Friday, October 28, 2005

Web 2.0 – The “Enlightened” Generation

The next time you’re in a group mention the Internet as a source of business startups and then look at your watch. Within 15 seconds someone will mention the word “bubble.” It’s been five years but it was a scarring experience for everyone to see so many good ideas come up, get funded, and then turn into bad businesses. In retrospect it’s just part of the technology cycle – emerging, hype, disillusionment, enlightenment, and finally, productivity. The IBM PC computer came on the market in the early 80s. I remember picking up a technology magazine at that time and flipping through it. There were no less than 250 vendors of PC-compatible computers. Aside from Compaq and Apple, I can’t remember any of those companies making it out of the 80s.

For the Internet, the Bubble years were the “hype” phase and the post-millennium was the “disillusionment” phase. Now, the internet is entering the next phase, “enlightenment,” but for some reason the media is unusually quiet about it. The number of productive applications coming out is quite phenomenal. Check out this list.

There is a movement about which puts a name to this new phase of the internet. They call it Web 2.0. In fact, they even have a conference to discuss the related technologies which includes personalized search, social networking and Web-based office applications. Trends seen at the conference include the use of tagging to replace folders, and user generated content to draw more traffic (check out AOL’s new move), and what some call “mashups” which is a combination of several technologies to create a more usable application. Zimbra is one example of a mashup. It takes every date, phone number, and location in an email and cross-references it with the user’s personal calendar, Skype, or Google maps, respectively. Another trend focuses on events. Zevents makes another mashup that shows events on a Google map in a calendar view, so you can see what’s going on near you. Several companies showed personalized search engines that try to limit the number of irrelevant finds. To see a list of companies debuting at WebCon2.0, please click here.

Obviously, the web is enabling this new round of applications, but what exactly is it about the web that drives it? The web is no longer the conduit of a company’s software platform, but now it IS the platform. Adam Bosworth’s blog details the implications of this new situation. Since no one owns the web, no one owns the platform. The focus shifts to community, collaboration, and content.

For a nice graphic listing the core components of today’s Web-based platform, click here. Examples of Web 2.0 applications and tools include Flock which is a browser that integrates many of the tools of Web 2.0 such as Flickr and Tagging which attaches metadata to text making it easier to search for information. In this post, for example, I could apply a tag such as “web tools.” Anyone searching on web tools would find it even if I didn’t use the actual words “web tools.”

If you are working with Web technology, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Friday, October 21, 2005

The $100 PC – Not Just for Developing Economies

A new trend I’ve seen come up this past year is the application of technology to the developing world. We apply technology to the developed world, but what about the rest of the world in particular, the developing world? Numerous efforts are focused on eliminating poverty. The UN sponsors the Millennium Development Goals which seeks to eliminate poverty, hunger, and improve our environmental sustainability among other things. To this end, the initiative calls upon technology to provide solutions.

One of these solutions is creating ultra low-cost PCs to provide internet access to people in undeveloped economies. The most recent example is MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop initiative, which seeks to provide low-cost PCs to the developing world using a government’s Ministry of Education as a distribution channel. China, Brazil, Thailand, Egypt, and South Africa top the list of interested countries. Targeted primarily at children in education, the specs on the device include a full-color, full-screen laptop running Linux. It’ll have a 500 MHz processor (most likely from AMD) and 1 Gb of memory along with WiFi and USB ports. According to the MIT report, 2/3 of the software on a laptop goes to support 1/3 of the software which has tremendous redundancy built in. The proposed machine does not have floppy drives, CD-ROMs or even a hard disk. The one feature a user of a $1000 laptop may miss is the storage capacity. Production is scheduled for 2006-2007 and only when 5 million machines have been ordered.

There are other examples some of which commenced in 2000-2001. Novatium in India will offer a $75 computer without a display. One could use an existing display from another computer since displays last several years longer than the computer portion.

Another leading entrant is the Janata PC from India. PC penetration in India is less than 7 people per 1000 compared to 500 in a 1000 for the US. The makers of the Janata PC maintain they can sell 10M computers if the price is brought down to 15,000 rupees ($300). It runs open source software including the Linux operating system and has a low cost processor that runs at 133 MHz. Finding distributors is somewhat difficult due to the low profit margins—but that’s a key point – there are profits to be made which are critical to building a sustainable initiative rather than providing a handout.

The Simputer uses a browser interface to open source Linux software available under the GPL license. For hardware it has
- CPU 32-bit Strong Arm SA-1100 RISC CPU running at 200MHz
- 32 MB of DRAM
- 24 MB Flash for Permanent Storage (DOC)
- Display I/F 320x240 Monochrome LCD Display Panel

For interfaces it has
- Touch-panel Overlay on LCD Display used with a plastic stylus (Pen)
- Speaker and MIC Jacks Smartcard Connector
- RJ-11 Telephone Jack
- USB Connector

Numerous companies make the Simputer including Amida . The target price is Rs 9000 ($180).

Inabling Technologies launched an email only system for Rs 7000 ($149).

Brazil’s Popular PC sells for $300 and consists of 16MG flash memory, no hard drive, floppy disk or CD-ROM, and runs open source software.

A great blog for learning more is the NextBillion site which carries entries related to initiatives both financial and technological for eliminating poverty around the world.

Finding a way to provide technology at an affordable price to the developing world brings dividends to the developed world since it pushes the boundaries of technology and its cost. The more I look at MIT’s $100 laptop the more applications I see in Virtual Instrumentation. By using the WiFi connection to provide a link to a server for data storage, I don’t need large storage space. I could use the $100 laptop in many applications.

If you are working with technology for the developing world, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Microphone Arrays—The One Thing from Star Trek You Can Use

Speech recognition has come a long ways in the last 20 years. From crude tools in the early 1980s to more sophisticated systems today, we are coming closer to that Star Trek-like experience where you don’t have to carry microphones or type into a computer, but rather the computer keeps track of you and operates based on your voice command. In this blog the author describes the history of speech recognition and talks about the coming generation of tools called Microphone Arrays.

Microphone arrays use multiple microphones at different locations for pinpointing the location of sound. It can be used for more effective speech acquisition because it can provide speaker location as well as hands-free speech acquisition. For an in-depth review of the technical background for Microphone Arrays, please click here.

Applications for microphone arrays include cellphone based telephony, video teleconferencing, and audio interfacing with PC systems. Here’s an example from TNO in the Netherlands applying the technique to a surgical operating room. The entire wave field from the room is scanned. The system suppresses unwanted signals and amplifies the desired signal. Video conferencing is another key application. Polycom makes a microphone array that wouldn’t look out of place in the office.

Research is well under way at numerous universities. Here’s an example from Rutgers, and one from Brown University. The NRC in Canada has a Beam forming project in which an array of microphones is aimed at a subject in order to track his location unencumbered with a microphone and capture audio from the subject. MIT has the largest microphone array system consisting of a 1000+ node array of microphones for a research project called Loud (Large acOUstic Data array project).

BMW uses microphone arrays implanted in the helmet for motorcycle drivers. They use two microphones placed near the forehead of the driver which allows them to capture the audio waves from the driver’s face. You can see their implementation here.

Advances in silicon chips make microphone arrays possible. Check out the DiSiMic from Sonion which is an ASIC with a Sigma-Delta converter and a low-noise preamp. It generates a digital output and is targeted to the mobile phone market.

If you are working with Microphone Arrays, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Robotics – Emerging Technologies Converging to Create New Innovations

Several technologies are converging to make robotics one of the next important technical industries. Robotics consists of three segments: Industrial Robotics, Service Robotics, and Personal Robotics. Industrial robots are the kind of articulated robotic arms you see on TV welding body parts together on an automotive production line. Personal robotics are those purchased by individuals for entertainment and education, or to assist you in some way. The Roomba vacuum cleaner is an example of a personal robot. Lego’s Mindstorms is an example that provides education, while Sony’s Aibo dog provides entertainment.

Service robots perform some function that humans find repetitive or even dangerous. The Mars probe – Spirit, is one example. It travels to Mars to explore the surface. The Predator aerial vehicles used for surveillance in battle zones is another example. There’s even an example in which Robots are used to test social interaction of toddlers. Check out this story about UC San Diego’s efforts to measure a two year olds reaction to a robotic teacher.

Industrial robots move very fast and by themselves. If you can see the robot moving then you are probably losing money on it. If a person comes near the robot, the machine powers down. Personal and service robots must interact with humans and thus operate at slower speeds.

Currently, the industrial sector leads the way, but the personal and service sectors are growing faster and will overcome the industrial sector by the end of this year and by some estimates will be double it in 2010.

With the introduction of the Roomba, iRobot placed itself on the map as providing the first robot price competitively for a service task. For $200 you can now have a robot vacuum your house. The Roomba is popular enough that websites show how to hack your Roomba.

At the Robonexus conference, I had the chance to hear a speech from Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot. iRobot is currently in the “quiet period” as they go public, so their CEO, was not able to tell us much about work going on at iRobot.

He did however, show some cool findings in the world of robotics—in particular personal robots. From Korea, Samsung and Yujin have new personal robots for entertainment. There’s now a robot air freshener. Why is it interesting? The inventor thought an air freshener would be more useful if it could move around. Another one called the Home Transport Robot looked similar to a toilet seat with a monitor on it but it wouldn’t look out of place in the home. Intouch offers the Health RP-6, Physical Avatar Robot which allows one to log in over the web and project oneself through a monitor on the robot. Doctors use it to see patients located in distant locations. Korea has a Robo-wrestling league made up of toy robots that perform martial arts based on hand controls from the user.

Colin Angle went on to describe the various challenges we face in the military, healthcare and energy.

In the military he made the following points:
-Hunting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is a constant task
-19 of 33 active brigades are currently deployed
-1 in 3 reserve units mobilized
-Vehicles in Iraq/Afghanistan are used at a 3 to 5 year rate in 12 months.
-Median lifetime cost is $4M per soldier

In the healthcare industry:
-Health care expenditures concentrated in the final years of one’s life.
-Nursing home and assisted-living facility costs continue to rise.
-90% of nursing homes are understaffed

In the energy industry:
-95% of world now beginning to use modern energy.
-2005, oil demand is 85M barrels per day now outpacing probable supply.
-Spare capacity used up by surge demand.
-Finding new oil sources takes time.

The bottom line is current methodologies cannot sustain in the medical, military, and energy industries. The good news is that invention continues and robotics brings potential solutions. He cited the following advancements that will enable the robotics industry:

-Moore’s law—exponential growth continues to thrive

-Cell processor – is an example of Moore’s law not dying. The Sony Playstation will have four of them giving it a 1 Teraflop of performance. If you are building a robot then you should know about it.

-iPod – storage increasing – at current trends 20 years from now it will have 40 Petabytes. You could carry one million books in a single iPod by 2010.

-Pervasive low-level wireless is coming including RFID and ad-hoc networks

-Hi-level Wireless networks – 802.11g is five times faster than the original version, and 802.16 – WiMax gives broader access and bandwidth.

-Location awareness is moving to the next generation

-Real-time vision is becoming a reality.

-Microphone arrays are coming on the scene.

Rob Ambrose, Director of Johnson Space Center, NASA spoke on New Robots for New Missions—NASA Exploration Requirements for Robotics Technology

Robotics plays a key part in President Bush’s latest directive to NASA as follows:

1. Complete the international space station by 2010 and return space shuttle to flight as soon as possible
2. Develop and test a new space craft to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014 to carry astronauts to other worlds
3. Return to the moon by 2020 as a launching point to missions beyond and use robotics for exploration.
4. Human missions to Mars using robotic missions are the trail blazers.

NASA has used robots for years. Veterans include the Lunar rover, RMS/SSRMS (space station remote manipulator system), and MER (Mars Exploration Rover) with new ones coming online including Robonaut, Mini-AERCam, Tendrill, Spidernaut, and Scout.

Robonaut —resembles a person with articulated fingers, hands, and arms with multiple degrees of freedom. It has over 100 sensors in the arm. Both arms can work together for more complex tasks. The head has stereo-optic vision with LEDs for providing illumination. Crafting robots similar to humans lets robots and humans share the same tools. It is meant to act as an assistant working with a human and resembles the robots used in the movie, iRobot. It started in 1998 and came into it’s own in 2000. They even have a version that sits the upper body of Robonaut on a Segway for mobility.

Mini-AERcam – free flying camera for inspecting the shuttle on its own. It’s about the size of volleyball. It’s currently under test.

Tendrill – another inspection system. It is 1cm in diameter and can extend out a full meter to take pictures inside nooks and crannies. It’s important for looking under thermal blankets and inspecting for damage on the inside.

Spidernaut – a 600lb, 8 legged arachnid --- It’s designed to walk on the outside of the spacecraft without doing damage to the craft. It can walk lightly despite its weight. It’s designed to walk across gossamer structures such as solar arrays.

SCOUT – next generation of lunar rover. Once you dismount, it can follow you like a robot. It contains additional oxygen for recharging astronaut’s space suits.

Technological developments in microprocessor technology, wireless technology, image processing, speech recognition, motion sensor technology, and embedded systems development tools are just some of the technologies enabling robotics.

Increased funding from the military and the private sector also fuel innovation. DARPA funds Grand Challenge which offers a $2M prize to a team that can create a robot that travels autonomously 280 kilometers in less than ten hours. This is the second year for the contest. Last year brought no winners. This year may bring none as well which surprises some given the available technology should enable someone to win. The challenge appears to be integrating a vast number of technologies into a single working system. To view the challenges one team faced in their efforts to qualify, click here.

Stewart Tansley from Microsoft Research spoke on robotics-enhanced computer science instruction. According to Tansley, computer science education is in decline especially in the USA. The number of students entering computer science programs at the university level is decreasing. The internet era of the late 90s brought a peak with a dramatic decline since then. Robotics is one answer to this problem.

Today, computing is inherently applied with more applications that deal with the physical world. Devices and computers are working together. Robotics is an ideal focus area because not only is it cool, but it builds problem solving skills, team-based learning, and provides a deeper learning experience.

Education robotics today include Lego, FIRST, Botball, NASA and more with extensive programs in academic research. Examples of teaching computer science using Robotics include Lego Mindstorms.

It’s not surprising that Microsoft believes the PC is the answer to the challenges in robotics teaching today. Tansley cited how the PC addresses these challenges:
You can see more about his work here.

If you are working with Robotics, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin