Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the tag “Technology”

Olfactory Recognition and Synthesis: Does the Nose Know?

A digital dreamer’s goal is to duplicate the five human senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, ergo creating a robot that can do, as the song says, “anything you can do, I can do better.”  (Unfortunately, sex hasn’t yet figured into the dream – yet.)  Advances have been made in taste (there are only four), touch, hearing (especially voice) and sight.  Wall-E and Artoo aren’t far off the reality mark.

The toughest sense to conquer appears to be that of smell.  Most of you are too young to remember “Smell-O-Vision,” a 1960s attempt by Mike Todd’s son (Mike Todd was a famous movie producer, creator of Todd-A-O and husband to Liz Taylor) to add smells to motion picture viewing.  Approximately 30 odors were synthesized and pumped into the theater at appropriate times.  This early attempt was unsuccessful and was quickly abandoned by the movie industry.

The applications for synthetically duplicating the olfactory sense, however, are very important, and, to my way of thinking, justify a much larger research investment that is presently being made.  Drug interdiction, security, disease detection, contaminant detection, gas leaks, crime prevention are but a few of the very important applications of the sense of smell.  The best we have right now for these applications are dogs and vultures (for gas leaks)!

There are bazillions of molecules that can contribute to odors and more bazillions of permutations and combinations of those molecules.  It would be nice if we could make up a table of these molecules and simply look them up, but that approach simply isn’t in the cards.  The numbers are just too big.

A researcher in this field is Dr. Paul Rhodes.  This Stanford Visiting Scholar formed a company called Evolved Machines that is attempting to use neural network technology to identify odors.  Unfortunately, I don’t think he has gotten very far – his last press release was issued two years ago!

Given the enormous market potential of applications based on smell, it is a wonder that would-be entrepreneurs are not all over this one.  The IEEE publishes a Sensors Journal that has scholarly articles published on the subject from time-to-time, but the apparent lack of serious research is astonishing to this observer.  Do a Google search and be amazed at the paucity of informative hits on the subject.

So this subject remains an open question.  Will it have a future?  Maybe, even probably, but it looks like it will be a very long way off.


Ultra HD: Worth the Wait?

Sharp 85" UltraHD Prototype TV

So you just bought the latest and greatest super-thin 3D HDTV, thinking you are now state-of-the-art.  Think again.  Here comes (maybe) Ultra HD, also known as Super Hi-vision.  This format, proposed by NHK (the Japanese equivalent of PBS), offers 16 times the resolution of today’s high definition TV.  That is 7680 x 4320 pixels, about the same as IMAX.  A 2-hour movie in this format will require about 24 terabytes of data without compression!

In addition to the video, up to 24 audio channels can be used.  You might start thinking about where you are going to place those 24 speakers.

NHK expects to broadcast in UltraHD by 2020.  In the meantime, a few companies have prototyped systems that accommodate the format.  For example, Sharp has built an 85″ Ultra HD set.

To confuse matters further, some companies are looking into an in-between technology called QFHD (Quad Full High Definition).  This technology increases the pixel resolution by a factor of four rather than the 16 factor of Ultra HD.  The resolution is 3840 x 2160 pixels.  Samsung showed off a prototype TV display for QFHD at CES, and Toshiba will be selling a 55″ QFHD set called the Regza 55X3 this year priced at about $12,000. Although it is being sold in Japan and Europe on a limited basis, it is not clear that an American audience will pay that price.

That set, by the way, is autostereoscopic, meaning that you can see 3D without glasses.  Although there is no 1D content yet in QFHD format, Toshiba uses it by showing the two stereo signals needed for 3D, each in full 1080p resolution.  People who have seen the display report being very impressed.  In addition, the set is designed to accommodate multiple viewers within nine different regions.  The television utilizes extremely small lenses to split the video feed up into two views at different angles. The user can calibrate the views using face-tracking software built into the television.  Supposedly, one can be situated at many viewing angles and still see a clear picture.

Satellite TV provider DirecTV has announced that it will soon be able to broadcast QFHD signals and maybe Ultra HDTV signals by switching to a new generation of Ka-band satellites that offer significantly more bandwidth than the current Ku-band satellites.

Not to be outdone by the Japanese and Koreans, the Chinese television manufacturer, TCL, debuted the world’s largest 4K 3D LCD television this week at 110-inches. Offering 4,096×2,160 pixels of resolution, the television requires active shutter glasses to view 3D.  In addition, it utilizes multi-touch technology to create a touch-screen on the front of the display and offers dynamic backlight technology as well.  TCL is labeling the technology “China Star” and eventually plans to roll out the technology in smaller sets.  There have not been any price announcements nor is it known if the sets will be sold outside of China.

So get ready to toss that state-of-the-art TV you just bought.  The nature of the business is that state-of-the-art is a moving target.  Naturally, you will want to move with it.



IBM’s Uber Battery: Can it be real?

Battery 500 Project Demo System

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the Envia company, and its claimed breakthrough in battery technology.  As you would suspect, lots of other people are working on battery technology with the aim of producing an all-electric car that will go 500 miles without needing to be recharged.  One of the most promising efforts is IBM’s Battery 500 project.

With the initial research begun in 2009 at IBM’s Almaden research labs in California, this past week IBM announced that it has built a prototype that demonstrates the efficacy of the technology.  Wired Enterprise calls it the “Uber Battery,” a descriptor I stole for the title of this post.  IBM is not doing this alone.  It is collaborating with researchers in both Europe and Asia, along with universities and National Labs in the US.  Nevertheless, IBM is the driving force, and the project is an outgrowth of IBM’s well-publicized investment in nanotechnology.

It is difficult for a non-chemist to grasp the technology, but, briefly, the system works by using oxygen drawn from the air much as it is drawn into a conventional combustion engine.  Inside the battery’s  cells, the oxygen slips into tiny spaces that measure about an angstrom (0.00000000001 meters), and reacts with lithium ions situated on the battery’s cathode. That reaction turns the lithium ions to lithium peroxide, releasing electrons, thus generating electricity.  For more information oriented to the layman, go to the following website and check out the videos.

IBM credits much of the research advancement to the so-called Blue Gene supercomputers, used to analyze electro-chemical reactions to find alternative electrolyte materials that won’t degrade the battery while recharging.  These computers, located at Argonne National Lab and in Zurich, Switzerland have rung up tens of millions of processor-hours on the project.  The computer modeling is being used to determine how the ions and molecules of different materials will interact.  The hope is to find the optimum combination of materials that will permit commercialization of the technology.

The downside is that it is not expected to be commercialized until at least 2020.  In the meantime, auto manufacturers around the world are licking their collective chops.  If this technology is successful, it will signal the end of imported oil in the US.  The geopolitical implications are enormous.

Ultraviolet: Revolutionary or Yesterday’s News?

Ultraviolet Sticker

A couple of weeks ago, my stepson, the techy genius, asked me if I was tuned in to Ultraviolet.  He was surprised to learn that I’d never heard of it.  I am talking here about the service designed to peddle movies and such, not part of the light spectrum beyond visible violet.  For those of you who never heard of it either, here is a quick synopsis:

In the cloud, there is a place to store movies and other forms of video entertainment.  One buys the movies from any one of dozens of purveyors.  Instead of walking out of a store with a DVD in your hand, the movie gets uploaded to the cloud (or maybe it is already there).  By entering a password, you can access your movie in several ways:  You can stream it to any device equipped for streaming video.  You can download it to a computer for later viewing.  You can make a DVD, although you are only allowed to make a single copy.  Ultraviolet identifies itself as “a digital rights authentication and cloud-based licensing system.”

The entertainment industry loves the idea because it thinks it might limit piracy (talk about heads in the sand).  Retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online, like the idea.  They get the same price they would for a physical DVD, but they don’t have to carry any inventory.  When you go to the Ultraviolet website, you  will find a long list of some of the biggest names in video entertainment and the places that sell it identified as sponsors or supporters.

Despite the hype and the big-name support, both the reviewers and the public in general have not said many nice things about the service.  The Gigaom and Techdirt reviews are typical.   The system is cumbersome to use for average folks, and it does not have the support of the 800-pound gorillas, Amazon and Apple.

Although Ultraviolet was announced in July 2010, it hasn’t made much progress.  Only Sony and Paramount have offered their films via Ultraviolet, and those offerings are limited to a small fraction of the movies in their portfolios.  So, despite the hype, the content providers are not exactly demonstrating a heavy commitment.  Without content, the system is doomed.

It is no secret that DVD and Blu-ray sales are decreasing.   How many people need to buy movies, when it is so much cheaper to rent them on Netflix or at kiosks?  Another competitive threat is coming from the cable and satellite TV companies.  Not only can you DVR movies for later viewing, but they are offering subscribers the ability to stream them at no extra cost.  Unlike Netflix, which is pleading for the authority to stream movie content, the cable guys already have it.  Then there are the illegal downloads that can be found easily by simply doing a Google search.

As I said above, I’d never even heard of Ultraviolet until now, and I am supposed to know about important technologies in the home entertainment business.  I do not see a market-driving force that suggests that Ultraviolet, or any service requiring upfront money for movie content, has a chance of succeeding.  Do you?  Requiem Blockbuster.


Exascale: The Faraway Frontier of Computing?

Those of you who follow this blog know that I write about technology trends that are, in general, not too far into the future.  This post is a departure in that it takes a peek at a technology at least 10 years away dubbed (for the moment) as “Exascale Computing.”  I’m writing about it now because the chances of my living long enough to see it come to fruition are somewhere between slim and none, and because I used to be very involved with the supercomputing industry and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Driving the development of this technology is a project known as SKA, which stands for Square Kilometer Array, a multibillion dollar radiotelescope 100X more sensitive than anything currently in existence.  Construction will begin in 5 years and will not be completed until 2024.  When it is operational, SKA will produce an Exabyte of data every single day.  To put that into perspective, that is twice the amount of data on the Internet worldwide – 1 quintillion bytes of information.

The SKA project is headed by ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.  To meet the vast computing requirements that will be needed to process that much information, ASTRON awarded IBM a $40+ million contract to begin developing what will be the world’s most powerful computer, equivalent to the combined computing power of 100 million high-end PCs.

There are three challenges that IBM will be addressing (see the graphic above):  transport (of data between computing elements), data storage and analysis.  Transport will be addressed using optical technology that is well-understood today.  Analysis will rely on massive parallel processing arrays with the power of a million+ Watsons.  Storage will rely on the development of new technology, most probably based on IBM’s research in nanotechnology applied to “phase-change memory.”.

If you are interested in this project, I urge you to view a short video about the SKA and IBM’s involvement in the project at this website.  Trust me, you will be amazed at the scope of the project and the technology challenges that will have to be overcome.

Envia Systems: Savior of the Electric Car?

The holy grail of the electric car business is a competitively-priced vehicle that will travel several hundred miles on a single charge.  As shown in the graphic, we ain’t there yet.  One key to finding that grail is battery technology.  A little-known Silicon Valley company called Envia Systems claims to have made tremendous strides in developing a battery technology that will lead the industry directly to that grail – pass Go, collect $200.

The operative measure for vehicle battery technology is Wh/Kg, or Watt-hours per Kilogram.  Current technology, like that used in Tesla Motors‘ cars, is around 240 Wh/Kg and costs roughly $200 per Kilowatt-hour.  Envia promises to deliver 400 Wh/Kg at $125 per Kilowatt-hour.  With those numbers, a $20,000 car could travel 300 miles before it needs to be recharged.

In general, battery technology improvement appears to be advancing at a rate of 5% a year.  If Envia’s claims are valid, its technology nearly doubles state-of-the-art energy density at half the cost.  Lots of folks are excited by the possibilities, including General Motors which has invested a bunch of money into the venture.

Envia began its journey in 2007 when it licensed some patents from Argonne National Laboratory (ANL).  Although Envia execs claim that the Envia technology was developed on its own, the Argonne patents gave it a start.  Although the details of the patent agreement are secret,  apparently ANL will share in Envia’s success if and when it happens.

Envia’s batteries are Lithium-Ion. (Li-ion), the same used in cell phones and portable electric tools.  Envia’s technology is based on using unique element chemical compositions for the anodes and cathodes, notably silicon and carbon, and an electrolyte that is stable at high temperatures.  Not all the problems that need to be solved have been solved, however.  Current tests show that, although Envia batteries can be recharged to 80% capacity after 400 charges, that number needs to be 1000 to last 300,000 miles, considered to be the average lifetime of a car.

Envia’s technology lends itself to conventional manufacturing processes.  The company plans to license it rather than go into the manufacturing business itself.  Possible licensees includes General Motors and some other high-profile domestic and foreign firms.

Compared with Solyndra’s $500 million failed investment, Envia Systems looks  like a bargain basement deal.  The total investment in the company is probably less than $25 million including a $4 million grant from ARPA-e and $7 million from General Motors, part of a $17 million package.

As noted above, while battery technology is one key to mass acceptance of electric cars, it is not the only key.  Getting those great batteries charged may pose an even bigger barrier.   One only has to look at GM’s recent problems with the Volt to get an idea of the challenge.  I took my wife’s Chevy into a dealer a few days ago for service.  While there, I asked one of the sales guys how Volts are selling.  He looked at me and groaned.  He said that the tree-huggers were there in force the first few weeks, but now nobody is interested.  FYI, I live in an area heavily populated by tree-huggers!



The Personal Cloud: Truth or Dare?

Analysts love to coin new expressions.  The one I’m most proud of is “Business Intelligence,” which I thought was a lot sexier than “data mining” and “data warehousing,” two earlier expressions which meant essentially the same thing.   IBM and a couple of other big companies jumped on the Business Intelligence bandwagon and made it an IT proverb.  I shoulda copyrighted or trademarked it, or started a domain business-intelligence .com.  Mighta made a few bucks.  Water under the dam.

I was impressed the other day when I saw a reference to the “Personal Cloud.”  This expression is claimed by Gartner Group, possibly the world’s largest techy analyst company, and mentioned prominently in a recent press release entitled “Gartner Says the Personal Cloud Will Replace the Personal Computer as the Center of Users’ Digital Lives by 2014.”  (Unfortunately, is already a registered domain name, indicating that Gartner isn’t any smarter than I was.)

In any event, I read the press release.  I thought it made sense -sort of.  Do you agree with the following quote?

“Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.”

The 46-word opening sentence aside (my composition professor would have slammed that writer), I agree that users will  potentially be more productive using the cloud, but I’m having a tough time with the prediction that enterprises will have to rethink how they deliver services to users.  In my experience, enterprises seldom rethink anything.  Rather, they change as little as possible so as not to freak out those users and make more work for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the cloud is terrific.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the timeshare business of the late 60s – early 90s essentially offered cloud computing, but, in those days, networks were slow and storage capacity limited.  Today’s broadband networks and virtually unlimited random access storage enable a user to do almost anything online instead of the desktop.  The only real barrier to cloud computing is security, an issue that I believe will never get resolved.

If you are skeptical about the cloud, I’d like you to test out an app called Dropbox, a web-based file hosting service.  You can get a free single-user account or an account that can be shared by several users.  The learning curve is practically non-existent.  It’s a great example of cloud storage.

You can also try some cloud apps.  If you use Google’s gmail or calendar, you are already apping in the cloud!  Others you can try for free are Quicken Online, WordPress (blogging service that I am using right now), and Adobe Photoshop Express.  Check out this website, “10 cloud apps that slam-dunk their desktop counterparts.”

Of course, these personal apps have little to do with enterprise applications, but will certainly give you a taste of the possible.

The IBM Tech Trends Report: Can 4000 IT Pros Be Right?

The eight-striper wordmark of IBM, the letters...

Image via Wikipedia

Last year, IBM conducted a survey of 4,000 IT professionals in an attempt to identify the most important technology trends.  The survey population included IT pros from 93 countries and 25 industries.  The US, China, Russia, India and Brazil contributed the most responses.  The results are published in a publicly available report titled The IBM Tech Trends Report.

This blog post shamefacedly plagiarizes from the IBM report.  For many years, I conducted similar types of surveys and published similar reports, but always for individual clients who would never let the competition see the results.  It is an interesting statement that IBM is willing to share its findings with anyone willing to take the time to read the material.  Even more interesting (to me) is that IBM also published the survey data.  Thus, if you don’t like IBM’s conclusions, you can formulate your own using its data!  Very cool indeed.

The data is in SPSS format.  Since not many people have SPSS, IBM cut a deal so that individuals can download and install a 14-day trial version, plenty of time to analyze the information.  I’ve already done that.  In future blog posts, I’ll present some of my conclusions, but I’m not going to tell you that they are based on this data, since that would be only one input that I would be inclined to use.

IBM’s study focused on four areas: business analytics, mobile computing, the cloud and social business.  According to IBM, these are four critical and interconnected areas that developers must concentrate on to build what IBM’s PR folks call “The Smarter Planet.”

I’m not going to regurgitate the findings of the study – you can read that for yourself – but there are a few things that came out of the study that I think are noteworthy:

  • There is less interest in automation in the US than there is in the other large countries.  Does this suggest that the US is so far ahead that it doesn’t think it needs it, or does the US have its collective head up its collective a-s?
  • Developers of mobile computing applications would be wise to concentrate on the Android platform.  Although iOS is very popular in the US and developed countries, Android offers a much shorter learning curve, and will be more appealing to the rest of the world.
  • Cloud Computing offers new opportunities for building and delivering applications and can lead to new ways of conceptualizing business models.
  • The popularity of social networking in the business environment is very closely tied to culture.  For example, social networking is embraced in India and spurned in Russia.  The US loves it, but is worried about security and privacy.

Most of the tech trends info that is on the web is written by reporters who get most of their information from interviews with people in the booths at the latest techy conference.  It’s nice to see real study results based on meaningful statistical data.



Phone and Tablet Remote Control Update: Was I Wrong?

Vizio 8" Tablet

A few months ago I posted a blog entry about using phones and/or tablets as remote controls for home entertainment systems.  I was bullish on the trend, but some recent experience suggests that maybe it isn’t going to happen as quickly as I thought.  Although the technology is there, it doesn’t seem to be ready for Joe Couch Potato.

A few days ago, I purchased a Vizio 8″ tablet, Model VTAB1008-B.  This tablet includes a built-in IR blaster and an application called “Remote Control.”  First of all, the screen is gorgeous, providing 1024 x 768 resolution, the same as an iPad, but in an 8″ instead of the iPad‘s 10″ form factor, providing denser pixels and sharper images than the iPad.  The screen is prettier than any of the high-end purpose-built touch-screen remote controls from companies like Crestron and URC which are typically 640 x 480 and cost a couple of thousand dollars.  The IR radiator works well, although I haven’t tested it in “stressful” conditions.  Certainly good enough for most in-home situations.

The Remote Control program, however, is all but useless.  You are supposed to set it up by selecting an equipment category from a list (DVD Player, TV, Amplifier, etc.), then selecting a manufacturer from another list, and, if you know it, typing in the model number.  If  the model number is found, a screen for the device is set up automatically.  If the model number is not found, there is a trial-and-error process for finding the device.  I was amazed at the completeness of the model database.  (I assume Vizio gets that list from UEI or another company that maintains a database of equipment IR codes.)  It even listed an X10 ir543 receiver!  Go to this link and click on “How to Set Up the Remote Control App” to see a video of how it works.

The first problem is that the database model entries do not reliably associate the correct IR codes with the buttons that appear on the screen!  The second problem is that the buttons on the screen do not represent the controls that are needed to operate the device with the device.  For example, I have a Sony CD jukebox that holds 300 CDs.  You operate it by inputting the number of the disc you wish to play using a numeric keypad and then pressing the Play button.  The screen that comes up for this device has no keypad on it, thereby rendering the control of that device useless.  The X10 ir543 screen does not contain any controls that related to the device at all.  The DVD screen contains mostly controls useful for operating a TV.  On top of everything else, the program crashed repeatedly and could only be recovered by powering down the tablet.

I called Vizio tech support, was told that a “significant upgrade” was coming soon, and that I might consider waiting for that.  In fairness, they also generously offered to send me a new tablet, but couldn’t guarantee that the same problems wouldn’t exist.  I am certain it is a software problem, so I declined the offer.

The way most of the phone/tablet-based remote control systems operate today is by sending the signals via a Wifi connection.  This requires that the user purchase a box that converts the Wifi signal to IR.  These boxes cost around $100 for 1-way transmission and $150 for 2-way (for RS-232 capable equipment).  Putting an IR blaster in a tablet is a great idea that eliminates the expense of the Wifi-IR converter box.  It obviously would add very little to the cost of a tablet or phone.

I paid $190 for the tablet, shipping included.  (MSRP is $329.)  If the remote control application worked as it should, the tablet could easily be justified on the basis of that app alone.  If I were Vizio’s CEO, I’d hire a couple of guys laid off from Philips now-defunct Pronto Division and have them write a Windows/iOS-based editor that would allow customers to create customized remote control screens.  As it is, all I can do is wait for the upgrade and hope it fixes the problems I confronted.

I contacted a couple of companies (e.g., iRule) that have systems for using phones and tablets as remote controls, but neither of them could take advantage of a built-in IR blaster.  I suspect this might change in the future, but probably not until some big-name tablet/phone manufacturers begin to put IR blasters in their devices.


Tablets: Is the Enterprise a New Frontier?

Windows 8 Libraires Concept

Windows 8 (Photo credit: louisvolant)

Everybody knows that Tablets are becoming more or less ubiquitous.  The great majority of them, however, are being bought for playing games, web browsing, mapping, watching movies and TV shows, video telephony and other personal pursuits.  The buzz now is for the tablet to become an important device for businesses, known in the trade as “enterprises.”

Not long ago, I was on an airplane, seated next to a youngish man who had an iPad with him.  We struck up a conversation, and I learned that he was an electronics engineer who worked for a leading Silicon Valley company.  He was effusive about his iPad, but, when I asked him what he used it for, he said “mostly I play Scrabble!”  I think most tablet owners would have a similar response.

That said, the time has come for the tablet to become an important tool for businesses.  There are some new driving forces that will make that happen.  One of them will be the appearance of Windows 8, scheduled for release later this year.  Why is that important given the tremendous lead of iOS and Android?  Because you will be able to run existing Windows applications.  Since Windows-based apps are at the core of most business IT operations, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the benefits.

Coming from a different direction, wireless carrier Verizon announced a new enterprise initiative it calls Blank Slate.  The plan is to deliver a tablet without the usual pre-installed settings and apps.  Instead, the tablet will be set up with customized software and/or hardware that are optimized for specific industry applications.  In addition, there will be a private app storefront which will enable an employee to access company proprietary applications.  Although the program will start with Android, one can presume Windows 8 will follow.

Recently, Meg Whitman, HP’s new CEO, indicated that HP will be back in the mobile platform business, but, instead of trying to complete with Apple and Google for consumers, the focus would be on the enterprise where HP is strong.  Up until the other day, she was talking up Open WebOS, HP’s open sourced mobile operating system, but, now is talking Windows as the most likely candidate.

I conclude that the enterprise tablet business will be a really big deal in a couple of years, given the muscle of companies like Microsoft, HP and Verizon.  If you watch the various CSI TV shows, you would know that law enforcement couldn’t operate without them. (Chuckle)


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