Tuesday, February 28, 2012

#QUANTUM: "IBM reports breakthroughs in quantum computing quest"

The last major engineering hurdle to quantum computers—millisecond coherence times—has been surmounted by researchers at IBM Research, making commercialization of the technology possible "within our lifetimes," according to Matthias Steffen, manager of IBM's Experimental Quantum Computing group.

Steffen and colleagues at T.J. Watson Research Center described their three breakthroughs Tuesday (Feb. 28) at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Boston.

Further Reading:

Monday, February 27, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "Facebook Gaming in Decline"

While Facebook users continue to grow, fewer of them are choosing gaming as their primary social networking activity. Internet gaming operations are in decline at Facebook, where monthly active users (MAUs) accessing games declined in 2011 to just 25 percent, compared to 50 percent gaming MAUs in 2010. New users continue to swell Facebook's ranks, but fewer are using the games, according to IHS iSuppli Corp.

Internet gaming operations are in decline at Facebook, where monthly active users (MAUs) accessing games declined in 2011 to just 25 percent, compared to 50 percent gaming MAUs in 2010. New users continue to swell Facebook's ranks, but fewer are using the games, according to IHS iSuppli Corp.

Rising barriers for new gaming operators is one factor, according to IHS iSuppli, but the main reason for the change is that users are flocking to Facebook for other social networking services, with fewer coming for the gaming. In fact, the gaming population leveled off in 2011, and may decline in 2012 as foreshadowed by Zygna, the most popular gaming app provider to Facebook. Zygna has dropped to 225 million MAUs from a high of 290 million a year ago.

With games like FarmVille, Zygna is still the most popular gaming app provider to Facebook, but its MAUs shrank this year, according to IHS iSuppli.

"The tone of the [Facebook gaming] market in 2012 will be somewhat muted compared to the optimistic outlook of the past few years," said Steve Bailey, senior analyst for games at IHS.

In Bailey's reports, Facebook Gaming Market Monitor, he explains that there are several factors holding back further grown spurts in gaming at Facebook.

The foremost is that users are harder to come by, especially since there is an intense competition for a user’s time from other social networking services. Gaming operators can compensate by spending more on promotion, but the days of viral channels for creating buzz are over. Facebook has muted the viral channels previously used to recruit new gamers, since users were complaining that the gaming operators were nearly spamming them with user-activity streams.

In addition, user expectations for higher-and-higher quality are causing gaming developers to divert more funds into research and development than marketing. Gamers are demanding titles that require more skill, which increases their engagement, but puts further stress on the R&D budgets of developers. Also the move to make Facebook Credits the compulsory payment platform for gamers has diminished revenues to gaming operators.

Ultimately, the basic problem for gaming at Facebook is that it is not perceived as a gaming platform specialist, according to IHS iSuppli, causing hard-core gamers to migrate to platforms that are primarily for gaming.

One bright spot was Facebook's release of a mobile-app software development kit (SDK) that gaming operators will be using in 2012. Facebook estimates that 425 million users access Facebook from a mobile device every month, offering a wide and deep user space for gaming developers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "Social Analytics to Measure Engagement"

Measuring the engagement of a fan base with sophisticated analytics enables enterprises to gauge their brand's success against their competitors--identifying what they are doing right and what their competitors are doing better.

Social analytics in Europe measures the engagement of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers and LinkedIn professional networks, allowing enterprises to gauge whether their message is getting out to savvy connected citizens. In the U.S., social analytics typically just counts heads, but in Europe each person fits into a like-minded group and every enterprise fits a profile.

"We do social analytics slightly differently than the American companies are doing," said CEO of Socialbakers, Jan Rezab. "Americans concentrate on social listening--using keywords to track discussions--but at Socialbakers we believe that listening is only one component of social analytics."

Instead, Socialbakers constructs an online profile of each enterprise, then compares it with all their competitors with regard to how "engaging" their social media posts are. In so doing, Socialbakers claims it reveals why some brands are more entrenched and influential than others.

Socialbakers analytics measures the engagement rate of the top ten Facebook page categories. With this measure, sports ranked first while finance ranked last.

"We believe that ultimately engagement with brands is more important than popularity," said Rezab. "Brands are becoming more social, and are communicating much better with their fans. Before they only had video ads on TV or banner ads on the Internet, but now they have the social space to get a lot more feedback."

To demonstrate its reach, Socialbakers recently did a study of the upcoming presidential election in the U.S., in advance of its recently opened U.S. headquarters in San Francisco (its world-headquarters is in Prague). For the U.S., it wanted to answer the question "can social media predict U.S. elections." Ultimately, it decided "maybe not yet, but we did show that social media is a great indicator of which candidate's posts are the most engaging," said Rezab.

The full study measured several metrics regarding how each candidate's fan-base was growing--or shrinking--but more importantly which particular social media posts of each candidate were the most engaging. In particular, one Obama post which included a new "family photo" was judged the most engaging post of the campaign by Socialbakers. And three weeks later the "Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama campaign chose the family photo that we identified as their key creative for the next campaign period," said Rezab.

Socialbakers currently has over 350,000 marketers regularly visiting its website to mine data from its studies, with 750 brands worldwide currently subscribing to its social-media tracking services. Cost is about $400 per month--depending on how many Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube social media pages an enterprise has. The service produces a package of standard analytics, including a measure of "total fans" and "social media market share." For brands that need help polishing their image, Socialbakers also offers software-as-a-service (SaaS) for what it called "engagement enhancement" of a brand's social media presentation.

#MEDICAL: "Swallow-the-Surgeon Revs Medicine"

Smart millimeter-sized submersibles aim to navigate the bloodstream to identify maladies, deliver drugs, dissolve blood clots, and perform minor surgical procedures such as cleaning clogged arteries. Edgar Albert Guest said "It couldn't be done" in the opening line of his 1916 poem by that name, but his point was to encourage inventors to seek supposedly unattainable goals, as indicated in the last line of his poem where he advises to just "tackle the thing that 'couldn’t be done,' and you’ll do it."

Swallow-the-Surgeon medical care relies on a three by four millimeter-sized submersible that navigates the bloodstream to deliver drugs and perform minor surgical procedures such as cleaning arteries. (Source: Stanford)

Edgar Albert Guest said "It couldn't be done" in the opening line of his 1916 poem by that name, but his point was to encourage inventors to seek supposedly unattainable goals, as indicated in the last line of his poem where he advises to just "tackle the thing that 'couldn’t be done,' and you’ll do it."

Electrical engineer Ada Poon recently took Guest's advice when she bucked conventional wisdom by suggesting that high-frequency radio waves could power tiny submersibles while they navigate the bloodstream to perform diagnostics, deliver payloads (drugs), and even perform minor surgical procedures such as dissolving blood clots or removing a blockage from sclerotic arteries.
Poon's research team at Stanford University recently showed prototypes of its "swallow-the-surgeon" submersibles that can swim through the blood stream at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC 2012, Feb 20-24, San Francisco, Calif.)

The self-propelled medical submersible measures just three millimeters wide by four millimeters long, small enough to be injected into the body where it can be directed by wireless power beams.

Today's medical implants require batteries, which often take up half the volume of the device. Usually these batteries must be periodically replaced, but even those that are rechargeable through the skin are too bulky to fit inside a millimeter-sized submersible.

Engineers before Poon also said "it couldn't be done" because even if a millimeter sized battery could be made, the muscle, fat, and bones of the body were electrical conductors and would hence block high-frequency power beams. Poon, however, was not cowed by convention, but instead explored modeling human tissue as a low-loss dielectric, resulting in millimeter sized antennas that have proven sensitive enough to gather the energy needed to power very small submersibles. Poon now maintains that a one gigahertz power beam can convey 100-times more energy than engineers had previously assumed, making self-propelled medical devices feasible.

Poon's demonstration at ISSCC showed how millimeter-sized submersibles could be powered by radio beams along with their on-board electronics. The antenna on the prototype measured just two millimeters square. Two types of motors were shown by Poon--one that used alternating current to create a swishing motion similar to a kayaker going upstream, and a second that uses direct current to propel fluid through the device to push it forward. The highest attainable speed so far is five millimeters per second.
Poon's team included Stanford doctoral candidates Daniel Pivonka and Anatoly Yakovlev. Funding was provided by C2S2 Focus Center, Olympus Corporation and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#MEDICAL: "Magnetic Sensors Empower Drive-by-Tongue"

Electrical engineers have redefined the level of fine control afforded to drive-by-tongue systems used by spinal cord injury patients to control their wheelchairs.

Reduced size magnetic sensors are embedded in a dental retainer worn in the mouth (right) to recognize seven different tongue movements (left).

Tiny micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) sensor chips, a minuscule wireless transmitter, and an encircling power-beaming battery pack enough smarts into a centimeter sized Tongue Drive System for patients suffering spinal cord injuries to maneuver a wheel chair and operate a computer with their tongue. The Tongue Drive System was demonstrated at this week's IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

Four magnetic sensor chips recently enabled this downsized Tongue Drive System to fit onto a dental retainer, which held the device immobile against the roof of the mouth, making its use invisible to outside observers. Previous models used a headset to hold the magnetic sensor circuitry. That eliminated the need for a wireless connection, but made it more difficult for patients to operate--especially when the headset got knocked askew.

"Moving the sensors inside the mouth [gives] the Tongue Drive System increased mechanical stability and comfort, making is nearly unnoticeable, " said professor Maysam Ghovanloo, at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

A permanent magnet, on a tongue stud, is used to activate the magnetic sensors on the Tongue Drive System. The system sends a wireless command to a nearby Apple iPod, which in turn sends a control signal to the wheelchair. When not driving, the Tongue Drive System also gives drivers access to text messaging, the Internet, and iOS apps.

The software running on an iPod controls the movements of a cursor on its screen or substitutes for the joystick function in a conventional powered wheelchair. An additional app allows the patient to craft their own custom commands to perform repetitive tasks.

The circuitry for the Tongue Drive System is completely encased in water resistance vacuum-molded high-impact dental acrylic, making it extremely durable, impervious to moisture, and completely isolated from its environment. In order to charge the lithium-ion battery pack on the Tongue Drive System, an embedded antenna loop around the outside of the dental retainer receives a 13.56 MHz radio beam. The induction coil drives an energy harvesting circuit that charges the battery wirelessly at night in a charging dock on the wheelchair.

Clinical trials at the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center and the Rehabilitation Institute (Chicago) were conducted recently involving 11 patients suffering spinal cord injuries. Each received a tongue piercing to install the tongue stud containing a permanent tiny magnet embedded in the upper ball. Patients performed 12 test sessions--two per week over a six-week period--to troubleshoot the Tongue Drive System.

Funding was provided by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

#CHIPS: "How best to reduce power on future ICs"

Excessive power consumption has become the chief roadblock to further scaling of semiconductors, threatening to stall advancement in all electronics sectors—everything from further miniaturizing mobile devices to revving supercomputers.

While the causes are rooted in the immutable laws of physics and chemistry, engineers have devised a novel set of innovations that are mitigating the problem today and that promise to reinvigorate the chip industry tomorrow.
Further Reading

#CHIPS: "Terahertz CMOS debuts at ISSCC"

Downsizing big bulky terahertz (THz) detectors for integration on CMOS image chips has been accomplished by the University of Texas (Dallas) with funding from the Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC).

Accomplished under SRC’s Focus Research Program, the demonstration of terahertz speeds on standard CMOS opens a door for a new slew of consumer devices that can see through solid objects.
Further Reading

Monday, February 20, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "Video Processors Aim for Cancer Cure"

Researchers are repurposing the graphics processing units (GPUs) that power video gaming consoles for ultra-detailed simulations of how cancer cells reproduce, unlocking new protein folding techniques that could lead to a cure.

When Wake Forest University touted its latest medical research effort, it described the breakthrough as "the cure for cancer comes down to this: video games." That sensational assertion, when investigated, relates to professor Samuel Cho's repurposing, for medical simulations, the multi-core graphics processing units (GPUs) which were originally intended for video games.

Graphics processing units like Nividia's Tesla, with up to 512 on-chip high-speed cores, were intended to accelerate the processing of pixels for video games. With each core assigned to a sub-set of screen real estate, the GPU can divide-and-conquer detailed rendering problems in short order--offering thousand-fold speed-ups of video gaming tasks compared to traditional CPUs that must labor though updating each pixel on the screen in serial fashion.

What scientists like Cho discovered, in cooperation with colleagues at the University of Maryland and Zhejiang University in China, was that GPUs are also perfect for simultaneously emulating all the various processes that go on inside a living cell. A traditional CPU has to simulate these "goings on" in serial fashion, updating progress with each simulated process, storing its results in memory, then moving on to the next process. After all the processes are updated "time" is moved forward, and the single CPU then goes through the list of processes updating them all again.

A GPU, on the other hand, can emulate all processes in parallel--assigning each process to a separate core. The emulation can then proceed in real-time, with each process calculating its next state in lock step with all the other processes, thus more accurately imitating all the simultaneous processes that are going on inside a living cell. Without the parallel processing capabilities of GPUs, Cho estimates his detailed simulation would have taken 40 years to run.

As a result, Cho and colleagues claim to be able to "see exactly how the cells live, divide and die." And it’s the dying part that has raised hopes for a cure to cancer. In particular, when simulating ribonucleic acid (RNA), Cho noticed that hitherto hidden states in its folding and unfolding had previously masked the means by which the telomerase enzyme--found only in cancer cells--makes them immortal. All other cells live, die, and are replaced with fresh copies. Cancer cells, on the other hand, become immortal by adding telomeres to the ends of copies, causing the uncontrolled growth characteristic of cancer. Now cancer drugs can be sought that block the telomeres from being added, potentially curing cancer.

Friday, February 17, 2012

#QUANTUM: "Quantum Effort to Nix Hacker Advantage"

With hackers winning the cyber-wars, the U.S. government is expanding its funding of uncrackable communications techniques that make use of quantum mechanics.

Bulky test equipment used to perfect optical technologies for quantum communications will have to be miniaturized to the chip scale before commercialization.

Analysts predict that more that 51 percent of Internet traffic in 2012 will be generated by malware. Hackers frequently use the malicious software to intercept communications and beam data back to criminal websites. Quantum communications, on the other hand, could turn the tide against the bad guys by enabling uncrackable communications over the existing fiber optic connections used to connect major Internet hubs worldwide.

To develop this type of secure system, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) recently funded a five-year, $8.5 million effort by seven U.S. universities to perfect quantum communications and the necessary short-term quantum memories needed to buffer quantum information while it is being transmitted. The universities participating in the five-year Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) led by Georgia Tech include Columbia University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin.

The basic technique being explored uses what is called quantum entanglement--the ability to synchronize encoded values over vast distances without the possibility of eavesdropping. By entangling photons that will shipped across fiber optic networks--what's called quantum encryption--the recipients can read the data without the possibility of it being intercepted by others.

"Our immediate focus will be on communications, including memories and distributed systems that integrate [quantum communications] with existing infrastructure--the optical fibers that are already deployed," said Georgia Tech professor Alex Kuzmich, MURI’s principal investigator. "We aim to create large-scale systems that use entanglement for quantum communication and potentially also quantum computing. [And] if we are successful over the next five years, long-distance quantum communications may become promising for real-world implementation."

MURI will explore three different approaches for creating entangled quantum memories with matter-light interactions, namely neutral atom memories with electronically-excited interactions, nitrogen-vacancy semiconductor defects engineered into on-chip diamond films, and by using charged quantum dots smaller that the wavelength of the light being communicated.

By studying how to store quantum information, convert it into light, and transmit it over long distance, the MURI program aims for four major goals: performance comparisons between the three methods of entanglement outlined above, extended entanglement lifetimes over several seconds (compared to the longest lifetimes today of 200 milliseconds), implement identical quantum states in dual memory nodes for easy error corrections, and downsizing of the necessary optical components to make the commercially feasible.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

#WIRELESS: "Wireless Implant Meters Drug Doses"

Smart medical implants can now dispense drugs into the bloodstream as a result of wireless signals sent to it from the doctor's office.

MicroCHIPS has developed an implantable medical device which allows repeated wireless drug delivery in lieu of injections. (Photo courtesy of M. Scott Brauer)

A thumbnail-sized microchip containing multiple drug reservoirs has now passed clinical trials in which a wireless signal was used to release precise daily doses, instead of requiring patients to inject themselves with the drug. The technology could help patients who require frequent or daily injections.

Studies have shown that many medical patients do not take their meds on schedule, especially when they are feeling good and think they no longer need them. Unfortunately, many drugs today need to be taken regularly and in precise doses in order to maintain their long-term therapeutic effect. As a result, many new technologies are being tried that prompt the patient, via email or telephone reminders, to administer the drug themselves. Others have tried using smart pills to wirelessly notify the doctor when a specific drug has been taken.

The new approach that has just passed clinical trials in Denmark uses a smart microchip implant that stores daily doses of drugs, then automatically dispenses them in response to a wireless signal sent by the attending physician on the Medical Implant Communication Service (MICS, frequencies band between 401- and 406-MHz). As a result, patients can receive regular, precise doses of their medicines in perfect compliance with their doctor's instructions.

"It can be very difficult to get patients to accept a drug regimen where they have to give themselves injections," said MIT professor Michael Cima. "This avoids the compliance issue completely, and points to a future where you have fully automated drug regimens."

The smart implant is manufactured by MicroChips Inc. under a license from MIT where Cima and fellow professor Robert Langer have been developing the idea for several years. Now that the clinical trials have been successful, the company is increasing the number of doses each chip contains as well as creating a variety of different sized reservoirs so that all the different drugs a patient takes can be held by a single smart implant.

"You can deliver multiple drugs [using] remote control," said Langer. "You could literally have a pharmacy on a chip."
The successful clinical trials showed no adverse side effects, but in fact showed a significant improvement in the accuracy and timing of the doses given, compared to depending on patients to administer the drugs themselves. The trials administered a drug for osteoporosis, but any patient with chronic diseases, regular pain-management, or other drugs that need to be taken daily could benefit from the implant.

The smart implant can be injected under the skin in the doctor's office in about 30 minutes using a local anesthetic and lasts about four months before needing to be replaced. Each dose is held in a reservoir capped with platinum/titanium which melts when it receives a signal using the MICS wireless network protocol. The test chips only held 20 doses, but the production models now in development will hold hundreds of doses. Eventually MicroChips plans to develop even smarter models that can administer drugs in response to on-chip sensors, such as a glucose sensor for diabetics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#ENERGY: "Grid-Scale Batteries Could Buffer Renewables"

Gigantic grid-scale batteries containing self-separating liquids, instead of metal electrodes, promise to buffer renewable energy sources by storing, for instance, wind energy at night for use during the day.

Professor Donald Sadoway and research affiliate David Bradwell at MIT's Materials Processing Center observe a test battery inside the heavily insulated metal cylinder heated to 700 degrees Celsius (1292 degrees Fahrenheit). (Source: MIT)

Novel grid-scale all-liquid batteries promise to enable electricity from renewable sources--such as solar, wind, and ocean--to be stored then released on-demand by virtue of chemical reactions that take place at over 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim their all liquid battery technology can be inexpensively replicated on a gigantic scale, to help make renewable energy sources viable, since much of their production is wasted today due to a lack of grid-scale battery technologies. For instance, when the wind blows at night when electricity demands are low the all-liquid batteries could level-the-load by storing the energy produced until daylight, thus smoothing out erratic renewables.

The key to the inexpensive new battery technology is that it consists entirely of liquid components. Conventional liquid batteries--like the one it most cars--use two metal electrodes separated by a liquid electrolyte. However, the new MIT gird-scale battery is entirely liquid. Three different liquids of different densities--the top and bottom liquids acting as the electrodes and the middle one as the electrolyte--naturally stay separated in a manner similar to how some cocktails will separate into liquid levels in your glass.

The liquid materials are all inexpensive and yet work even better than liquid-core batteries with solid electrodes, according to their inventor, professor Donald Sadoway. (Sadoway has been working toward the all-liquid battery for three years with his team that includes MIT doctoral candidate David Bradwell.)

The only major downside to MIT's all-liquid battery is that it must be heated to 1292 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep the three liquids separate. By keeping the all-liquid battery in a tightly sealed and insulated container, the MIT team claims it could be safely deployed by electric grid owners.

The battery has a top layer consisting of molten magnesium, the middle electrolytic layer consisting of molten magnesium-chloride, and the bottom layer consisting of molten antimony. The battery delivers current by stripping electrons from the top magnesium layer; these ions migrate through the electrolyte to form an alloy with the antimony at the bottom. When recharging, electrons from a renewable energy source recombine with the magnesium ions in the alloy at the bottom. The freed magnesium atoms then migrate back across the electrolyte to rejoin the molten magnesium at the top where it is ready to again supply energy to the grid.

Sadoway and Bradwell have founded Liquid Metal Battery Corp. to commercialize their all-liquid battery.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

#SECURITY: "Security Training for Social Media"

Best practices for protecting personal information--called digital responsibility--is best learned right now, regardless of your age. That's the goal of a free Internet security training suite for students, teachers, worried parents, and even savvy users.

Hackers and criminals have access to automatic tools that can crack short passwords in just a few seconds.

Smartphones, tablets and other digital devices are pacifying children, teenagers, and even grown-up men and woman in households worldwide. As a result, a gaping need is present for teaching "digital responsibility" to budding surfers--especially social media users--in order to avoid the pitfalls of unbridled online access.

Free presentation kits on Internet safety practices, available as downloadable Volunteer Resources, were designed by IBMers as a service to humanity.

"The resources we are donating will help teachers and parents raise awareness that most Internet-based threats to individual and computer security can significantly be reduced by actions that informed users take themselves," said Harriet Pearson, IBM Security Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer. "IBMers are committed to helping educate people on ways to safely and securely use the Internet."

The kits, announced this month on Safer Internet Day, include separate tracks on controlling your online identity, Internet safety coaching, and cyber-bullying.

For instance, the volunteer education kit entitled “Control Your Online Identity” should be useful to anyone who has yet to appreciate the gravity of revealing personal information that criminals and similar unscrupulous users could easily harvest.

Designed to be especially helpful to teenagers, who are often savvy in "how to" use the Internet but short-sighted about the types of information they reveal, the presentation presents the best practices that all users should be following. For instance, did you know that it takes less than a minute for hacker tools to deduce a password that is less than seven characters long?

The “Control Your Online Identity” kit also shows how using the same nickname on different websites enables anyone to derive a complete profile of your online activities, posts, likes and dislikes. In some cases, this type of information has been used to deny services to users who thought their posts were private. For instance, the posting of risky escapades has been used to increase insurance rates for new drivers.

The Internet Safety Coaching tract similarly educates users on how to stay safe when using instant messaging and social networking sites. And the Cyber-bullying tract shows parents how to, recognize the symptoms and prevent online services from perpetuating, school-ground-like bullying online.

Monday, February 13, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "Gamification Boosting Enterprise Websites"

By offering the same kind of incentives as massive multi-player gaming platforms--unlocking badges, moving up by levels, competing against others, and having fun uncovering surprise content--enterprises worldwide are quickly adding smart gamification software-as-a-service (SaaS) to their websites.

Samsung used Badgeville's gamification platform to turn its website into a social-media mecca.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, you must have noticed the gamification of dozens of popular websites, from Samsung to NBC. Smart gamification, delivered via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering, adds to enterprise websites the elements that make massive multi-player online games (MOOGs) so popular, namely hierarchical playing levels, the unlocking badges, and friendly competitions designed to make website visits fun--like a game.

Unlike merely adding links that post "likes" to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, gamification introduces the element of friendly competitions for rewards--including badges, sweepstakes, and special product discounts--as well as allowing ordinary consumers to ascend to higher levels that make them super-heros among their friends. This type of reward system is similar to the accolades they would get from conquests in massive multi-player online games.

In the rush to gamify enterprise websites, a number of SaaS companies have sprung up almost overnight, including BadgeFarm, Bunchball, and the self-proclaimed leader in gamification, Badgeville. Their business model is to enhance enterprise websites with "social loyalty" platforms that turn content, commerce, and community branding into a self-directed experience that exploits the psychology of gaming to keep users coming back for hours at a time. These are the same characteristics that get users to spend hours on end in massive multi-player online games like "World of Warcraft."

"We don't create games, we use game psychology to create game dynamics that drive behavior, then apply it to business objectives," said Badgeville's Kevin Akeroyd, senior vice president of field operations. "Gamification creates a rewards space, which is what users get when they perform the desired behavior."

Desired behaviors are typically the same as they were before. They include reading about new products, watching demonstration videos, making comments, posting reviews, and sending "likes" to external social media platforms. The difference now is that the user earns points for each action--which can be redeemed--and badges which can be proudly proclaimed with "bragging rights" to fellow users.

Badgeville claims that gamifying the typical enterprise website boosts key business objectives by 20 to 250 percent, prompting the company to recently expand its reach with a Cloud Connector Program that allows enterprises using its SaaS to plug their users into the other popular online services such as Bizzareboys, Jive, and Salesforce.

"Our Cloud Connector Program provides a software suite that enables plug-and-play integration directly with other leading enterprise applications, helping to enhance business eCommerce and customer loyalty," said Akeroyd.

Since user have to register to participate, a detailed profile of their likes and dislikes can be amassed, feeding analytics that also drive the enterprise's existing marketing efforts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "People's Oscars Gauge Public Sentiment"

The People's Oscars project intends to demonstrate that business analytics and natural language software can be successfully used to understand, respond, and predict public sentiment in Academy Awards winners, sports events, retailing trends, and journalist media.

The Academy Awards each year bestows Oscars to the judges’ choices for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture. These choices often do not jive with the actual popularity of the characters and movies themselves.

The People's Oscar seeks to remedy that by gauging public sentiment itself. However, instead of asking people to log-on to a website and explicitly vote for their favorites (thereby limiting the sample size to activists who take the time to vote), the project uses IBM analytics and natural language understanding algorithms to extract the people's real sentiments from their tweets.

The People's Oscars, sponsored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times newspaper, in addition to IBM, aims to retarget Watson-like analytics to measure sentiment from social media postings. Just as Twitter, Facebook, and FourSquare have changed the way consumers communicate, USC, IBM and the LA Times are seeking to change the way Oscars are bestowed--at least in their cyber-space incarnations.

Now that a billion of users worldwide are using social media to communicate, their sentiments regarding the best actors, actresses, and movies should theoretically represent public opinion. However, to mine that vast deposit of online data requires high-powered analytics that was previously only available to enterprises. The partnership between USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab, IBM, and the LA Times intends to demonstrate that business analytics can be successfully used to understand, respond, and predict public sentiment in applications from sports forecasting to retailing to journalist media.

This collaboration "demonstrates how the media industry is advancing at a pace consistent with the fast-evolving Twitterverse," said Steve Canepa, General Manager of Media and Entertainment, IBM. "By gaining insight from the growing world of social media, we can add a new layer of intelligence that will change how all industries engage with their digitally savvy consumers."

Key to the success of The People's Oscars was repurposing IBM's business analytics and natural language understanding software to extract pro and con sentiments from the 140 character tweets of the Twitterverse. By crafting algorithms that can detect the difference between genuine admiration and mere sarcasm, IBM's natural language understanding software was able to gauge the popularity of actors, actresses, and the movies themselves from millions of tweets.

Analytics "can capture valuable information and opinions derived from movie fans," said Professor Jonathan Taplin, Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. "The People's Oscars moves beyond the pundits' opinions of who the winners may be, to understanding who real moviegoers want to see receive the highest accolades."

The latest picks and pans in The People's Oscars are being published daily in an infographic illustrating ongoing sentiment in the LA Times leading up to, the official 84th Academy Awards ceremony where the Oscars will be presented on February 26, 2012.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

#ENERGY: "Hybrid Battery Market Skyrocketing"

Electric vehicles have stimulated all kinds of research efforts into making a better battery--from ultra capacitors to spinning flywheels--but for now the biggest impact is a 10-fold increase in the lithium-ion battery market.

The popularity of electric and hybrid automobiles has stimulated a flurry of research into all types of batteries, such as IBM's Battery 500 Project, which aims to reinvent the lithium-ion battery to use air like a gasoline engine.

Despite the wide array of research projects underway--from ultra capacitors to spinning flywheels--the main effect of the hybrid automobile so far has been to boost the popularity of the conventional lithium-ion battery. And because traditional lithium-ion batteries usable lifetime in an automobile is sharply reduced when rapidly charged, a new market for used lithium-ion batteries is emerging, prompting research into reusing them in home energy-storage units.

ABB Ltd. makes fast charge stations that take less than 10 minutes to provide a 62 mile recharge and is partnering with GM to turn used car batteries into home-storage stations.

Lithium-ion batteries have long been popular for mobile devices, from camcorders to smartphones, but their use in automobiles is predicted to boost the market size 10-fold by 2020. Consequently generous tax incentives in many countries have prompted a vast expansion of manufacturing capabilities for lithium-ion batteries to meet this growing demand.

Unfortunately, a lithium-ion battery's capacity diminishes over time, as the cells internal resistance increases with each recharge. And fast recharges exacerbate the problem, drastically reducing their usable lifetime. Lithium-ion batteries for laptops computers, for instance, have a lifetime of just a few years before their capacity is so diminished that users toss them out and buy a new one. For automobiles, the battery's lifetime has been extended with more durable construction techniques, but quick-charging stations could counter those improvements, creating a market for used batteries whose capacity is too low for automobiles. However, these batteries could be used in home energy-storage units.

The market for lithium-ion batteries in 2010 was around $4.7 billion. But Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI Research) expects the market will grow to as much as $47 billion by 2020. That represents a compound annual growth rate of 25 percent. In 2011, the switchover to quick-charging plug-in hybrid electric vehicles was in full swing, prompting government subsidized high-speed recharging stations to be installed around the world.

Unfortunately, a side-effect of these quick-recharge stations will be a shortening of the lifetime of the lithium-ion battery packs used in these plug-in hybrid vehicles, prompting General Motors (GM) to partner with ABB Ltd. (Zurich, Switzerland) to research methods of re-using lithium-ion batteries from automobiles in energy-storage units that while bulky--since the capacity of each battery will be low--could nevertheless provide usable energy-storage units as a bargain price.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

#MEDICAL: "Bionic Man Says: Better than Original"

The teenage fisherman who made national headlines when a shark attacked him in shallow water back in 2005, now claims his new smart prosthetic leg is better than the original.

A smart prosthetic leg from Vanderbilt University reacts like the real thing, according to its first recipient, Craig Hutto whose real leg was damaged beyond repair in a shark attack. Now Hutto says his biggest problem is getting his real leg to hustle enough to keep up with the smart prosthetic limb.

In shorts, Hutto’s bionic leg is obvious, but with long pants the natural gate enabled by its smart algorithms makes him indistinguishable from other pedestrians.

After a shark attacked Hutto during a trip to the Gulf Coast in Florida, the 16 year old fisherman’s life was saved by three nurses whose heroic efforts saved him from bleeding to death. Unfortunately, he lost his leg in the process. Hutto feared he would never walk again, but today he is walking tall on a smart bionic leg that his pioneering efforts helped make a reality. Now Hutto is studying to become a nurse like those who saved his life.

The key to Hutto’s change of fortune is the lightweight design and lifelike algorithms built into his smart prosthetic leg designed by Vanderbilt University mechanical engineer, Michael Goldfarb. The smart prosthetic reacts to the cues of walking like a real person, thanks to algorithms designed to mimic how people walk by anticipating the next step.

Two years ago, Goldfarb invited Hutto to become a test pilot for his smart prosthetic project, whose original mechanical design was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and whose latest iteration--including the smart bionic algorithms--was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Unlike traditional prosthetics which restrict motion, Goldfarb’s computer-controlled joints enjoy a range of motion comparable to that of real legs. The battery powered motors--one driving the knee joint and one driving the ankle joint--respond to signals from the computer which is tracking their motion with micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) sensors.

The team of Goldfarb, Hutto, and Brian Lawson, another Vanderbilt mechanical engineer, worked together to make the prosthetic leg’s programming responsive to cues given to it by the wearer. As a result, the prosthetic achieves the bionic moniker by virtue of the life-like algorithms instilled into it which infer what the wearer is trying to do.

For example, a “climbing stairs” action is triggered in the bionic leg by a backward kick gesture which signals the computer to switch to the stair-climbing algorithms that lifts its knee joint high enough that the foot clears the lower step landing on the higher one.

Hutto claims it takes less effort to walk with the prosthetic leg than his real leg, because once triggered, the smart prosthetic takes over, powering the leg through its range of motion without any further effort from Hutto. As a consequence, he has to hustle with his real leg to keep up.

To help Hutto keep up, Goldfarb's team has intentionally programmed delays into the leg's motion algorithms, so that the wearer can synergistically stay in perfect step.

Goldfarb’s group recently licensed their technology to an undisclosed prosthetic manufacturer who is currently building commercial prototypes which it will test market next year.

#CHIPS: "Smarter Cameras Plumb Composition"

A rose is a rose if its red and round, but smarter cameras can now tell the difference between a real rose and a silk rose using chemical composition analytics.

Imec’s smarter camera makes use of a hyper-spectral sensor that not only senses color and brightness, but also perceives an object’s chemical composition.

A new type of smarter camera can take a picture but also assess the chemical composition of the objects being imaged. This enables automated inspection systems to discern details that would be missed by conventional cameras.

Cameras usually record the color and brightness of an object with a two-dimensional array of semiconductor photoreceptors, resulting in a megapixel map that looks like a conventional photo. Unfortunately, closely spaced objects of the same color are often hard to discern. 3D cameras can separate similarly colored objects that are at different distances, but if they are closely packed on the same plane, even 3D cameras can be fooled. A smarter camera from the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (Imec, Leuven, Belgium) promises to solve this problem, by simultaneously performing chemical composition analytics.

Last month at the international Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), Imec showed its hyper-spectral camera for the first time. This smarter camera can not only perceive the shapes of objects, but also their chemical composition, which is useful for all sorts of auto-inspection systems, such as crop screening analytics, ascertaining food spoilage, skin-cancer detection, and military-target selection.

Imec's smarter camera is based on a low-cost semiconductor chip technology that combines traditional imaging techniques with hyper-spectral sensors that respond differently to objects with different chemical compositions. The system-on-chip (SoC) solution can accurately distinguish between objects that appear virtually identical using traditional red-green-blue imaging chips.
Hyper-spectral cameras themselves are not new, but unfortunately the units have typically been large, expensive, and slow operating. This limited their use to special-purpose research applications. Imec's SoC implementation, on the other hand, remedies these shortcomings, allowing their use in cost-sensitive, time-critical, and high-throughput applications.

The technique by which Imec fabricates its smarter camera SoC is fully compatible with the conventional complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) process technologies with which nearly all processors and memory chips are made today. This enables the smarter cameras to be easily mass produced. By adding special spectral filters to a traditional CMOS image sensor across an 8-inch CMOS wafer, thousands of smarter camera SoCs can be simultaneously fabricated at extremely low prices.

The demonstration smarter camera shown at SPIE had four million pixels and could operate at a rate of 180 frames per second (FPS, equivalent to over 2000 lines-per-second, with 500 FPS planned) for use in both high-resolution and high-throughput applications. The hyper-spectral filters measured chemical composition in 100 spectral bands between 560-to-1000 nanometers, with a transmission efficiency of 85 percent.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

#CLOUD: "Smarter Net Boosts Tough Apps"

Compute-intensive applications executing on-the-fly processing of network data are turning to a new genre of accelerator that harnesses field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).

When IT needs an application-specific boost, it usually looks to boost the performance of the whole server, but a new genre of smarter server interface harnesses field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to more efficiently accelerate compute-intensive applications.

What do stock market trading programs, automated video surveillance, global oil and gas exploration, and Internet cyber security applications have in common? They all need speed when executing tasks such as parsing, filtering, sorting, encode/decoding, and other compute-intensive operations on real-time data streams. IT's solution today is to increase the capability of the server, dedicate a core to the task, or buy an accelerator card that attaches to the server's main processor. But a new approach is to add an accelerated network interface card (NIC) that harnesses a field-programmable gate array (FPGA).

Solarflare's Application Onload Engine (AOE) is the world's first server adapter with a built-in field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for accelerating compute-intensive operations on real-time data streams.

FPGAs are hardware chips that are reconfigurable to execute a specific task. Unlike general-purpose accelerator chips, which are programmed with algorithms, FPGAs re-route the signals on the chip through arrays of high-speed transistors rather than execute instructions. As a result, compute-intensive tasks that operate on real-time data streams can be more efficiently accelerated with FPGAs than when using faster cores executing software algorithms.

Using a hardware-description language (HDL) instead of computer-software language, an FPGA can be scorchingly fast--much faster than software--at real-time data-stream processing. Today FPGAs are used for digital-signal processing by NASA space probes, medical imagers, computer-vision systems, bioinformatics, radio astronomy and all sorts of time-critical aerospace and military applications. But now IT is gaining access to the blinding speed of FPGAs by virtue of integrating them into the NIC.
"Applications that require super high-speed on-the-fly processing of data streams can achieve an unparalleled boost in performance by turning to FPGAs," said Mike Smith, vice president and general manager of host solutions at Solarflare Communications Inc. (Irvine, Calif.).

Solarflare already sells the world's fastest NICs, offered as options by several high-performance server manufacturers. These companies use the NICs because their application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) lower latency from 10-to-15 microseconds down to 2-microseconds when using 10Gigabit Ethernet. As a result, Solarflareis NICs are used by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ), the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and other enterprises whose success depends on the high-speed processing of real-time data streams.

The company’s new FPGA-based NIC, the ApplicationOnload Engine (AOE), promises to open up a new market in real-time data stream processing by lowering latency below one microsecond, and by processing compute-intensive tasks during the last step before data transmission. For instance, in video surveillance applications the AOE eliminates the need for the main processor to process and store compressed video files, since the NIC performs the compression on-the-fly.

Solarflare is providing a variety of application-specific models of its AOE, for different market segments, such as financial transaction processing or oil-and-gas exploration, but will also supply a software toolkit and API with which IT can roll-their-own custom FPGA configurations.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

#HEALTH: "10 Best Fitness Apps Revealed"

Want to get fit? Of course, there’s an app for that. An expert in fitness training video courses picks the 10 best apps for exercise and nutrition from among the thousands of offerings.

When Hollywood starlets and fitness professionals want to make a video--from "Jane Fonda's Workout" to "Billy Blanks' BootCamp"--they go to Watch It Now TV Inc., a leader in fitness production with hundreds of celebrity workout DVDs. But founder and certified CrossFit instructor Darren Capik is also an avid user of smartphones. And although he does not produce or promote applications, he believes the technology is a key new ingredient to getting and keeping people interested in staying fit.

"Apps are a fun way to add an element of technology to your workout," said Capik. "We all have smartphones now, but there are thousands of apps available making the choice a bit overwhelming. What I like about all the apps here is that they all have the best thing anyone can look for in an app--simplicity. What you want is to start up, get right on it and work it through--especially someone new to fitness."

SixPack App Pro demonstrates how to do each exercise and what pitfalls to avoid.
Here are Capik's choices of Top 10 Fitness Apps:

1) SixPack App Pro
"Incredibly easy to go in, find the proper way to do each exercise, and get started," said Capik.
A catalog of exercises with and without weights, as well as warmups, stretching and yoga basics to complete your workout and to avoid injuries. Exercise descriptions, tips and common mistakes are organized by body area--chest, legs, arms, et alia--as well as by the type of equipment--dumbell, tubing, medicine ball, et alia. Compete workouts that mix up the exercises are also provided, including special versions for traveling, doing circuits and regimes like alternating push/pull exercises.

2) Calorie Counter by FatSecret
"Adds the element of food that you can make, suggesting recipes along with the basic calorie-counting function," said Capik.
After setting current weight and target weight, the calorie counter lets you do just that--count calories--which it tracks along with exercise (including sleeping which it claims burns about 80 calories an hour). By tallying up your calorie intake and outflow, users can consistently manage their weight, plus it includes recipes to meet specific caloric-intake goals.

3) DailyBurn
"A combination of workout and calories counter--a little tricky to follow, but good for sophisticated users," said Capik.
This application recommends a daily workout to its users based on stated goals and progress made toward them already. A video instructor takes you through each workout, including several alternatives so you can mix it up. It includes elements of a personal trainer with automated tools for tracking your progress over time in greater detail.

4) Nutrition Tips
"Nothing sophisticated about this app--just a collection of great nutrition facts and a great diversion while you're waiting in line somewhere," said Capik.
This application offers a comprehensive set of health and nutrition tips. For instance, buffalo wings are so named because these spicy chicken wings were invented in Buffalo, N.Y. When you find a gem--such as "people who eat breakfast improve their memory"--you can easily post it to Twitter or Facebook.

5) Authentic Yoga with Deepak Chopra
"Yoga is all about mind/body integration, and Deepak Chopra shows how to tap your inner being while doing yoga," said Capik.
This application introduces yoga poses and proper breathing techniques with audio (using Deepak Chopra's legendary voice) as well as video clips showing all the details. Instead of measuring length in minutes--stop-watch style--the number of breaths is designated for each pose and routine sequence, organized by exerience level as well as by common complaints, such as "Yoga for Back Pain." Budding yogis can also organize their own unique routines by selecting from menus to set them up.
For the rest of the list, we’ll discuss fitness applications that integrate cloud-analytics and social media.

6) Nike Training Club
"Best-in-class production, very engaging, great reward system, and is No. 1 in smart marketing the way it ties in the Nike brand," said Capik.

An application for females, it first asks women to set their goals (weight loss, muscle toning, muscle building or muscle-group development). After selecting a workout and reviewing the detailed explanations for how to do each exercise, women then do the workout with an audio instructor and stopwatch style countdown. Local analytics provide graphical representations of progress made so far. The application also provides motivation with rewards of celebrity videos revealing "secrets of the stars." Progress can be synced to the NikeWomen Website as well as auto-posted to Facebook.

7) Lose It!
"What I like most about this app, is that it gives you a running total during the day of where your are calorie-wise," said Capik.

More than just a weight-loss program, Lose It! integrates exercise and nutrition with fuel consumption (food), allowing users to set their ideal weight, then work toward that goal by logging the items they eat and exercises they perform as the day progresses. Organized like a health-meter called "My Day," a graph across the top shows how many calories have been consumed so far, how many are remaining (to match your weight-loss goals and compensates in real time by how much exercise you've gotten). Local analytics measures progress for the day and week, with longer-term trends revealed by syncing with the LoseIt! Website. The site can also provide reminders, regular reports and progress-sharing with your friends on Twitter and Facebook. LoseIt! integrates exercise and nutrition with analytics and social media (right), in a calorie-counter that displays a running total of daily progress.

8) RunKeeper
"This app can really motivate you by tying in its Website, which is very engaging and can keep people interested in working out," said Capik.

A simple and easy-to-use GPS-based exercise tracker that displays a dashboard with time elapsed, calories burned, distance traveled and pace (minutes per mile), all of which is uploaded to RunKeeper's cloud-based servers. The application can be used by runners, bikers, walkers, skiers, snowboarders, rowers and swimmers. An optional heart-rate monitor also tracks cardiovascular performance. After exercising, athletes go to the Website to see a graphical map showing their route with annotations and the way stations that were set by the user as they performed.

9) Pocket Trainer
"Very easy to understand, takes beginner by hand, but has lots of variation to keep you coming back and really helps you learn how with exercises you are not very good at yet," said Capik.

This application is an interactive fitness trainer that guides athletes through workouts that are customized for each individual. Users can set their current fitness level, the types of fitness equipment they have available, after which Pocket Trainer suggests exactly which exercises to do and for how long. After previewing each workout--with written descriptions, video demonstrations and solutions for common problems--the Pocket Trainer steps through the whole workout, as if a personal trainer were there. The application’s workout includes alternate exercises that allow users to mix it up. Pocket Trainer also sends reminders to stick-with-the-program if exercises have not been performed for the last few days.

10) FitnessBuilder
"Very sophisticated and configurable workouts, for men and women, offering the most growth potential of any app," said Capik.

An easy-to-use workout application that starts with textual descriptions and still images, but also includes video demonstrations of workouts, ranging from a 10-minute energy booster to an hour-long total body workout. Sets the pace with stopwatch-like timers, tracks reps per exercise, logs your progress and schedules sessions. Also alerts Twitter and Facebook users as well as integrates with the MapMyFitness Website for more sophisticated analytics.