Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 24, 2005

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Issue 24, 2005

This week's headlines:

Next gen DVD rivals fail to agree
August 23, 2005

Efforts to come up with a compromise on the next generation of DVD format appear to have stalled. Technology giant Toshiba and Sony had been in talks about bringing together rival DVD technologies. But the two are planning to go ahead with their own formats after talks on a single format failed.

The next generation of DVDs, due to go on sale later this year, will be able to store much more data, including high-definition video. Sony's Blu-ray discs can store 50GB of high-quality data, while Toshiba's HD-DVD can hold 30GB. Both disc formats offer much better quality audio and video, and could also mean there is a lot more space for interactive elements.

Blu-ray backers include Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Samsung, and Disney. HD-DVD supporters include Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers Studios.

Full story: BBC News / Yomiuri Shimbun Back to top

Microsoft seeks joint Linux study
August 25, 2005

Microsoft has approached the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), home of Linus Torvalds, to propose working together on a Windows vs. Linux analysis. Microsoft is hoping to woo the open source organisation into conducting what it calls 'independent' and 'fact-based' research.

Microsoft has said it will pay half of the necessary funding for the research and, should the OSDL take up its offer, Microsoft is expecting the open source group to pay the remaining half. Microsoft says the invitation comes in response to demand from customers for third-party research on how the competing operating systems perform against each other.

Microsoft has already made attempts to satisfy such demand with its 'Get the Facts' campaign. The campaign came in for criticism for its extensive use of Microsoft-sponsored analyst reports, which largely showed Microsoft to be cheaper than Linux. It also drew fire from the Advertising Standards Authority over claims relating to a comparison of the cost of Windows and a Linux server.

Full story: ZDNet Back to top

Video games and aggressive behaviour
August 19, 2005

The American Psychological Association (APA) has adopted a resolution to reduce violence in children's interactive media, following an in-depth review confirming that violent video games can make kids aggressive in the short-term. The long-term effects are still unknown.

Some researchers say that playing 'shoot 'em up' video games is directly linked to kids' aggressive behaviour in the real world. Others say the games are a healthy outlet. Now, researchers at Saint Leo University, Florida, conducted an extensive review of 17 studies conducted over 20 years. According to their review, there is a strong link between these games and violent and desensitised behaviour of children and adolescents in the short term. More research is required on the long-term effects.

The APA has called for the entertainment industry to better link violent behaviours with adverse consequences, and to adopt a new rating system that will more accurately reflect the content of video games. They are also advising that children learn how to play these games without identifying with the aggressive characters.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Telecoms face internet challenge
August 24, 2005

The telecoms industry has been warned it must be ready to compete with companies offering customers phone calls over the internet. New online technology, known as VoIP, is the latest innovation set to overhaul the industry, an OECD report said.

VoIP allows people to make calls over the internet for a fraction of the cost of fixed-line connections. This threatens the fixed-line revenues of traditional carriers, the OECD said. Mobile operators will also face a challenge from VoIP providers and could lose their place at the vanguard of technological innovation as cheap internet phone calls attract more business, the OECD added.

Google announced it was jumping on the VoIP bandwagon on Wednesday with the launch of Google Talk, an internet-based instant message and voice service. The VoIP market has been led by Skype, one of the first companies to offer internet phone calls. VoIP telephony revenues look set to nearly double to almost $8bn, according to figures from Lehman Brothers and comScore Media Metrix.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

High-power fuel cells go portable
August 25, 2005

A new lightweight generator powered by methanol has been developed by UltraCell in California. The device, which was designed to specifications for the US Army, weighs just 1.3 kilograms when fuelled up and is the size of a novel.

With a supply of 500 millilitres of methanol, the cell can chuck out 45 watts for a day, which is enough to power a laptop. The cell and fuel together are half the weight of the lithium batteries needed to provide the same power.

Most fuel cells run directly on methanol, giving them a relatively low power output for their weight. UltraCell focused instead on turning methanol into hydrogen inside the device, which lets them pump out twice as much power. However, 'reforming' methanol to hydrogen involves a chemical reaction that runs at about 280 °C. UltraCell has managed to isolate the heat from sensitive components just centimetres away, and the whole thing is cool enough for you to put your hand on the casing.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Coal-powered fuel cell aims for efficiency
August 23, 2005

A new coal-powered fuel cell may lead to a more efficient way of extracting energy from the fossil fuel than simply burning it, according to researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In conventional power plants, coal is burned to produce heat, which is then used to drive steam turbines and generate electricity. But during the energy conversion around 65 per cent of the coal's energy is lost. Efforts have been made in the past to use coal in fuel cells but these have required electrolytes of molten carbonate, involving temperatures between 600°C and 900°C. Not only do such high temperatures reduce efficiency but they also make the fuel cells prone to corrosion.

The new design allows electricity to be generated at just 100°C. But the efficiency of the current prototype device is only 7 per cent. The cells still produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But if the efficiency of the fuel cell can be improved above that of power stations, then more energy could be harvested with no concomitant increase in CO2 emissions.

Full story: New Scientist / Angewandte Chemie Back to top

Researchers increase speed of light
August 22, 2005

A team of European researchers has demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to control the speed of light. The scientists, from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), have successfully slowed light down and speeded it up within an optical fibre, using off-the-shelf instrumentation in normal environmental conditions. The breakthrough is predicted to have commercial applications in a variety of areas including optical computing and fibre-optic telecommunications.

The researchers said they were able not only to slow light down by a factor of three from its usual speed of 300 million metres per second in a vacuum, but they have also managed speeding it up - effectively making light go faster than the speed of light.

Slowing down light is considered to be a critical step in our ability to process information optically. To succeed commercially, a device that slows down light must be able to work across a range of wavelengths, be capable of working at high bit-rates and be reasonably compact and inexpensive.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Researchers build Bat-Bot
August 24, 2005

European scientists have developed a robotic bat head that can emit and detect ultrasound in the same band of frequencies used by living bats. The Bat-Bot, developed by project CIRCE, which is part of the EU's Information Society Technologies (IST) research initiative, is designed to help in echolocation research.

CIRCE said it has developed the Bat-Bot to closely mimic the echolocation skills of bats and to act as a tool for further research in echolocation. One of the potential applications could be identifying plant species using echolocation. During development of the Bat-Bot, CIRCE research validated that different plants give off unique echo signatures.

While building the robotic head was the primary aim of CIRCE, the group said it also generated many useful results along the way. One project partner developed a broadband transducer that could both convert acoustical energy to electrical energy and electrical to acoustical across the 20 to 200 kHz spectrum.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Rock 'n' roll robot regains its feet
August 19, 2005

A humanoid robot with an exceptionally nimble knack for getting back on its feet after a fall has been developed by researchers in Japan. Named R Daneel, the robot kicks up its legs and rolls back onto its shoulders to gain the momentum it needs to rock up onto its feet and into a crouching position. This might be fairly easy for a human to do, but for the 60-kilogram bot, it requires a relaxed attitude to body control.

The Japanese bot boasts a sophisticated series of sensors, including gyroscopes, accelerometers, and torque sensors. But unlike most humanoid bots, it is designed to embrace a lack of constant control and instead follow the trajectory determined by the weight and shape of its body during the rocking motion, until it lands square back on its feet.

A video clip of R Daneel in action rolling itself back to its feet can be seen in a video on the researchers' website at

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Einstein manuscript surfaces
August 21, 2005

The original manuscript of a paper Albert Einstein published in 1925 has been found in the archives of Leiden University's Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics. The handwritten manuscript titled 'Quantum theory of the monatomic ideal gas' was dated December 1924. Considered one of Einstein's last great breakthroughs, it was published in the proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in January 1925.

Photographs of the manuscript and an account of its discovery were posted on the institute's website. Einstein was a frequent guest lecturer at Leiden in the 1920s due to his friendship with physicist Paul Ehrenfest, among whose papers the manuscript was found.

The paper predicted that at temperatures near absolute zero particles in a gas can reach a state of such low energy that they clump together in one larger 'mono-atom'. The idea was developed in collaboration with Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and the then-theoretical state of matter was dubbed a Bose-Einstein condensation. In 1995, scientists succeeded in creating such a condensation using a gas of rubidium.

Full story: Wired News / AP Back to top