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Science & Technology

In the news of technology



Science & Technology


Politics & Policy

 Apr 30 - May 06, 2001

Its time again for our monthly news items. Here you will find odds and ends of interest in the field of technology. Advances and discoveries are happening every day, and its difficult to keep up with everything new. We hope you find these items interesting.

First in line is an innovation from a South Korean laboratory involving speakers. Ever wish you could just pin your stereo speakers to the wall instead of having them take up so much space? Well scientists at the Thin Film Technology Research Center, at the government-run Korea Institute of Science and Technology, hope their new technique for bonding electrodes more securely to piezoelectric film will allow for more durable speakers made of the clear, paper-thin material. "The film itself is a speaker," says Koh Seok-keun, principal scientist on the project. Piezoelectric films and ceramics, which convert electrical energy into vibrations and vice versa, have long been used as components in speakers, underwater sonar systems, cell phone ringers, police sirens, cigarette lighters and other devices, experts in the field say. They create sound or energy with microscopic vibrations on the materials' surface. The problem with these existing speakers, critics say, is that while they do a good job of reproducing high-frequency sounds, they often are not substantial enough to produce deep bass sounds, or play at high volume. "Even with quite large ones, which I've got a pair of them in my living room, they need a bass reinforcement," says David Pearce, a research fellow in functional materials at the University of Birmingham in England who specializes in piezoelectric ceramics. "Hearing these sort of panel speakers individually, they always sound kind of tinny. But then you put them together with bass support and you say, "That sounds pretty good, actually." Koh says his lab has turned the project over to sound engineers to work on the low-frequency sound issue. Koh maintains his lab's patented process for firmly bonding platinum electrodes to the film, rather than using weaker bonds with metals like nickel, tin or other alloys may be the breakthrough needed for a more durable and efficient commercial-grade product. A recent demonstration at his lab of 10-centimeter (4-inch) square prototype speakers seemed to impress Koh's colleagues. "They thought [they would see] something like a black box or something like a cone shape," Koh says. "But there is no black box or cone shape. Just a film. But there is music. And they just tried to listen. And then, surprise!"

Then there is the "multimedia bed" that can wake you up in the morning and give you your schedule for the day. Ted Selker's recently dreamed this up in his media laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The multimedia bed is a sleeper's paradise. While lying down, you look up at a ceiling that is actually a large computer screen. Using a wireless mouse, or someday, eye-tracking technology, you run sunset screen savers, check e-mail, surf the Web, or fall asleep listening to music. The bed even senses when you've fallen asleep and turns itself off. It can even detect if you've stopped breathing, setting off a series of alarms.

The writer is daily frustrated when her cell phone runs out of battery power. Its a constant struggle to remember to charge it up, only to have it run down by the end of the day. Casio, Siemens and other manufacturers of phones and PDAs are already building prototype devices that use new power cells based on fuel and solar cell technologies, developed at the Department for Energy Technology at the Fraunhofer-Institute. The plan is to replace rechargeable batteries in mobile devices with a miniature version of the hydrogen fuel cell used to power electric cars, and recharge it with a super-efficient solar cell built into the devices. "The decisive factor," said Dr Christopher Hebling, head of the Micro-Energy Technology group at the ISE, "is that the device can run on solar power alone even under low lighting levels. At a normal workplace, you have only three per cent of the brightness of summer sunshine. Even down to a level of one per cent, the electrical voltage provided by our solar module remains virtually constant; in conventional cell types it would have long since broken down." The high output rating of over 35 milliamps per square centimetre in direct sunlight is attributable to the solar module's special design. "The fourteen individual cells of single-crystal silicon overlap like roof tiles," said Hebling. "In this way, the cells make optimum use of the limited available space, and achieve an efficiency of more than twenty per cent."

High tech comes to the favourite American pastime of baseball. The technology built to monitor planes and missiles soon will be tracking fastballs. Cameras and other gizmos designed to help umpires tell whether they're getting the hang of baseball's strict interpretation of the strike zone were installed recently at Fenway Park by QuesTec. There are no plans to replace an umpire's judgment with that of QuesTec's "Umpire Information System." But developers of the technology and baseball officials say some objective feedback, which umpires can see on laptops after a game, will help make for more consistent calls. "The only feedback available to umpires has been the opinions of people that invariably have a worse angle on the pitch than they do," said Paul Baim, an engineer and baseball fan who has worked on the technology for QuesTec and its collaborator, Atlantic Aerospace. "Anything that can help us do our job better obviously is a good thing, as long as it's realistic and really can help," umpire Jim Joyce said before Colorado Rockies-Cardinals game in St. Louis. "This job is hard enough and everybody's against us anyway.