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ACM TechNews
February 4, 2008

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Welcome to the February 4, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Microsoft Adds Research Lab in East as Others Cut Back
New York Times (02/04/08) P. C3; Hafner, Katie

Microsoft, which has research labs in Washington state, China, England, India, and Silicon Valley, will open a sixth lab in Cambridge, Mass. All of Microsoft's labs focus on scientific research, not product development. "We believe that in the long run, putting money into basic research will pay off, but you have to wait longer for it," says Jennifer Tour Chayes, a veteran Microsoft researcher who will head the new lab. Chayes says that since she joined Microsoft in 1997, Microsoft Research has grown eight-fold to 800 researchers. "The outcome of basic research is insights, and what development people do is take those insights and create products with them," Chayes says. "The two things are very different." Microsoft is committed to maintaining a pure research department much like Bell Laboratories, whose scientists were awarded six Nobel Prizes during its history. "Microsoft is probably the sole remaining corporate research lab that still values basic research," says Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe. The new lab will be located next door to MIT and is expected to open in July. Chayes, formerly a tenured professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, will be one of the first women to direct a research lab managed by an American corporation. She hopes she can be a role model for attracting more women into the computer science and math professions.
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Give Your Computer the Finger: Touch-Screen Tech Comes of Age
Computerworld (02/01/08) Anthes, Gary

The windows, icons, menus, and pointing devices (WIMP) human-computer interfaces have dominated computing for about 15 years, with the keyboard, mouse, and display screen having served users extremely well. However, technologies based on human touch and gesture may soon be taking over. Touch-interface products are quickly becoming serious contenders in the electronics market. Apple's iPhone has become one of the hottest consumer products, and more advanced touch-based systems such as the Microsoft Surface computer, which can accommodate touches and gestures and recognize objects placed on it, and Mitsubishi's DiamondTouch Table, which is designed for touch and gesture control with a large group of people for collaboration, are generating massive interest. Tufts University computer science professor Robert Jacob says touch is just one component in a booming field of research on "post-WIMP interfaces," a broad collection of technologies he calls "reality-based interaction." These technologies include virtual reality, context-aware computing, perceptual and affective computing, and tangible interaction, which is when physical objects are recognized by a computer. Jacob says the rise of reality-based interaction is driven by four "real-world themes"--naive physics, body awareness, environmental awareness, and social awareness. "All of these new interaction styles draw strength by building on users' preexisting knowledge of the everyday, nondigital world to a much greater extent than before," Jacob says.
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Eye-Tracking Game Hides Baddies in Plain View
New Scientist (02/01/08) Kleiner, Kurt

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have created a first-person shoot 'em up video game that is capable of tracking the eye movements of players and placing enemies in locations where gamers least expect them on the computer screen. Computer vision researcher James Clark, working with colleague Li Jie, wanted to test how gamers react to the sudden appearance of an image on a screen, with hopes of learning how to predict where players focus their attention. Clark and Jie learned that a person who looks at a fixed point in a complex part of a scene will have more trouble diverting their attention to a new object, and confirmed previous research that suggests a person looking at a moving object is likely to focus their attention slightly ahead of it. Video-game companies could use the eye-tracking research to design more challenging games. However, Clark and Jie pursued the attention technique to make things easier for people such as helicopter rescue pilots, who need to have the most vital information in easy-to-see places in head-up displays. "If you can predict attention, you can improve performance," says Ronald Rensink, a vision researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A future edition of ACM Transactions on Multimedia Computing, Communications, and Applications will include a paper on Clark and Jie's research.
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Chips Pass Two Billion Milestone
BBC News (02/04/08) Fildes, Jonathan

Intel has launched Tukwila, the first chip to contain more than two billion transistors. Tukwila is a quad-core chip designed for high-end servers. In 2006, Intel unveiled a processor that packed more than one billion transistors, and in 2004 a processor equivalent to Tukwila featured 592 million transistors. Tukwila only operates at the relatively modest speeds of many PC chips at 2Ghz, compared to the fastest commercial chip offered by IBM, which operates at 4.7Ghz. While Intel devoted many of the transistors on its new chip to memory, it did not focus as much on lowering power consumption. Tukwila is based on 65-nanometer technology, but Intel also has a new chip for ultra-mobile devices dubbed Silverthorne that is based on 45-nanometer technology. Intel will present the chips at the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco. Analyst Malcolm Penn says Tukwila is evolutionary, not revolutionary, designed to process data very quickly. "It's like the difference between getting food from the fridge, rather than from the corner shop," Penn says.
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CMU Grad Student Designs Robot Leg
The Tartan (02/04/08) Chandna, Marium

Carnegie Mellon University graduate student Jonathan Hurst has developed the Electrical Cable Differential (ECD) leg, a large robotic leg prototype based on software from the RHex project, which aims to develop a six-legged, highly mobile robot using springs that create a natural running movement. The software used includes the QNX real-time operating system, which can help predict what computerized actions will take place, and also includes a task prioritization system. Hurst says ECD is designed to study the role of compliance in running. The rigidity of mechanical components, electrical hardware, and computer software in conventional robots does not allow for the bouncing movements that are produced by running. Hurst used large fiberglass springs and a series of cables, along with specially designed software, to develop a better understanding of the natural dynamics of running. Electric motors are attached to the leg joints using steel cables that enfold aluminum pulleys, which work in unison to produce the designed effect. Hurst used a simulation of the robot leg that illustrates the precise running movements to test the prototype. "One potential use of the knowledge we hope to gain from this machine is to build exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs," Hurst says.
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IBM Calls for Modeling Standard
EE Times (01/31/08) Merritt, Rick

An IBM executive recently expressed the need for standards to link chip models with simulation tools to help lower design costs and shorten time-to-market. Meanwhile, the IBM-led group Power.org is about to start an internal effort to create a standard for cores used in Power CPU-based designs. The call for standards was made at a seminar on design virtualization hosted by Vast Systems Technology. At the seminar, speakers agreed engineers need to use virtualization platforms to lower costs and reduce design time, but that emerging methodology still has many problems, including a lack of cost and energy models. "We develop models for our cores within IBM, but for the design process to be effective we need to get these models into the proprietary tools of companies such as Vast and others," says Power.org chief technology officer Michael Paczan, a former lead Power PC designer at IBM. "That's where we need interface standards." Paczan says Power.org is in the process of defining the scope of a subcommittee that will start defining interfaces to enable interoperability between tools and the portability of models. "People have an installed base of tools and models they can't just throw away, so standards have to try to work with them all," Paczan says.
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Grant Winners Develop Technology for Alzheimer's Patients
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/30/08) Fischman, Josh

Five universities and one research institution developing technology to assist people with Alzheimer's disease will share $300,000 in grant money from Microsoft Research. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University are pursuing a system that will assist Alzheimer's patients in their efforts to recall episodic memories. Claremont Graduate University and Old Dominion University have partnered to develop software for smart cell phones that will improve communication between autistic people and caregivers. University of Washington researchers are exploring a "wayfinding" system that uses machine-assisted personal navigation to enable people with cognitive impairments to find their way through life independently. While in Italy, the Institute for Cognitive Science and Technology is teaming up with the Italian National Research Council on a project involving a digital assistant for memory training.
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Gaming Away the Australian Skills Shortage
ITNews (01/29/08) Tay, Liz

The recent wave of students interested in science and engineering may not be enough to fill Australia's skills shortage in the technology industry, says Engineers Australia CEO Peter Taylor. Australia has been plagued by a shortage of skilled scientists and engineers since the "tech wreck" at the turn of the millennium, largely due to outdated fears of unemployment and the unattractive geeky stereotype. Taylor believes that boosting interest in science and engineering may lie in developing education and technology based on digital games that appeal to today's generation the same way Meccano, Erector Sets, and Legos inspired previous generations. Several organizations have developed games to promote their interests with great success, including the United Nations' Food Force and the U.S. Army's America's Army, and NASA is considering creating a massively multiplayer online game to appeal to today's younger generation. University of New South Wales engineering dean Dianne Wiley agrees that creating a science and engineering-based video game would be an excellent way to interest children in such subjects, and points out that there are some UNSW staff members that use games and online tools such as simulations in their teaching. "From the point of view of promoting science and engineering, anything that is virtual reality or IT-related is attractive to kids and that's what NASA is trying to do," Wiley says. "What is needed is something that can put the idea of science and engineering in front of kids and parents."
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Engineer Inspired by Areas Rich in Unsolved Problems
Financial Times Digital Business (01/30/08) P. 7; Twentyman, Jessica

IBM computer scientist and Master Inventor Amanda (Mandy) Chessell can still remember the day almost three decades ago when a "lady engineer" visited her school, inspiring her to pursue a career in technology. "I was completely stunned, blown away," Chessell says. "To me, she was fantastic--she had a great job." Since then, after earning a degree in computing with informatics, which included a year-long industry placement program at IBM, and a master's in software engineering, Chessell has earned a variety of accolades and numerous patents. "I like areas that are rich in unsolved problems," Chessell says. "That, to me, is what the software industry is all about. The process of inventing, engineering, and patenting a piece of software is all about very small changes that can potentially make a huge difference, and that is what's tremendously exciting about it." Chessell says the work can be stressful. "With patents, your biggest concern is making a fool of yourself," she says. "Is your invention really new? Does it solve a real problem? Eventually, you get better at spotting the ones that are likely to succeed, but it's never easy." Chessell says a great work environment and "inspirational" colleagues make the work easier.
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Q&A: For E-Voting, Holt Looks to Undo HAVA's Havoc
Computerworld (02/04/08) Radcliff, Deborah

In an interview, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) says the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) has forced the nation to accept insecure, electronic-voting systems that undermine confidence in the election process. Aside from security, Holt says the biggest problem with e-voting is there is no way to verify the validity of a voter record. For the past six years Holt has been championing the voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which would require voter-verifiable paper ballots and random, mandatory audits of votes cast over e-voting systems in every county in every state. Holt is also pushing to approve emergency funds to help election officials add paper systems to their e-voting machines by the general election in November. "If you're going to be able to verify, there has to be an independent path accessible only to the person able to verify that the voter's intentions are reflected in the vote," Holt says. Beyond shoring up existing e-voting systems, Holt says future e-voting legislation should include "chain-of-custody requirements and transparency of software so that the software would be available for independent people to check." He says that "an audit will be the most direct, simplest way of uncovering problems even if there is a software error, be it innocent or malicious."
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USC, IBM Get Serious About Gaming
University of Southern California (01/30/08) Bloom, David

University of Southern California students in the Marshall School of Business are using Innov8, a new "serious gaming" simulation developed by IBM to help students learn the fundamentals of business-process management (BPM). BPM analyzes how organizations execute specific tasks, such as the workflow when a customer sets up a checking account, and helps companies streamline and rationalize complex processes when companies experience structural changes like mergers. Finding people skilled in BPM has been difficult, says Sharon McFadden, who heads the IBM Software Group's academic initiative in 10 western states. IBM wanted to develop more BPM-skilled candidates at the university level, so it created a computer simulation that walks students through situations a BPM specialist might face. Innov8 focuses on a company that has just undergone a merger. The player is told to figure out which of the company's processes need immediate overhauls. The students navigate the company, hold meetings with key employees and departments, and use a "heat map" to pinpoint and refine the processes most likely to save money, generate revenue, and improve customer service. IBM expects to develop additional scenarios for Innov8 to expand its applicability and usefulness.
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U.S Internet Traffic Projected to Grow 50-Fold by 2015
Disocovery Institute (01/29/08)

The growth of video and rich media signals the beginning of the third phase of the evolution of the Internet, according to researchers at the Discovery Institute. However, in order for the technology to reach its full potential, new network investments to expand bandwidth, storage, and traffic management capabilities in the United States are needed, according to the report, "Estimating the Exaflood: The Impact of Video and Rich Media on the Internet." Over the next decade, Internet and IP traffic could grow more than 50 fold, and capacity in broadband access networks to homes and businesses would need to be expanded by a factor of between 10 and 100 over the next few years. "Innovations like YouTube, IPTV, high-definition video, and mobile phone cameras are driving this new wave of data—or exaflood—of Internet and IP traffic," says Bret Swanson, an adjunct fellow at the Discovery Institute and co-author of the report, adding that new online opportunities will also emerge. "But these exciting applications and services will only be possible if we make large new investments in broadband fiber-optic and wireless networks." More than $100 billion in the next half-decade alone will need to be spent on network expansion. By 2015, Internet and IP traffic is projected to reach 1,000 exabytes, including 400 exabytes of video calling and virtual windows, 200 exabytes of Internet video, gaming and virtual worlds, 100 exabytes of movie downloads and P2P file sharing, 100 exabytes of non-internet IPTV, and 100 exabytes of business IP Traffic.
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Technology at Your Fingertips
Reporter-Herald (Colo.) (01/29/08) Beahm, Marisa

The disabled would not have to rely on touch keys or a mouse to use a computer if iCAML, new sensing technology from Richard Warner, is installed on their systems. ICAML is designed to track magnetic fields, and can be plugged into a computer or a personal data assistant using a USB drive or a secure digital input-output card. The software initially uses a word processor to prompt the user to place a sensor on an agile body part and hold it where they want the sensor to be active. A wheelchair user could put the sensor on her wrist, and have her fingertips serve as the location of the mouse. The device could be programmed to read the lifting up of her arm as a right click, and the lowering of her arm as a left click. The user could control an on-screen keyboard this way. Warner says iCAML could also be used to record workout performance, to program remotes or video-game controllers, and for other applications.
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Fatronik-Tecnalia Experts Say New Robotics Will Revolutionise Industry and Services World
Basque Research (01/29/08)

Conventional industrial robots are being replaced by non-conventional robotics that revolve around three unique features, said researchers at the "Robotic Business Opportunities" event held recently at the Fatronik-Tecnalia Research Center in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, Spain. First, non-conventional robots are well suited to co-existing and working in the same environment as people. Second, non-conventional robots are able to more around in non-structured environments. Finally, non-conventional robots cost less. When non-conventional robots are in full production, robots will be able to penetrate new markets with features such as cleaning, transporting goods, monitoring environments, and helping people overcome physical difficulties or limitations. The industry is starting to see the first successful applications of robotics outside production lines. For example, iRobot has sold more than 2.5 million domestic vacuum cleaner robots, and robot toys such as Robosapien and WowWee have sold more than 2 million units. Microsoft Chairman recently predicted that the services robotics market will increase drastically over the next few years, and he noted the similarities between robotics today and the personal computer in the 1980s.
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Academic Group Convenes to Tackle Archiving of Digital Data
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/29/08) Foster, Andrea L.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation is focusing on solving the expensive and time-consuming problem of preserving digital data. The new group, backed by a two-year, $525,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will work to develop requirements for an economically-sustainable model for digital preservation. The task force, which is headed by economist Brian Lavoie, a research scientist at the OCLC Online Computer Library Center, and San Diego Supercomputer Center director Francine Berman, is expected to issue two reports, one at the end of this year and one in 2009. Berman says she is particularly concerned over the lack of attention being paid to preserving data from federally-funded research. The task force is collaborating with the Library of Congress, Britain's Joint Information Systems Committee, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the National Archives and Records Administration.
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Microsoft Makes Last-Gasp OOXML Push
CNet (01/29/08) Winterford, Brett

In preparation for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) vote on the ratification of Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) standard, Microsoft has been campaigning to convince the industry that its standard is in the best interest of users. Microsoft has hosted up to four conference calls a week with national standards bodies, and recently invited the international press to a conference near its headquarters to discuss OOXML. Microsoft executives defended the proposed standard against mounting criticism, focusing on several themes. The first was dispelling the idea that there is no need for a second XML standard, as Microsoft argues that there is nothing wrong with having multiple file formats and OOXML will provide backwards compatibility for billions of older Microsoft documents that the OpenDocument Format (ODF) does not. "Any investment we make in the future of information work has to take into account what has been done in the past," says Microsoft Office project manager Gray Knowlton. "It's very important when migrating to open file formats that we take older documents into account." Microsoft also argued that OOXML is superior to ODF. "Many customers tell us that ODF doesn't meet their needs," says Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards Tom Robertson. "It doesn't provide backwards compatibility, nor does it reflect the rich feature set of Office 2007."
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The Fleecing of the Avatars
Technology Review (02/08) Vol. 111, No. 1, P. 58; Talbot, David

There are concerns that the viability of immersive 3D virtual environments as hubs for e-commerce is endangered by the emergence of fraud allegations, with the people who allegedly committed the fraud going unpunished. Virtual world inhabitants actively conduct transactions and use virtual currency to purchase virtual products, as well as deposit money in virtual banks and invest in virtual stocks. E-commerce is usually a relatively safe business thanks to technical controls, laws, and regulation, but in virtual worlds such as Second Life there are no such checks and balances. Linden Lab, which runs Second Life, announced last summer that it would help bolster the security of transactions by creating a voluntary ID system that allows in-world consumers to confirm attributes of the people behind the avatars they were doing business with. In addition, Linden rolled out algorithms designed to identify suspicious behavior and urged users to exercise more caution in their online dealings. Users are also establishing quasi-regulatory instruments such as the Virtual World Business Bureau, which grades businesses, informs residents about scams, and functions as a complaint clearinghouse. Staff economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee Dan Miller says the maintenance of secure and transparent online transactions varies among different virtual environments. Field Fisher Waterhouse's David Naylor contends that the e-commerce potential of virtual worlds cannot be realized without real-world intervention.
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