Association for Computing Machinery
Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either HP or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 5, Issue 577:  Monday, December 1, 2003

  • "Dust-Up Over E-Vote Paper Trail"
    Wired News (11/26/03); Zetter, Kim

    California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has mandated voter-verifiable paper receipts at all e-voting machines in that state by July 1, 2005, or July 1, 2006, depending on when they were purchased. But only a few of California's 58 counties have endorsed a voter-verifiable paper trail and the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) said the mandate would create logistical problems as well as violate non-discrimination clauses in previous voting laws. Riverside County voter registrar Mischelle Townsend said visually disabled and people who cannot speak English would not have equal access to voting technology as required under law, and that Shelley's request was made unilaterally and without regard to available technology. Shelley had previously commissioned a task force made up of computer scientists and election officials, which has been deeply split over the issue of a voter-verifiable paper trail. The proposed paper receipt would likely be printed out behind a glass encasement so that voters can check their intended result and the receipt could be used for a possible recount. Former chairman of the Federal Election Commission Darryl R. Wold said such a paper trail was actually intended under the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002, in response to the presidential election debacle in Florida in 2000; that law allocated $3.9 billion for voting machine upgrades by 2006, and has been hastened by state laws such as in California that require nearer deadlines. Election law expert Tom Hiltachk said county officials are understandably upset over state involvement in what has traditionally been a local responsibility, but that Shelley's authority allows him to mandate changes without consensus. CACEO has not yet mentioned legal action, but the group will meet this month to discuss strategy.
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    For more information on ACM's actions regarding e-voting, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/Issues/EVoting.htm

  • "Beware the Worm in Your Handset"
    New York Times (11/28/03) P. C1; Belson, Ken

    Worms and viruses that proliferate through PCs are commanding most of the attention, but security experts believe increasing numbers of hackers are bound to exploit flaws in Internet-enabled cell phones and other handsets to spread their malware, especially as the operating systems for such devices become standardized. "The danger to mobile phone networks is probably five times bigger than with personal computers because very few people are focused on this problem now," speculates Adventis senior VP Andrew Cole. "The dominant form of messaging is going to be cell-to-cell, so this could escalate very rapidly and overload phone networks." An average cell phone boasts a central processing unit whose level of sophistication is comparable to that of PCs five or six years ago, and a shift away from customized operating systems and toward more generic software will likely encourage virus and worm writers to design malware that targets mobile phones. Mercer Management Consulting's Stefan Fillip estimated last year that every 5 million cell phone users affected by a virus or worm epidemic could sustain $471 million in damages in 2005, and this would likely result in some customers changing providers. Phone companies are starting to realize the scope of the problem, but they are walking a tightrope when it comes to blocking valid email out of fear it may be contaminated. The problem is most troublesome for carriers in Asia, where Internet-enabled handsets are most commonplace, and Asian phone providers such as NTT DoCoMo are unsurprisingly aggressive in their efforts to tackle security vulnerabilities. Security experts believe demands for handset security solutions will inevitably spread in the West along with high-speed mobile networks.
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  • "Open-Source Community Defends GNU Against SCO Assault"
    Enterprise Linux IT (11/26/03); Wrolstad, Jay

    IBM responded to SCO Group's billion-dollar lawsuit for alleged copyright infringement of its Unix source code by filing a counterclaim arguing that SCO was in violation of the GNU Public License (GPL) by limiting use of and imposing property rights on Linux open-source software. SCO has in turn contended that the GPL is invalid, which has caused the open-source development community to rally to the license's defense. Free Software Foundation lawyer Eben Moglen authored a report indicating that SCO is taking two contrary positions by questioning the GPL's validity while simultaneously arguing that the license offers legal protections. He says that SCO has failed to sufficiently prove that the two samples it submitted as evidence of copyright infringement in August are literal copies of Unix software code into Linux, as the organization claims: His report states that the first code sample, which involves the deployment of the Berkeley Packet Filter (BPF) firewall, is not owned by SCO but the original work of a Linux developer; the second sample, which emphasizes identical lines of code shared by SCO's Unix Sys V and Linux, represents the duplication of code that was already in the public domain. SCO's Blake Stowell insists that no evidence has been presented proving that SCO violated the GPL, and argues that SCO has never claimed ownership for BPF--but the company maintains that the Sys V code was copied illegally. "IBM's counterclaim painted SCO into a corner on the subject of the GPL," Moglen notes. "Not only the facts, but also the law are now fundamentally against SCO's increasingly desperate position."
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  • "Bandwidth Challenge Teams Push Networking Performance Envelope at ACM's SC2003 Conference"
    PRNewswire (11/25/03)

    High-Performance Bandwidth Challenge participants this year achieved record speeds and advanced networking performance, showing that networking technologies are keeping pace with the supercomputing technology also displayed at ACM's SC2003 conference. Foundry Networks CEO Bobby Johnson noted that seven of the world's top 10 supercomputing systems are clusters and rely on advanced networking technologies. A team from Stanford, Caltech, and Los Alamos National Laboratory moved scientific data sets at the fastest sustained speed--23.23 Gbps--to win what judges called the "Moore's Law move over" award. Other winning projects include a tools award for Argonne National Laboratory and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) that focused on standards-based tools; a high-performance networking system built on a Web services framework from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and others; a single application award for a global telescience collaboration application built by researchers in Argentina, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere; a University of Tokyo and Fujitsu collaboration that handled several, long-distance multi-gigabit streams; and a trans-Pacific distributed infrastructure that used multiple paths to achieve high networking performance. A team composed of researchers from Cluster File System, Acme Microsystems, Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and others won an award for their "Distributed Lustre File System Demonstration," which achieved a rate of 9.02 Gbps.
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  • "U.S. Considers Turning Scooters Into War Robots"
    Associated Press (11/28/03)

    Researchers at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, and elsewhere have received Pentagon funding to modify the self-balancing Segway Human Transporter to autonomously open doors, traverse rough terrain, and chase soccer balls, but the military wants to one day employ them as battlefield robots that can communicate with troops, haul equipment, or carry injured soldiers out of harm's way. Segway inventor Dean Kamen welcomes university research into potential military applications of his two-wheeled scooter, noting that anything that boosts the machine's usability is good news for his company, which is in desperate need of sales revenues. Some 15 Segways have been purchased and sent to university and government research facilities over the past several months. Jan Walker of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency reports that this strategy relieves researchers of the need to develop a mode of transportation so they can focus on the design of Mobile Autonomous Robot Software, and share open-source programs on a common platform. Four-wheeled robot vehicles currently employed by the military cannot make turns as tight as those performed by the Segway, while the scooter's high center of gravity allows for the placement of sensors and cameras at a height more suitable for human interaction. Segway chief development engineer John Morrell believes government sales of the scooter could help reduce the machine's price and make the product more affordable to consumers.
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  • "On a Cheap Plastic Grid, Gigabytes Galore"
    New York Times (11/27/03) P. E5; Eisenberg, Anne

    Scientists at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and Princeton University detail a breakthrough "write once, read many times" memory device they developed from a polymer normally used as an anti-static coating for computer screens in a recent issue of Nature. The memory, which Princeton's Dr. Stephen Forrest heralds as the first device of its kind to be built from organic plastic and inorganic silicon, may one day be capable of storing gigabytes of data on portable devices such as digital cameras, cell phones, and handheld music players. The polymer used in the device, which is called Pedot (polyethylene-dioxythiophene), can conduct electricity at low voltages, but becomes permanently nonconducting once it achieves a certain temperature at higher voltages. The device is fashioned by depositing a drop of Pedot at each intersecting point on a gridlike series of electrodes; voltages are applied throughout the grid to "write" data, and HP physicist Sven Moller notes that specific points either become conductive or nonconductive (a 1 or a 0) depending on the particular voltage. Moller became aware that Pedot changed its conductive properties along with its color in certain structures. Dr. Forrest says the polymer is rendered nonconductive by applying a high current to it, while applying a smaller current allows the memory to be read. Pedot is integrated with the silicon diodes on a flexible foil substrate, while the diodes prevent current leakage and data corruption. Dr. Forrest says the thinness of the memory device allows it to be compactly stacked, and reckons that 1 million bits could be stored in a single square millimeter of the material. "We can imagine making memory not out of expensive silicon chips, but of less expensive organic materials that could be patterned in a process of continuous sheets," speculates HP Labs physicist Warren Jackson.
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  • "Internet Mapping Project Weaves Colorful Web"
    New Scientist (11/28/03); Knight, Will

    U.S.-based networking engineer Barrett Lyon believes the Internet can be mapped out within a day using a standard networking program, and he claims his Opte mapping project has both practical and artistic merits. Lyon employs a "traceroute" networking program to record the network addresses that a data packet passes through en route to a specific network host. The software only maps out large-scale "class C" networks, and can perform 194 traceroute searches each second. "What he has done is apparently to automate it, which is cool," notes Steve Coast of University College London. Lyon contends that this technique can furnish an overall perspective of Internet structure and trace the path of disaster-related disruptions, but his chief interest in developing the method is to produce stunning visual images. Coast points out that "[Lyon] apparently maps outward from one point, which means the map is incomplete since by definition you can't see routes that don't go to you." The engineer has created a distributed version of the Opte software that could produce a more inclusive map of network address connections by using a greater number of starting points.
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  • "Smart Auctions"
    Computerworld (11/24/03); Hoffman, Thomas

    The outcomes of e-commerce transactions could be more efficiently determined through the use of an approach that taps into artificial intelligence and operations research methods patented by Tuomas Sandholm, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Agent-Mediated Electronic Commerce Laboratory. Sandholm has developed algorithms designed to ascertain, for example, the winning bids in online auctions where bids may number in the tens, hundreds, or even thousands. The CMU researcher adds that AI can be applied to e-commerce in other ways: His team is focusing on automated mechanism design, an offshoot of game theory, to determine rules of an auction, but the technique could also be employed to aid divorce arbitration proceedings or public forums on assessing public works projects. Sandholm notes that in typical divorce arbitrations, divorcees might falsify the value they place on the assets to be divvied up, and this tendency to lie is also characteristic of public works evaluation forums. The automated mechanism design approach generates optimal schemes or rules in which parties are motivated to be truthful in order to maximize the positive outcome. Sandholm notes that his team is working on mechanisms designed to keep voters truthful as well by preventing them from voting strategically to benefit themselves. "In other words, we are using computational complexity as a barrier to strategic behavior," he concludes.
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  • "A 20-Year Plague"
    CNet (11/25/03); Lemos, Robert

    The scientific community's failure to convince administrators to seriously consider investigating defenses against computer viruses back when the threat was a possibility rather than a reality--or to realize the extent of the threat--has had a tremendous impact 20 years later, with malware running rampant over the Internet and spreading onto computers. The earliest self-replicating programs were not created out of malice, but out of curiosity by researchers, administrators, and old-school hackers. But these virus writers underestimated their programs' ability to proliferate. Viruses can trace their origins back to computer science pioneer John von Neumann's work with self-reproducing automatons, which became the basis for cellular automata theory. The first program to successfully "infect" a general-purpose computer was Pervade, which was created by former UNIVAC systems programmer John Walker as a way to distribute the game "Animal" on computer systems; though Pervade's spread was halted with the release of a new version of the UNIVAC operating system, Walker contends that the program could have easily circumvented the new defenses with modification. The first virus to affect PCs, dubbed Elk Cloner, was created in 1982 by Rich Skrenta, who designed it to ride piggyback on popular system disk commands and cause systems crashes and other kinds of tomfoolery. This was followed four years later by the Brain virus, which infected IBM PCs for marketing purposes: The program manifested itself on infected computers' screens as an advertisement for its creators' "vaccination" service. There are over 700,000 viruses existing today, and the Computer Security Institute reports that more than 80 percent of companies have been infected. "Even if [viruses] are not designed to be intentionally malicious or dangerous, if they get outside of a controlled environment, there can be unexpected results," remarks Sarah Gordon of Symantec Security Response.
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  • "Bridging the Digital Divide, Cheaply"
    Business Week (11/25/03); Salkever, Alex

    America's poor deserve subsidized broadband Internet access, which would cost the government approximately $4 billion if a $300 tax credit was offered to each family with less than $25,000 of annual income. With the cost of PCs hovering around $500 and broadband access available at about $30 for DSL, this is a relatively cheap way to provide the poor with information and access to cheaper, better quality goods and services. Poor people often do not have cars and chain grocery stores do not like to operate in poor neighborhoods, but they could go online to fill drug prescriptions at discount prices or shop at Wal-Mart without having to make an hours-long trek. The University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Los Angeles, and Yale University together published a study in July 2003 that shows minorities and women save an average of 2.2 percent of a car's purchase price when using car shopping tools online, such as Carpoint, Autobytel, and Edmunds.com. UC Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Florian Zettelmeyer says the Web levels the socioeconomic playing field, benefiting the weakest elements of society the most. With e-commerce numbers from the Commerce Department up 6.6 percent for the third quarter to $13.3 billion, the time has never been better to solve the growing disparity in access to information and cost-savings tools. The majority of people enjoying broadband Internet benefits continue to be educated, computer-savvy Americans with relatively high incomes. Free public Internet access at libraries will not cut it, nor will frustrating dial-up access that already discourages many other Internet users from making online purchases. Poor people need government-subsidized broadband that is in their homes providing critical information and services when needed.
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  • "Come, the Revolution"
    Sydney Morning Herald (11/25/03); Philipson, Graeme

    Intel chief strategist and director of strategic initiatives Chris Thomas believes the world is on the cusp of a "mobility inflection point" in which vast numbers of wireless devices and their underlying exigencies will facilitate a dramatic shift in the nature of communications and how people work. Wireless use thus far has been uneven--wireless hotspots have proliferated but have seen relatively limited use, while an overabundance of suppliers and bandwidth issues remain to be addressed. Thomas contends that the wireless revolution is in an early phase, but should accelerate in a few years as certain problems are resolved, of which three are prevalent. Power management, also known as battery life, is the first: According to Thomas, software is responsible for over 80 percent of power management problems, and finding a way to effectively apportion battery power is a critical step. Wireless applications are the second problem--whereas traditional apps are synchronous, wireless apps need to be asynchronous, Thomas explains. He adds that Web services will be important to wireless, even though they were not developed specifically for wireless; Thomas points out that XML and Web services technology share the same message queuing technology employed by wireless. The lack of interconnected networks is the third major wireless problem in need of resolution, and Thomas attributes the issue to management and software. It is in Intel's best interests to get involved in the wireless revolution because the company believes whole sets of Intel chips will be used to power many mobile wireless devices.
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  • "Keep Kofi Away From the Internet"
    National Post (11/22/03) P. A20; Fulford, Robert

    Robert Fulford of the National Post comments that while many individuals regard the Internet as one of the best inventions in recent history, the United Nations appears to feel differently. As a result, Fulford states, they want to regulate it, "and they are working hard, at great expense, to drag it on to their turf." Fulford notes that between Dec. 10 and Dec. 12, over 6,000 delegates will convene at the U.N.'s World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva to discuss this problem, with U.N. Undersecretary-General Nitin Desai overseeing the proceedings. The conference's intent is to foster high-speed computer access and content development in impoverished nations. "And oh, by the way, Desai also wants to take power out of the hands of the Americans," Fulford writes. The thing that most bothers the United Nations, Fulford muses, is how during the past five years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a group incorporated in California, has been in charge of naming Web sites and the systems by which people transmit email. "I suspect its gravest sin is to serve Internet users without the permission of governments," Fulford theorizes. While Fulford acknowledges that the faults Desai assigns to the Internet are warranted, it is also "the most democratic of the world's great enterprises," and that bureaucrats, especially the ones in the United Nations, could only hurt it.
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  • "Trouble on the Net"
    InfoWorld (11/24/03) Vol. 25, No. 46, P. 40; Margulius, David L.

    Whether enhancing the Internet's core routing systems with additional intelligence will boost performance and security or inhibit innovation and endanger end-to-end visibility is a subject of intense debate. "The thing that has made the Net most successful is keeping the core of it as simple as possible and keeping the innovation in the edges," maintains Steve Crocker of ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee. "The standard wisdom is to avoid putting anything into the center that doesn't have to be there." Vint Cerf of MCI argues that the Internet is becoming more and more balkanized due to the accelerated growth of network traffic and escalating security problems, and fueling this balkanization is the wide implementation of increasingly intelligent devices designed to impede or translate network traffic under specific circumstances. Symantec CTO Rob Clyde notes that ISPs' deployment of intelligent filtering only adds to the problem. Opponents of boosting core intelligence also argue that the growth of Internet traffic is outpacing Moore's Law, which means that additional processing gear will consistently lag behind the workload. VeriSign CEO Stratton Sclavos subscribes to the opposite view, claiming that adding more intelligence to the Internet core is the best way to accommodate increasing end-user demands for improved security and routing. The preservation of the end-to-end connectivity principle may ride on the adoption--or lack thereof--of protocols such as the IPv6 Internet addressing architecture. Crocker points out that such protocols face formidable barriers to adoption--especially in the United States, where organizations tend to frown on standards that raise system overhead costs and support a complex product upgrade cycle.
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  • "Remote Possibilities"
    CIO (11/15/03) Vol. 17, No. 4, P. 129; Datz, Todd

    Server-based computing (SBC) can be a boon to businesses because it can lower hardware, software, and support costs, and secure application access. The current SBC workhorse is Citrix's MetaFrame XP Presentation Server, a virtual user interface that interoperates with Windows 2000 and 2003 servers, enables workers to access applications on any device, and functions in heterogeneous environments. This is a distinct advantage for companies that cannot afford to purchase new computers. Citrix's independent computing architecture network protocol can support connections as slow of 14.4 Kbps and uses roughly 5 Kbps to 10 Kbps of network bandwidth. Another SBC provider, Tarantella, sells a product that can access Windows, AS/400, Linux, Unix, and mainframe applications, while CEO Doug Michels touts Tarantella's heterogeneous architecture as an advantage over Citrix's Windows-centric scheme. SBC vendors have seen a fall in revenue because CIOs have dramatically reduced their tech budgets, while few IT decision-makers have been convinced of the wisdom in deploying SBC products, according to IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "[The products are] somewhat technical, and IT decision-makers are increasingly businesspeople, not technologists," he explains. Kusnetzky also cites several reasons why SBC technology could lose its influence as a standalone product: There is a growing prevalence of Web-centric apps, and application virtualization environments as well as operating systems could soon feature SBC functionality.
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  • "ACM Extends Deadline for Award Nominations"
    ACM (12/1/03)

    The deadline for nominations for six of the 12 major ACM awards has been extended to Dec. 31, 2003. The awards are: ACM/AAI Allen Newell (http://www.acm.org/awards/anaward.html); Eugene L. Lawler for Humanitarian Contributions to Computer Science and Informations (http://www.acm.org/awards/lawlaward.html); Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice (http://www.acm.org/awards/kan.html); Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator (http://www.acm.org/awards/kvkaward.html); Outstanding Contribution to ACM (http://www.acm.org/awards/ocaward.html); and the Software System Award (http://www.acm.org/awards/ssaward.html). Please see individual sites for information regarding the awards or for submitting nominations. These prestigious ACM awards, most with cash prizes, offer a unique opportunity to bring widespread recognition to peers, colleagues, mentors, professors, and prot�g�s for their contributions in computer science and IT.
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  • "The Promise and Pitfalls of Social Networking"
    Darwin (11/03); Boyd, Stowe

    A Working Model managing director Stowe Boyd admits that he is "a strongly biased advocate" for social networking, and has no reservations about investors pouring early-stage capital into social networks. He says the Internet can deepen social networking--people's tendency to cluster into groups, exchange information and contacts, and hasten toward their personal objectives via interaction. The uptake of social networking solutions is being spurred by their promise of determining the optimal or fastest route to another person, whether one is selling something or simply looking to increase one's contacts. Boyd says the practical applications of social networking solutions face a number of hurdles, chief among them a lack of critical mass; a dearth of awareness about social networking's benefits is also a major hindrance, though Boyd thinks that rising startup budgets and extensive media coverage will soon overcome that obstacle. Social networking's "viral" bottom-up nature also works in its favor, but Boyd writes that a shortage of social network compatibility has resulted in a fragmented, patchwork market of myriad social networking solutions. Boyd argues, "We are stuck at the Beta-versus-VHS fork in the road, where some company (or a few at the most) will break out of the pack...and establish a de facto standard for social networking." Key to the adoption of social networking solutions is clear proof that they offer solid business payback, in comparison to their real-world counterparts. Boyd concludes that the last obstacle in the way of social networking products is their design as standalone systems that are isolated from information technologies businesses are already employing to manage business relationships or relationship-connected data.
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  • "Germs That Build Circuits"
    IEEE Spectrum (11/03) Vol. 40, No. 11, P. 36; Fairley, Peter

    Scientists are trying to harness biological self-assembly in an attempt to eliminate the cost and space requirements of lithographic fabrication by coaxing viruses, DNA, and other organic materials to construct electronics on the nanoscale level. MIT's Angela Belcher is employing a genetically engineered virus that binds to pure semiconductor crystals via directed evolution, and has learned in the process that engineered viruses can also be coaxed to produce nanoscale semiconductor crystals known as quantum dots, which can be used to represent bits of memory. Belcher is also seeking the genetic code to a peptide that binds to zinc sulfide or some other semiconducting substance so that it can be spliced into viral DNA at will, and generate nanowires that play a critical role in field-effect transistors. Also investigating the possibilities of bioevolved peptides is DuPont, which has conceived a way to more thoroughly sort semiconducting and metallic nanotubes with proteins. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army spent $50 million to establish the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, which is exploring the potential of biological self-assembly in the manufacture of sensors, displays, and magnetic storage, as well as energy protection and data processing. Northwestern University researchers Chad Mirkin and Robert Letsinger have demonstrated that complementary DNA strands' ability to bind together could be used to assemble circuits out of nanotubes, quantum dots, and other nanocomponents using a technique known as dip pen nanolithography, whereby "inks" of dissolved compounds are deposited on a substrate by the tip of an atomic force microscope. Most scientists believe biological self-assembly's initial application will be the construction of simple sensors linked to conventional silicon circuitry.
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  • "Wireless Wearables--Where's the Technology Headed?"
    Sensors (11/03) Vol. 20, No. 11, P. 40; Shea, J. Timothy; Gordon, John

    Wearable computers, as defined by Venture Development (VDC), are, ideally, "smart fabrics" equipped with sensors to provide geolocation, biophysical monitoring, and other services; they should boast always-accessible computers that can either run user-defined software or be tailored for specific tasks that do not require the operation of multiple software applications; and computer/user interaction is facilitated by either wired or wireless communication. Wearable computing's business advantages include lower up-front costs than other available devices, and its ability to generate business or raise customer satisfaction levels, as well as accelerate response time to customer inquiries and elevate productivity or lower operating costs enough to recoup setup and maintenance investments. Market factors can influence the adoption of wearable computing: Vertical-market company adoption rates, pricing of wearable computers for various form factors and functional classes, and the effort of major computer and consumer electronics makers in designing, fabricating, and commercializing the technology are just a few. VDC predicts that healthy demand for wearable computing products extending through 2006 or beyond will be partly spurred by the growing acceptance of radio frequency communications to boost profitability and refine operational efficiency. Smart fabrics that can conduct or distribute electrical signal current and light energy may represent the biggest commercial opportunity, according to VDC. Short-term growth is expected in the area of location applications, such as tracking children and lost pets, and monitoring health and troop movements. Mid-term growth is anticipated in the fashion industry, although fashion-oriented products will need long-term utility and functionality to sustain their popularity. Should the adoption of wearable computing proceed as forecast, R&D departments will devise sensor networks for factories, urban areas, offices, and homes that will facilitate "situational awareness" capabilities, although the technology's privacy implications will inevitably crop up.
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