Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 31, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Robotic Planes Chase After Climate Data
MIT Technology Review (03/30/10) Sauser, Brittany

Unmanned aircraft outfitted with observation instruments will enable NASA to monitor the Earth's atmosphere in greater detail. NASA recently launched its first mission, over the Pacific Ocean, involving a drone outfitted with 11 different scientific tools for taking measurements and mapping gases in the atmosphere, profiling clouds, and gathering meteorological data such as temperatures, winds, and pressures. The U.S. Air Force gave the three aircraft, called Global Hawks, originally developed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, to NASA. Unlike manned aircraft equipped with Earth observation tools, the robotic airplanes can fly for up to 30 hours, travel for longer distances and at high altitudes; gather more precise data than satellites and can be stationed to monitor an area for long periods of time. NASA also is considering using the Global Hawks to monitor the intensity changes of hurricanes, and to observe the sea ice changes in the arctic. "There are certain types of atmospheric and earth science data that we are missing, even though we have things like satellites, manned aircraft, and surface-based networks," says Robbie Hood, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

3-D Tabletop Display Gets Rid of the Glasses
Wired (03/10) Ganapati, Priya

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have developed a device that offers all the thrills of the three-dimensional (3D) experience without the annoyance of glasses. The device, called pCubee, arranges five liquid crystal display (LCD) screens into a box-like shape so users can pick it up, watch content, or play with virtual objects inside it. Users can shake the cube, tilt it, or interact with a touchscreen, all while retaining the 3D experience. The pCubee uses the principle of motion parallax, which is the apparent change in position of an object, depending on the distance from which it is viewed, and is a very effective cue for 3D, says UBC researcher Sidney Fels. "The fact that it is handheld greatly increases motion parallax," says UBC researcher Ian Stavness. The pCubee has three graphics pipelines that drive the screens on the sides of the box, while a motion tracker watches the pCubee and the user's head. The novel software that powers the device ensures that the user's view of the box and the rendered perspective on each screen is synchronized.

ACM Awards Recognize Computer Scientists for Innovations that Have Real World Impact
ACM News Release (03/30/10)

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has announced the winners of six prestigious awards for their innovations in computing technology that demonstrate the benefits of computational thinking for industry, education, and society. Mihir Bellare and Phillip Rogaway are the recipients of the Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award for their development of practice-oriented provable security, which has resulted in high-quality, cost-effective cryptography, a key component for Internet security in an era of explosive growth in online transactions. VMware Workstation 1.0 won the Software System Award for bringing virtualization technology to modern computing environments, spurring a shift to virtual-machine architectures, and allowing users to efficiently run multiple operating systems on their desktops. Michael Jordan is the recipient of the ACM/AAAI Allen Newell Award for fundamental advances in statistical machine learning, a field which develops computational methods for inference and decision-making based on data. Tim Roughgarden received the Grace Murray Hopper Award for introducing novel techniques that quantify lost efficiency with the uncoordinated behavior of network users who act in their own self-interest. Matthias Felleisen won the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award for his visionary and long-standing contributions to K-12 outreach programs. Finally, Gregory D. Abowd is the recipient of the Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science and Informatics for promoting a vision of health care and education that incorporates the use of advanced information technologies to address difficult challenges relating to the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders such as autism.

What If All Software Was Open Source? a Code to Unlock the Desktop
Newswise (03/30/10)

James Fogarty, a University of Washington assistant professor of computer science and engineering, will demonstrate a system to make all software open source on April 14 in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. His tool takes over the display to customize the user's interaction with the program. "We really see this as a first step toward a scenario where anybody can modify any application," says Fogarty. "In a sense, this has happened online. You've got this mash-up culture on the Web because everybody can see the HTML. But that hasn't been possible on the desktop." The UW tool, named Prefab, takes advantage of the fact that almost all displays are made from prefabricated blocks of code such as buttons, sliders, check boxes, and drop-down menus. Prefab looks for those blocks as many as 20 times per second and alters their behavior. The tool also unlocks previously inaccessible interfaces, allowing people to add the same usability tool to all the applications they run on their desktop.

Skin Becomes Gadget Control Pad
BBC News (03/26/10) Ward, Mark

A method in which tapping one's skin to control gadgets using a combination of sensors and software has been worked out by Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D student Chris Harrison and colleagues at Microsoft Research. The system involves placing sensors on the arm that listen for acoustic input, while the software can be trained to assign specific sounds to specific locations, into which different gadget functions can be bundled. Early tests demonstrate that the system is capable of picking up a five-location system with more than 95 percent accuracy after a short amount of training. Harrison envisions three unique applications for the system--controlling an in-pocket gadget via coupling with Bluetooth; controlling a music player attached to the user's upper arm; and turning the forearm or hand into a display surface in conjunction with a pico-projector.

Researchers Equip Robot Sub with Sensory System Inspired by Blind Fish
EurekAlert (03/29/10) Bernards, Markus

Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) researchers are developing an underwater robot equipped with a multitude of sensors inspired by the animal kingdom. TUM professor Leo van Hemmen and colleagues are studying how animals interpret their surroundings and researching the algorithms with which their brains record their environment to develop hardware and software that allow robots to imitate life. The underwater robot, called Snookie, is a robot fish made of Plexiglas and aluminum and equipped with an electronic control system and a power supply. The researchers anticipate Snookie could have a broad range of applications, including investigating shipwrecks, carrying out deep-sea search missions, and inspecting tanks and sewer pipes.

Robots, Space Technology Run Australia's Mining Miracle (03/28/10)

Rio Tinto plans to use satellite, motion-sensor technology, and robotics to become the most technologically advanced mining company in the world. The Anglo-Australian mining giant has been trialling all kinds of automation technologies at its A-Pit test site since December 2008, and will wrap up the project this year. The results of the research determine which technologies Rio Tinto rolls out across its operations. Rio Tinto has a new operational center in Perth that will be fully operational in June, and will allow the miner to coordinate all of its rail, mine and port systems from one place. The operations center is the focal point of its "Mine of the Future" program, which envisions Rio Tinto using driverless trucks and trains with artificial intelligence that can learn the layout of a mine and use sensors to avoid objects. Rio Tinto also hopes to use sensor-fitted "smart drills" that can be operated remotely.

Shining a Light on the Past (03/25/10)

Hewlett-Packard (HP) researchers have developed a new lighting method that can generate better three-dimensional (3D) imagery for computer games, and has also helped archaeologists reveal previously invisible clues hidden on damaged surfaces of ancient artifacts. The process involves capturing between 30 and 50 digital photos of an object of interest. The photos are then combined on a computer to create an image that can have a virtual light shone from different angles to reveal any hidden surface detail. The virtual light's wavelength also can be altered, allowing color-sensitive details to be brought out more clearly.

Playing 'Pong' with the Blink of an Eye
Imperial College London (03/26/10) Smith, Colin

Imperial College London (ICL) students have developed an open source computer game where a player moves a bat to hit a ball using only eye movements. To play the game, the user wears special glasses with a built-in infrared light and a Webcam that records the movements of one eye. The Webcam is linked to a computer program that syncs the player's eye movements to the game. The technology is inexpensive and can be purchased using off-the-shelf hardware costing about 25 pounds. "Remarkably, our undergraduates have created this piece of neurotechnology using bits of kit that you can buy in a shop, such as Webcams," says ICL's Aldo Faisal. Researchers from Faisal's lab are currently refining the technology so that it can monitor movement in both eyes, which would allow a user to perform more complicated tasks such as plotting a route along the screen.

Researchers Sound Alarm on Web App 'Side Channel' Data Leaks
Network World (03/25/10)

Researchers who have tested the security of popular online tax, health, investing, and search sites report that the Web applications are becoming more vulnerable to data leaks. The team from Microsoft and Indiana University note that encryption does not prevent the exposure of data passed back and forth between a Web client and server. Side-channel data characteristics such as packet size and timing give network eavesdroppers the opportunity to gather information on program and site users. The vulnerability could become "an unprecedented threat to the confidentiality of user data processing by these applications," according to the researchers. Moreover, programs that use newer Web technology, such as the AJAX programming language, could be more vulnerable to data leaks.

University of Twente Researchers Develop Fast Methods for Making 3D City Models
University of Twente (Netherlands) (03/26/10)

University of Twente researchers are developing ways to create three-dimensional (3D) city models using as much automations as possible. Twente's Shi Pu and Sande Oude Elberink used topographic information from the land registry in combination with laser measurement data. Pu used terrestrial laser scanners that project laser beams onto buildings from the ground and create recordings of them, making it possible to reconstruct objects in great detail. Pu then combined this information with two-dimensional topographic information to create the 3D models. Although Pu's method still requires some manual work, it is more than 10 times faster than the traditional approach. Elberink used a similar method with a laser scanner in an airplane to record the data. Elberink's method is the most accurate for images from above, while Pu's method is more accurate for images from street level, and the two sets of data can be combined to create even more accurate models.

Modern Banking for Older People
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (03/25/10) Wagner, Siobhan

Newcastle and York University researchers are working with Barclays Bank to develop assistive technology that could help older people feel more comfortable with digital banking. According to Age Concern, 6 percent of people aged 85 an up do not have a traditional bank account. Many of those who do not have a traditional bank account have a special Post Office account, which allows pensioners to withdraw money from a staff member at the counter, says York project leader Andrew Monk. One idea for the new technology is a wallet-shaped foldable display, with one half showing recent transactions with dates and amounts, and the other half showing the current balance. One major problem the research team is looking to solve is a means for identifying oneself because many older people have trouble remembering passwords and PIN numbers. The Bank of Maharashtra in India has already designed assistive technology to deal with the issue. The bank recently announced plans to install biometric ATMs, which enable older people to access their bank accounts with a thumb impression instead of a PIN number.

Security Researchers Hacked iPhone
University of Luxembourg (03/25/10)

The University of Luxembourg's Ralf-Philipp Weinmann and Zynamics' Vincenzo Iozzo chained existing code bits using the "return-into-libc" or "return-oriented-programming" technique to compromise the iPhone during the PWN2OWN hacking contest in Vancouver, Canada. The security researchers were able to bypass the iPhone's code signing and data execution prevention technologies a year after previous contest participants were unable to hack into the device. Iozzo and Weinmann were able to execute code on the iPhone when a user visits a malicious Web site, and the attack code steals the iPhone’s SMS database.

Could Robots Help Older People Look After Themselves
University of the West of England, Bristol (03/24/10) Kelly, Jane; Price, Mary

University of the West of England (UWE) researchers are participating in An Integrated Intelligent Home Environment for the Provision of Health, Nutrition, and Mobility Services to the Elderly (MOBISERV), a European project aimed at developing an intelligent system comprising of a robot and smart sensors that can support independent living for the elderly. MOBISERV features a multi-disciplinary team that will examine the needs of older adults and the potential for technology to meet them. The system will consist of a wearable health status monitor made up of smart sensors, a secure tele-alarm and health reporting system, and a nutrition support system. All of the systems will be linked to a robotic platform. "We are very excited about this project," says UWE's Praminda Caleb-Solly. "We are working with some of Europe's leading robotic and wearable sensor companies in this field, to ensure that the technology being developed enhances the lives of older adults and gives them the ability to make informed lifestyle choices."

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