ve gotten their feet dirty out in the sticks can they move into the more lucrative large urban areas.

The German government is serious about increasing broadband connectivity in rural areas over the next couple of years. And this policy is clearly one way to achieve this.

It will be interesting to observe over the coming weeks and months how operators plan to tackle this rollout – how they plan to blend LTE into their existing UMTS and HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) networks and how much infrastructure sharing will occur among them.

One thing is for sure: Demand for high-speed mobile Internet services is growing, thanks in no small part to the iPhone; the devices have made using these services easy and fun – both sorely missing in UMTS. But as the iPhone has also clearly shown, particularly in the United States, it’s one thing to create demand; it’s another to satisfy.

That’s where operators see their core need for LTE. They don’t need any one or any more killer applications. Rather, they require greater capacity, which they have now received, and technology, LTE, that makes optimum use of precious limited spectrum.

I was among the first users of GSM, UMTS and HSPA in Germany. I loved the first, could have passed on the second and am definitely happier with the third. But I must confess, I’m really looking forward to the fourth.

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