Welcome to the November 25, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, TechNews will not publish Friday, Nov. 27. Publication will resume Monday, Nov. 30.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
New Standard Lets Browsers Get a Grip on Files
CNet (11/24/09) Shankland, Stephen
The World Wide Web Consortium has published File API, an interface draft that Web browsers can use to better manipulate files and is part of a larger effort to provide a better foundation for interactive applications. File API defines ways browsers and Web sites can improve how they handle files, including selecting multiple files for upload, such as on photo-sharing sites or Web-based email. Other improvements govern the use of "blobs," or packages of raw binary data such as video files. Google has supported blobs for its Gears browser plug-in as a way to separate large videos into smaller pieces so uploads can be more easily resumed if a network problem interrupts the process. A major benefit is that files are handled asynchronously, meaning the browser will not freeze while a file is being uploaded or managed, and the browser reports back on the progress of file transfers. The interface is compatible with several standards, including the drag-and-drop support in HTML5, currently in development, and the Web Workers technology that improves the way browsers perform numerous operations simultaneously. The interface also can help Web applications process and understand the contents of files. For example, the interface could allow for Web applications that automatically search through a music playlist and find the lyrics to the songs on that playlist.
Europe's Leading Research Institution in Computer Graphics Partners NTU to Set Up Its First Research Institute in Asia
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) (11/25/09) Hambari, Hisham
Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has partnered with Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to establish the first interactive digital media research institute in Asia. Fraunhofer Singapore, which will be located at NTU, will focus on promoting applied research and commercial opportunities for areas such as computer graphics, computer vision, virtual reality, and augmented reality. Researchers will work directly with Fraunhofer's Institute for Computer Graphics Research on new technologies, as well as with industry partners. NTU, Fraunhofer, and Singapore funding agencies will provide Fraunhofer Singapore with about $10 million over five years. NTU and Fraunhofer hope to have the institute up and running in the first half of 2010 with 20 scientists and researchers, and have a staff of about 50 international researchers within the next two to three years. "That they have chosen NTU as their research partner in the area of computer graphics, interactive digital media, virtual reality, and augmented reality, speaks volumes for NTU's research and innovation culture and the strength of our engineers and scientists at NTU," says NTU president Su Guaning. "We are delighted to partner with one of the most highly regarded computer graphics powerhouses of Europe."
New Computer Cluster Gets Its Grunt From Games
CSIRO (Australia) (11/25/09) Bengston, Carrie
A new graphics processing units (GPUs) computer cluster will process CSIRO research data thousands of times faster and more efficiently than a desktop PC as a complementary system to the supercomputing resources available to CSIRO researchers. The new GPU cluster is the first of its kind in Australia, and is about the size of six large refrigerators, containing 61,440 compute cores. CSIRO's John Taylor says the new cluster combines central processing units (CPUs) and GPUs to make the system more efficient. "GPUs speed up data processing by allowing a computer to massively multitask through parallel processing," Taylor says. GPUs are generally less expensive, per unit of processing power, and more energy efficient than a CPU-based supercomputer, and GPUs can be 30 to 70 times faster than CPUs. "This cluster will be part of our family of high-end computers in CSIRO and important to our e-Research Strategy," says CSIRO's Alex Zelinsky. "It will enable CSIRO to, in a cost-effective way, be globally competitive in addressing computational challenges for 'big science.' " Taylor notes that running experiments on the GPU cluster requires a new approach to coding, specifically dividing up each task to make the best use of the extra processors.
'Fat fingers' Can Become Dainty for Touch Screens
New Scientist (11/24/09) Barras, Colin
A study by Christian Holz and Patrick Baudisch at Germany's Hasso Plattner Institute suggests that the real reason for missed targets on touch screens may be finger orientation and variation between users, not the fact that users' fingers are too big. Holz and Baudisch asked 12 volunteers to repeatedly touch a target on a touch screen, but to do so with their finger held at a specific angle, defined by the three-dimensional axes of pitch, roll, and yaw. The researchers found that the touch screen registered distinct clusters of touch points for different finger orientations, with some of the clusters only being 2 to 3 millimeters in size. Most touch-screen targets are a minimum of 10 millimeters due to the belief that a finger cannot hit a smaller target. The researchers say that if a touch-screen device knows the orientation of the finger as it touches the screen, it should be possible to define significantly smaller targets on screen. In a second study in which a series of cameras captured the position of a user's finger, the researchers enabled the system to account for finger position, which tripled the precision of touch interaction. Fingerprints can reveal finger orientation, so the researchers adapted a type of fingerprint scanner to see if a system could identify finger position without the use of cameras. The system finds the center of a fingerprint for each touch on screen, and compares that print to a database to calculate the finger's orientation. Applying the cluster region associated with a specific finger orientation gave the system twice the accuracy of the traditional touch technology, Baudisch says.
Feeling the Way
MIT News (11/23/09) Trafton, Anne
BlindAid, a new device developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Touch Lab, enables visually impaired users to "feel" their way around a virtual model of a room or building, making it possible to familiarize themselves with the layout before going someplace new. Touch Lab director Mandayam Srinivasan is working with the Carroll Center for the Blind to develop and test the device. Preliminary results show that when blind people have the chance to explore a virtual model of a room, they have an easier time navigating their way around the actual room in real life. Carroll Center mobility instructor Joseph Kolb says BlindAid could be invaluable to the visually impaired. He notes that one of the toughest challenges is entering an unfamiliar environment without the assistance of a guide dog or another human. BlindAid uses a robotic arm that a user grasps as if holding a stylus. The stylus can create the sensation of touch by exerting a small, precisely controlled force on the user's fingers. The BlindAid stylus functions like a blind person's cane, enabling users to feel virtual walls, floors, doors, and objects. The stylus is connected to a computer containing a three-dimensional map of an environment. Whenever a virtual obstacle is encountered, the stylus produces a force against the user, mimicking the feel the real object would have. BlindAid could eventually be used to plan trips by public transportation using virtual route maps that users can download and interact with through touch.
Auckland Computer Scientist Receives Prestigious Award
University of Auckland (New Zealand) (11/24/09)
The New Zealand Mathematical Society has named University of Auckland computer scientist Andre Nies the winner of its 2009 Research Award. The society created the award to honor New Zealand mathematicians who have made considerable contributions to mathematical research. Nies has conducted extensive research in a subfield of mathematical logic called computability, as well as in the related field of algorithmic information theory. He has played a key role in the developments in computability and algorithmic information theory over the past eight years. Nies is the author of "Computability and Randomness," a comprehensive book on algorithmic information theory published this year by Oxford University Press, and of a highly regarded scholarly paper published in Advances in Mathematics. "The award recognizes Andre's creativity and highly influential contributions in mathematical logic--an area in which New Zealand is a major world force," says Massey University professor and New Zealand Mathematical Society president Robert MacLauchlan.
Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages
Wall Street Journal (11/24/09) Angwin, Julia; Fowler, Geoffrey A.
Despite being the fifth-most popular Web site in the world, Wikipedia, which receives about 325 million visitors each month, is losing unprecedented numbers of its volunteers, who write, edit, and police its content. In the first three months of 2009, Wikipedia lost more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period in 2008. The exodus of editors has raised questions about the eight-year-old online encyclopedia's ability to continue expanding its breath and improving its accuracy. Executives at the Wikimedia Foundation, which funds and oversees the nonprofit encyclopedia, acknowledge the decline in editors, but believe that it is still possible to build a useful encyclopedia with a smaller pool of contributors. "We need sufficient people to do the work that needs to be done," says the foundation's executive director Sue Gardner. "But the purpose of the project is not participation." Wikipedia is still extremely popular among Web users, with visitors increasing by 20 percent over 12 months ending in September, according to comScore Media Metrix. A major reason behind the decline in editors may be that many topics have already been written about, and another may be the stringent rules that Wikipedia has been adopting to reduce infighting among contributors about articles on controversial subjects or individuals. Wikipedia's struggles call into question the validity of crowdsourcing principles. "People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen," says Carnegie Mellon University professor Aniket Kittur. "Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It's too many cooks in the kitchen."
P2P Comes to the Aid of Audiovisual Search
ICT Results (11/18/09)
A new query-by-example method, built on a peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture, could provide a new way for data-intensive content searches, say researchers working on the European Union-funded SAPIR project. The SAPIR query-by-example technique uses content, instead of text such as keywords, to search for similar content. The researchers say that query by example returns more accurate results and eliminates the need for pictures, videos, and audio recordings to be manually labeled. However, implementing a content-based search on a large scale would require a different approach than the one used in text-based, centralized systems such as Google. "Because we're dealing with images, video, and audio, content-based search is very data intensive," says IBM Research's Yosi Mass. "A P2P architecture offers a scalable solution by distributing the data across different peers in a network and ensuring there is no central point of failure." Mass led a team of researchers in developing a content-based search system that runs on a P2P architecture. The SAPIR software automatically analyzes a photo, video, or audio recording, extracts certain defining characteristics, and uses those descriptors to find similar content stored on different peers in a network. SAPIR researchers also developed software that compares a newly uploaded image to similar images and automatically tags it with keywords based on the most popular descriptions of similar images.
Gore Says Supercomputing Can Be Killer App in Climate Change
Computerworld (11/19/09) Thibodeau, Patrick
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore told attendees at the recent SC09 supercomputing conference that their work on supercomputers is essential to avoiding a global catastrophic event caused by climate change. Gore said supercomputers can be used to demonstrate how climate change is affecting the earth in ways that will impact humans. He said supercomputers' visualization capabilities can produce a visceral reaction to the potential for catastrophe. Making climate change a tangible concept requires improved simulations of what is taking place in the world and how climate change is unfolding, Gore said. "How can you make this phenomenon real enough to trigger the kinds of responses that are appropriate for our survival?" he asked. "That is one challenge that I would urge you to think about." Gore addressed attendees as if they were on a mission, arguing that their work is crucially important to "virtually every challenge that our civilization is now facing." SC09 featured several virtualizations of climate models, and focused on how to reduce energy consumption in large systems. Gore also urged the supercomputing community to speak out and become politically involved.
Inside Higher Ed (11/20/09) Kolowich, Steve
Case Western Reserve University researchers are preparing to launch an 18-month project that will transform 104 homes in impoverished Cleveland neighborhoods into "smart homes," which will be powered by a super-high-speed network approximately 1,000 times faster than a normal high-speed connection. Case Western CIO Lev Gonick says the objective is to see whether hyper-speed networks and the variety of services they support can help fix the wide range of health and education problems in those communities. "We hypothesize that creating interactive, home-based extensions of health, learning, and safety, along with energy management, will lead to positive outcomes," Gonick says. The project's home-based extensions include a one-gigabit network connection, which will enable residents to videoconference with health care providers and take readings from pedometers, blood pressure monitors, and other health-monitoring tools in the home and send that information to residents' doctors. The homes also will receive neighborhood surveillance feeds, and be connected to six public safety organizations in the community. Utility meter monitors will calculate each home's energy consumption and compare it to other homes in the neighborhood to find ways of minimizing utility bills. Gonick says the research effort is not an altruistic endeavor. "It's actually trying to change models for health care, models for public safety, models for energy consumption and energy management," he says.
Game On at Kingston University
Kingston University London (United Kingdom) (11/24/09) Gupta, Anita
A new state-of-the-art gaming facility should help Kingston University produce industry leaders in game development. Every desk in the laboratory has an Xbox and a handheld Sony PSP game console, and development hardware links the consoles to PCs. Students also get to use special development software provided by Sony and Microsoft to gain hands-on experience. "The students can work together taking on a variety of development roles and can use a lot of different equipment simultaneously--all of which reflects what they will find in the real world," says Kingston's games technology field leader Darrel Greenhill. The lab also features three pairs of large projector screens, which will enable the class to study code and see the corresponding graphics at the same time. Teachers also will be able to display the work of students for discussion. Kingston offers both games programming and games technology degrees, and students will be able to study games development at the postgraduate level beginning in 2010. "With the new courses and our new games lab, I would definitely say we are ahead of the game at Kingston," Greenhill says.
U of T 'SnowFlock' Project Tackles VM Management
Computerworld Canada (11/17/09) Schick, Shane
University of Toronto computer science researchers at the school's recent Research In Action event demonstrated a cross-section of the exploratory technology projects being conducted by about 50 faculty and 300 graduate students. For example, SnowFlock is a way to rapidly clone virtual machines for users in cloud-computing environments. The open source software is based on Python scripts and a C library using an older version of Citrix's Xen hypervisor. Graduate student Philip Patchin says SnowFlock is designed to ease the management burden associated with establishing dozens of virtual machines at once. SnowFlock uses the message passing interface to quickly replicate virtual machines as they are needed and to collapse them once they are no longer needed. Another group of students is trying to prevent spam over IP telephony (SPIT). The students believe that the SPIT problem will escalate significantly as voice-over-IP (VoIP) becomes less expensive and more users adopt mobile devices. The students are developing a central SPIT detector that cold monitor IP traffic and send information to a central server. When spam is detected, notifications would be sent to the proper gateways to block the spam. Real-time detection is required to prevent SPIT calls, which in turn requires information on patterns and trends in VoIP traffic, which service providers are hesitant to provide due to privacy concerns.
Smartphone App Illuminates Power Consumption
University of Michigan News Service (11/20/09) Moore, Nicole Casal
A team of doctoral students and professors at the University of Michigan has developed PowerTutor, a tool for comparing the power consumption of smartphones. PowerTutor enables smartphone users to see in real time how different actions affect the battery life of smartphones, and will help software developers in their effort to improve the efficiency of smartphones. The Android-based program shows how the screen, the network interface, the processor, and the global positioning system receiver use power. PowerTutor also can provide a history of power consumption. The team created the application by installing electrical current meters in phones and determining the relationship between the phone's internal state and the actual power consumption. The researchers were able to create a software model that estimated the power use of any program the phone is running with less than 5 percent error. "Today, we expect our phones to realize more and more functions, and we also expect their batteries to last," says doctoral student and application co-developer Lide Zhang. "PowerTutor will help make that possible."
History in 3D
Computer scientists involved in the European joint project 3D-COFORM are laying the foundation for the three-dimensional (3D) digitization of museum collections. A virtual archive of vases, ancient spears, statues, and other works of art would make it easier for scholars to conduct research on artifacts. Researchers currently rely on printed catalogs and written descriptions, but 3D computer graphics of works of art would enable them to view objects from different angles and provide other valuable information, such as the condition of the surface or a particular color. The digital collection will be intelligent and capable of searching for and linking objects stored in its database. The researchers already have created 3D animations of art objects. "But we are still a long way from being able to sensibly correlate 3D data between different objects," says Andre Stork of the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD and a partner in the 3D-COFORM consortium. Museums also could use digital archives to provide visitors with a 360-degree view of its artifacts, or even with the opportunity to take a virtual flight around a temple.
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