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Illinois Engineers Discuss Damage in Haiti

The earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital and largest city, Port au Prince, on Tuesday revealed a not altogether surprising fact: buildings weren’t designed to any code, electrical infrastructure was mostly nonexistent, and the challenge now—after the aftermath—will be to rebuild the right way.

“These are just ‘a roof over your head’ kind of houses,” says Krishna Pagilla, associate professor in the Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering department at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). “They would never pass any kind of code.”

Krishna has traveled to Haiti with students through IIT’s Haiti Outreach and Engineers without Borders chapters, which are working on sustainable water and electricity engineering projects in and around the central plateau town of Pignon, about 95 km (60 miles) from Port au Prince.

According to Krishna, the country doesn’t have the materials, building codes, or workmanship necessary to have protected its infrastructure from earthquake damage. Even electrical wiring, where it exists, wouldn’t have been done to any standard, he says.

The major problem with Port au Prince’s concrete buildings was the lack of steel reinforcement, or rebar. A block of concrete is strong, says Krishna, but not flexible. Once the earthquake’s strength—particularly its horizontal forces, like waves on water—overcomes the concrete’s strength, the building crumbles.

Rebar, on the other hand, allows a structure to bend or sway, giving it flexibility in addition to strength, and the ability to withstand those horizontal forces—at least for a little while. When the building does finally start to crack, the rebar holds it together long enough to slow the process, giving people inside a chance to get out.

The school Pagilla’s students designed and built in Pignon in 2007 and 2008, using reinforced concrete, is still standing, though the group hasn't been able to confirm for comparison whether other buildings in the town were damaged.

But from photos of the devastation in Port au Prince, Pagilla can tell that no such reinforcement was built into its structures.

Pagilla adds that many parts of Port au Prince didn’t have electricity even before the earthquake. Afterwards, well, with damage of this magnitude, “nothing flows through wires, pipes, or roads.”

Could it have been avoided? Only with proper building codes and enforcement. But “there is so much to do in Haiti, they have so little,” Pagilla told CBS in a TV interview. It’s clear that infrastructure just wasn’t the priority. “I think it’s like a bad break to the people who have the least,” he said in the interview. “They will probably have to rebuild the city from scratch,” he told IEEE Spectrum.

Adam Nizich, a recent IIT graduate who traveled to Haiti last summer to help install solar panels at the Pignon school, hopes that they’ll rebuild the capital correctly. “It would be a big step just to get building codes, and enforce them,” he says.

Pagilla says that IIT will be more engaged than ever in Haiti now. His group believes in a model of aid where the community has a vested interest in the project, versus just getting a handout. So while the students are currently focusing on raising money for relief, they know the longer-term challenge will be continued engineering development.

Three IEEE members are currently located in Port au Prince. We hope they and their families are safe.

Learn more about IIT projects in Haiti.

Why Plastic Logic's QUE E-Reader Was the Most Impressive Device at CES

It felt like there were two technologies that loomed over the Consumer Electronics show this year: 3-D televisions and content, and e-readers. As I discussed in this week's podcast, a lot of the e-readers on the show floor seemed to be copycat devices. They looked a lot like the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, with a small tweak thrown in here or there. It's hard to get excited about a product that has the same features with a different brand name.

But after I got my hands on Plastic Logic's QUE, I instantly saw what all the hype was about. The reader is thin and slick, worlds away from the beige boxiness of the Kindle. And rather than sporting chintzy little keys and buttons, the entire surface of the QUE is a capacitive touch screen that seemed more responsive than any other I tried. Additionally, the software and graphics were top notch. Although it's priced way higher than bargain e-readers ($649 for the basic Wi-Fi model and $799 for a 3-G wireless model when they're available in April), I'm willing to bet there will be plenty of potential buyers. Plastic Logic has tailored the QUE to mobile professionals, which makes sense, because they're the ones who can actually afford it.

To get a feel for the QUE's features and see it in action for yourself, check out the video below.

What sets the QUE apart is right in the company's name: plastic. While the QUE uses the same E-Ink frontplane as most e-readers, Plastic Logic replaces the traditional glass backplane with one of thin, flexible plastic. When the company first started working on the device, they wanted to exploit the advantages of plastic by designing for a bendable screen. They even spent considerable R&D time figuring out how to house all the rigid components in a binding along the side. But when users got their hands on prototypes, they hated the flexibility- it was difficult to hold a floppy screen with one hand, and tricky to write on. 

So Plastic Logic redesigned the reader to have a traditional tablet form-factor. The flexibility of the plastic still comes in handy, though; it allows the reader to be durable and super-thin at the same time. When I first picked up the QUE, it was so light that I worried about breaking it. This was unfounded. Plastic Logic claims it should survive normal drops and bumps as well as a typical cell phone. (When Spectrum toured the fabrication facility last year, one of Plastic Logic's vice president demonstrated that the screen could even take a punch.)

So far, it looks like Plastic Logic's unique technology (combined with an Apple-esque sense of design and usability) has placed it far ahead of the pack. I wouldn't be surprised if at next year's CES, the QUE becomes the new standard that other manufacturers try to rip-off.

(For the record, I shouldn't be so surprised that the QUE is so great. Back in 2007, Spectrum readers voted that Plastic Logic had a winning technology by a margin of 15-1. To pick winners and losers this year, check out our annual "You Tell Us.")

CES 2010: Technology for Folks Over 50

They called it the Silvers Summit, the day of panels at CES designed to talk about technology from the perspective of the over-50 generation. But the heads in the room weren’t all that silver. These folks are already using technology (of the hair-care kind) to fight the signs of aging, and expect to continue to use technology (of the high-tech kind) to keep fighting.

Yes, I’m a baby boomer, so these are my peeps. (Though I never thought I’d be in a room where discussion about the new 3-D TVs was followed by a Viagra joke.) Like the rest of the folks in the room, I have to grab for reading glasses to send a text message. And I don’t like it. I’m also trying to help older relatives adapt to the new technology, from digital television to the Internet, and can use any help in that struggle that I can get.

The message from panelists at the Silvers Summit to the creators of consumer electronics: Don’t design us out! Abilities fade—eyesight, hearing, manual dexterity, memory (this was getting really depressing)—but we expect to keep using technology and it’s going to tick us off if you make it hard for us to do so, so much so we actually might stop buying it.

Gary Kaye, a journalist with the Fox Business Network kicked off a discussion on gadget design with a rant about the new Google phone and it’s failure to include an easy text zoom comparable to that on the iPhone. “I’m not happy,” he said. “It’s a great piece of technology and they excluded me.”

On his list of new technology that doesn’t exclude the silvers market is the Sanyo hybrid bike, which charges with regenerative breaking then gives riders a boost up hills; a remote from TV Ears with simple buttons that turns the TV off should you fall asleep in front of it; and the Intel reader, which you use to take a photograph of print and then either blow up the text or have it read to you.

Other panelists pointed out the MyGait Go Computer, a simple device with a large-letter keyboard designed for easy web browsing and email, and the Sound Design SD-400, a Bluetooth headset that can act as a hearing aid when your cell phone is off.

But given the speed at which the post-50 market is growing, it was surprising how little technology is out there (beyond the “I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up” kind of alert devices).

Said George Dennis, CEO of TV Ears, “We’re getting older, but we’re not going down easy.”

“What’s more important,” he continued, as he urged manufacturers to pay attention to this market. “To let an 85-year-old in a nursing home hear the TV [that may be her only entertainment] or let a 35-year-old stockbroker watch Ironman in 3-D?”

Photo: MyGait Go Computer

CES 2010: Chumby's Sucessor, the Sony Dash

Remember Chumby? It was one of the oddest looking consumer products introduced in 2008. Squishy, the color of mud; it offered something that was then called widgets (we’re now starting to call them apps) and displayed, for starters, the time, the weather, your friends’ Facebook status, the pandas at the San Diego Zoo (live), the view from the bridge of your favorite cruise ship, and, if you were feeling restless, bubble wrap to pop. You either loved it or hated it. I loved it. My husband hated it. So, these days, Chumby sits on my nightstand. It serves as my alarm clock and, when my kids wake up, they rush over and tap it for a weather check. I also use it to monitor the weather in Evanston, Ill., where my oldest attends college, so if the weather is going to be really nasty I can text a reminder to wear an extra layer.

Fast forward to CES 2010, held last week in Las Vegas. Sony introduced a very cool gadget, the $199 Dash Personal Internet Viewer, that does things like tell you the time, the weather, and your friends’ Facebook status. It was so well received that it was one of the ten contenders in Last Gadget Standing, a gadget face-off (won this year by the Boxee Box, a device that feeds Internet content to a television). While on the outside, the Dash doesn’t look anything like a Chumby—it’s black and hard-edged and very high tech with a nice big display—it is indeed “powered by Chumby;” Chumby has grown up.

I wonder if my husband would want one?

Top left: Sony Dash. Right: Chumby.

CES 2010: Fiat's Telematic System Has Apps

Last spring my colleague Dave Schneider hacked up a fuel-economy gauge that would work for just about any car, including his ancient and underpowered 1997 Geo Metro (“A Fuel-Economy Gauge for the Rest of Us,” April 2009).

Right around the same time, Fiat and Microsoft announced a collaboration called Blue&Me. It’s similar to the Ford and Chrysler telematic systems that we’ve reported on, but, frankly, seems to do quite a bit less; it’s mainly for connecting your phone and MP3 player to the car’s audio system, as Fiat itself admits: 

Blue&Me The simplest and easiest way to communicate.

Blue&Me, the result of the collaboration between Fiat Auto and Microsoft, will change the way you communicate and listen to music on the move.

Using a series of voice commands, without taking your hands off the wheel you can telephone and listen to incoming SMS messages, interpreted on your Bluetooth Blue&Me mobile phone, consult your phonebook and listen to MP3s. Blue&MeTM supports most mobile phones with Bluetooth technology.

But it has one key feature, a port for a USB thumb drive. According to a rep at the Microsoft Auto area at CES, it’s to allow for updates if, for example, the software in the car doesn't support the phone you buy two years from now. But it’s also to allow you to add widgets or apps that Microsoft or Fiat come up with. And the first app was, you guessed it, a fuel-economy gauge.

Isn’t that great? If you buy a new Fiat, you’re all set. Otherwise, you can follow Dave’s hack. Even if you’re still driving an old Geo Metro.

CES 2010: Shifting Wireless Broadband Into Overdrive

In January 2008 we heralded the Sprint WiMax network (“Winner: Sprint's Broadband Gamble”). A lot's changed since then (see this January's “4G in the U.S.A.”) but one thing hasn't. At the time we said the network promised to be the most open in the world. We described Sprint's business model as “A new cellular service will sell high-speed data access instead of phones and phone calls.”

That vision apparently hasn't changed. This week at CES the company unveiled the Overdrive, a sort of portable Wi-Fi router for 4G users. The idea of the Overdrive is this: Your plug the Overdrive (via USB) into your laptop, which itself is on the Internet via the 4G network. Up to 5 users can connect to the Overdrive via Wi-Fi, just as they might connect to the Wi-Fi router in your home. The $99 Overdrive, which is actually made by Sierra Wireless, is smaller than a pack of cigarettes.

As a Wi-Fi router, the Overdrive is fantastic, but not new. Sprint had an earlier box, the MiFi, which did the same for Sprint's 3G network (the Overdrive will connect to the older and larger 3G network if the 4G network, which still only exists in 20-odd cities, can't be found).

But the Overdrive has some other nice features as well. It has 32 GB of storage, which your 5 users can access. An activity screen on the laptop shows things like the cellular signal strength, the number of users connected, whether GPS is active (so that your users can be located by Google Maps and the like) and how much storage is being used. An admin screen lets you assign MAC addresses, create passwords — all the things you can do with your home router.

Back in 2008 I speculated that some subscribers might use the WiMax network as their exclusive broadband provider, in the home as well as outside. The Overdrive goes a long way to making that home experience as similar to, and as useful as, a cable or DSL subscription.

CES 2010: Going Over The Top

Taking off my journalist hat for a moment, and considering myself as a consumer of electronics, the best thing I've brought into my living room in the past few years is a small black $99 box made by a small company named Roku. The Roku box delivers Netflix's instant Internet movie service — more than 10 000 of them — to the television instead of the computer.

I've probably watched 200 movies in the past two years that I would have watched on cable channels — or wouldn't have watched at all. In the battle between cable and the Internet for my movie-watching soul, the Internet is winning. I've scaled back my cable subscription to a minimal package, in large part because I don't need the premium movie channels. There's an entertainment industry name for what I'm doing, it's called going “Over The Top.”

If I tried to go Over The Top for all my video needs, it would take a lot more than Netflix. In fact, movies are the easiest part of it; offered, as they are, on Amazon, iTunes, and any number of other services. Television programming is much harder to find. According to one speaker at a panel session here at CES on Thursday, “I Want My IPTV,” only 53 percent of broadcast and 8 percent of cable programming can be found (not counting piracy).

Netflix isn't the only way video coming to my living room via the Internet, and while I was the one to solve the movie problem, for everything else, my wife is the queen of Over The Top. She buys TV shows on iTunes — Glee, Damages, and Castle have been the recent favorites — and we watch them via Apple TV. Some other shows are free; she podcasts The Rachel Maddow Show, for example, which we can then also watch on Apple TV. (Remarkably, MSNBC makes just the audio stream as well as the video available, and both are free of commercials.) Or, for her at least, on her iPod or iPhone (yes, she has one of each).

We haven't figured out a good way to watch The Daily Show on the television but it's easily watched on the computer at the show's website. (And while it's not commercial-free, there are only a handful of shorter-than-a-minute commercial breaks in the show.) Likewise for all the shows available on Hulu.

At the “I Want My IPTV” panel, the moderator, Brian Cooleyof CNET, described a way of doing that with an Apple Mini, a Panasonic digital projector, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. While not cheap, the whole solution costs less than a 50-inch television. More to the point, if doing so would let us cut the cable tie completely, instead of just scaling it back, I'd save more than $50 each month. (That's a new $2000 LCD projector in little more than three years.)

Needless to say, the cable companies are not thrilled about Over The Top viewing, and the television studios aren't happy about it either, even as they grudgingly make more and more of their content available. Take for example the ongoing war between Hulu and Boxee. (Hulu is an effort by the parent company of NBC to make its shows available directly on the Internet; Boxee is a software program that lets you play videos and music to your television.) NBC is willing, for now, to let you watch its shows on the small screen, presumably to maintain viewer loyalty in the long run, but it's not, as yet, ready to come to grips with alternative ways for you to watch them on the living room's big screen.

There's $120 billion dollars in advertising revenue at stake, and a handful of 30-second videos delivered to the web audience, a la the Daily Show, aren't going to make a dent in it. Likewise, even if my wife and I paid, say, $20 each for the dozen shows we like to watch, that's less than half of what we pay the cable company today. For a cable company, this would be the very worst form of unbundling and it would do to the cable business what CDOs did for the banking industry.

When I wrote about Microsoft's IPTV software, back in 2005 ("The Battle For Broadband"), it was a way of using the Internet to go around the cable industry's pipeline of movies and television programming into the living room. Today, phone companies like AT&T (with its U-verse DSL service), and Verizon (FiOS optical fiber service), are trying to do just that. For consumers like my wife and me, though, that's just a different pea trapped in the same pod. We're looking to break free entirely. “Free” not in the sense of a free lunch; "free" as in "freedom": We want to watch what we want to watch, when we want, on whatever device we want, from LCD television to laptop to smartphone.

That day is coming. But if the history of digital music (a much, much smaller and if not exactly obscure object of desire) is any guide, hold on, it's going to be a bumpy ride. It'll take a messy decade of format wars, copy-protection wars, and device wars before the dust settles.

CES 2010: Gadget Lust

I’m not your classic early adopter; I don’t love every new gizmo I see, just because it’s new. But there have been a few products introduced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show so far that I instantly found myself itching to get my hands on. They aren’t the most expensive or the most state of the art. But I could use them right now.

Robot. I haven’t gotten over to the robot zone at CES yet, so perhaps this is not the only robot that will make sense to me, but it is the first one. The Mint from Evolution Robotics cleans floors, not rugs, using standard pads made by Swiffer. I have a white kitchen floor (this was not my idea), it’s a nightmare to keep clean. I already use Swiffer sometimes—manually—I’d love to hand my Swiffer pads over to a robot. And, tipping the scales, it’s smaller and cuter than a Roomba; it wouldn’t look awkward parked in the corner. The Mint will ship in the second half of the year, at under $250.

Flipkiller. Everyone has an answer to Flip HD, the popular point, shoot, and upload video camera. I saw a lot of them (including Sony’s Bloggie, the product I’m nominating for worst name); all were fine, but none had a compelling reason to choose them instead of the established Flip. Then I saw Kodak’s Playsport Video Camera. It’s an HD video camera like the Flip—and it’s waterproof. There’s the compelling feature; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the surf taking videos of the kids, distracted by worrying that an unexpected wave might takeout the camera. (Given how many books I’ve lost to the surf, this is not an idle worry.) So splash proof would be enough, but the Playsport works underwater, and its shape and feel--solid, slightly curved, with a rubberized surface—made me not want to put it down. Kodak also says they’ve addressed the problem of screen visibility in bright sunlight by switching the viewfinder to a sepia mode (the recorded video stays full color); if it works, it’ll be great. The Playsport will retail at around $150, about the same price as a Flip, and will be available in time for my spring beach vacation.

Keyboard. A keyboard? I’m lusting after a keyboard? Yes, at least, I want to try it. The Ergomotion keyboard from Smartfish Technologies is designed to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries by moving—it cycles through different positions, changing your hand angle as you type. I’m not sure if it’ll work or will simply be distracting, but if it does, it’s brilliant. It will retail for under $150.

CES 2010: The Challenge of Naming Technology

Consumer electronics technology evolves more quickly, more quickly, it seems, than the industry’s vocabulary. So this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has been full of vocabulary lessons—some for me, some for the folks in the booths. It’s all a little confusing right now, and I hope it gets sorted out before it has to get translated to those salespeople at Best Buy, and, in turn, to the consumer.

3D television is ubiquitous at the Show, and it will certainly be appearing on retail shelves this year. (I’m not saying that it will fly off those shelves to consumer’s homes; whether it will or not is another discussion. But people indeed are talking about it.

The moniker 3D itself; that’s easy. Manufacturers have done a good job of explaining the glasses; there are two basic kinds, passive and active. The passive kind are the type handed out in most movie theaters—they are cheap and disposable and have polarized lenses that are weird to wear out in the sun. The active kind has a battery and an on switch; that’s because they have little shutters inside that open and close rapidly. Whew, that was simple.

In the countless panels on 3D television’s rollout held yesterday, however, a few more terms distinguishing different technologies were tossed about—over/under and side-by-side. I finally pulled someone aside who explained to me that in 3D TV each standard frame is split into two to fit the 3D image into a standard transmission, then, when it arrives at the TV, the halves are displayed individually, stretched to fill out the screen. Over/under and side-by-side refers to whether the split is horizontal or vertical. (There’s also alternating lines, but that was more self-explanatory.)

Sometimes, the first term grabbed out of the vernacular to describe a technology doesn’t work out and needs to be replaced. Last year, TV manufacturers called their capabilities to display YouTube videos and the like widgets; this year the software formally known as a widget is now an App; unifying itself with the smart-phone terminology.

TV manufacturers also seem to be using a new tag for some of their LCD TVs; they used to call LCD’s backlit with LEDs just that, LCD’s with an LED backlight. Now they’re calling them LED TVs, reserving the LCD name for those backlit by fluorescent tubes. It’ll sound to the consumer like an entire new technology, not simply familiar technology with a different light bulb. But I guess that’s the idea.

In the picoprojector (those little projectors that can be built into small devices, unveiled at the 2009 show) and e-book fields, there are a variety of technical approaches that don’t have catchy names, however, I did expect the folks in the booths (at least those who aren’t hired demonstrators) to at least know the names. So I was a little dismayed when I was checking out the very cool Nikon camera/projector and the otherwise knowledgeable Nikon representative couldn’t tell me what type of projector Nikon had chosen for the device.

“It’s pico,” the representative told me.

“Uh, no,” I said. “Pico is a class of products. Pico is not a technology.”

He referred me to another representative, who he said was the technical guy who handles all the technical questions.

“It’s not pico,” he said.

Not pico is not a technology either. I started to excuse myself and move away, when they called to a third rep in the back. Did he have an answer?

“LCOS,” he said.

“Very good!” I finally had an answer. I left while rep number three was explaining Liquid Crystal on Silicon to reps number two and one. I do understand that this isn’t the greatest acronym, and consumers really don’t need to know exactly how it works. But OLED isn’t a great acronym and consumers don’t know how it works, but they know it’s an alternative to LCD, not some vague TV technology called flat.

Ten minutes later I was checking out a color e-book at Fujitsu, available in Japan only. It’s not a great e-book; it’s slow and dim. But it’s color, which other e-book technology, so far, can’t do. I was dying to know what it was. Not having learned my lesson, I asked the rep in the booth.

“It’s e-paper,” he said.

“No, e-paper is not a technology, it’s…..never mind.”

I left. I found out later, by the way, that Fujitsu is using cholesteric liquid crystal to generate the color; and you’ll learn more about that in the March issue of Spectrum.

Photo: Till Niermann

CES 2010: Sony Finally Backs Down On Memory Stick Technology

Anyone who owns a Sony camera or laptop is familiar with the Memory Stick. While the rest of the consumer electronics world was getting their flash memory in the format of Compact Flash, initially, and later SD and micro SD, Sony went its own way with the Memory Stick, a flash chip in the form of a stick of gum. This meant that Sony camera users couldn’t swap cards with their non-Sony friends or use them in non-Sony devices. Seems like Sony would have given up on it years ago.

But Sony doesn’t surrender in format wars easily, as we know from the Betamax battle; not even when the war is over. At the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, however, Sony raised a tentative white flag—the company’s latest line of cameras will include a slot for SD memory cards alongside the Memory Stick slot. The company also announced that it will start selling its own brand of SD and micros cards.

It did not completely take Memory Stick off of life support, however. The company also announced a few camera models that can communicate with each other and other devices wirelessly. The wireless transmitter, however, comes built into a special Memory Stick.


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