Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 6, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


The First Virtual Reality Technology to Let You See, Hear, Smell, Taste and Touch
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (03/04/09) Stern, Dan

Scientists at the University of Warwick and York University are developing virtual reality devices that are capable of stimulating all five senses with a high degree of realism. The research is part of the Towards Real Virtuality project, which is creating a fully immersive virtual reality experience in which users are unable to tell whether it is real or not. Teams from York and Warwick are working with experts from the universities of Bangor, Bradford, and Brighton to develop a Virtual Cocoon, a virtual reality device that will simulate all of the senses more realistically than any other device. The Virtual Cocoon will be a headset that incorporates specially developed electronics and computing capabilities. The researchers say the device could be used to unlock the full potential of Real Virtuality in a variety of fields. A mock-up of the Virtual Cocoon is on display at the Pioneers 09 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council showcase event in London. "Virtual reality projects have typically only focused on one or two of the five senses--usually sight and hearing," says York professor David Howard, the project's lead scientist. "We're not aware of any other research group anywhere else in the world doing what we plan to do." Howard says smell will be generated using a new technique from researchers at Warwick that will deliver a pre-determined smell on demand, and because taste and smell are so closely related, providing a texture sensation related to something being smelled will create the sensation of taste. A key goal of the project is to optimize the way all five senses interact.

Computer Scientists Deploy First Practical Web-Based Secure, Verifiable Voting System
Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (03/05/09) Rutter, Michael Patrick

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Center for Research on Computation and Society (CRCS) and scientists at the University Catholique de Louvain in Belgium deployed a Web-based, secure, verifiable-voting system for the Belgium presidential election that was held in early March. Called Helios, the system was developed by CRCS fellow Ben Adida. "Helios allows any participant to verify that their ballot was correctly captured, and any observer to verify that all captured ballots were correctly tallied," Adida says. "We call this open-audit voting because the complete auditing process is now available to any observer." The open source software uses advanced cryptographic techniques to maintain ballot secrecy while providing a mathematical proof that the election tally was correctly computed. Helios uses public-key homomorphic encryption, a method in which a public key is used to encrypt a message, or a vote. Homomorphic encryption allows messages to be combined while still encrypted, which works for counting votes, and requires multiple private keys to decrypt a message, which was the election tally. In an election, voters receive a tracking number for each of their votes, and each vote is encrypted with the election public key before leaving the voter's browser. Voters can then use their tracking numbers to verify that their ballot was correctly captured by the voting system, which publishes a list of all tracking numbers received before tallying. Finally, the voter, or any observer, can verify that the tracking numbers and votes were tallied appropriately. Adida says the encryption allows the entire verification process to take place without revealing the contents of each vote.

A New World Record in Go Established by PRACE Prototype and French Software
Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (03/02/09)

The Dutch national supercomputer Huygens defeated two human Go professionals in an official match at the recent Taiwan Open 2009 tournament. The Huygens supercomputer was running the MoGo TITAN application, which was developed by the INRIA research organization in France and Maastricht University. Go has replaced chess as a test bed for artificial intelligence (AI) research because it is one of the last board games in which humans are still better players than computers. However, since 2006, after a new algorithm called Monte-Carlo Tree Search was developed, the level of Go programs has rapidly improved. The Huygens supercomputer running MoGo TITAN achieved its first victory in August 2008 at the 24th Annual Congress of the Go competition, when it defeated a professional Go player in an official match. At the Taiwan Open in February, MoGo TITAN set a world record by winning two matches against professional players. "This new milestone in AI research once again clearly demonstrates the great potential of Huygens in many nontraditional areas of usage of supercomputing," says Anwar Osseyran, managing director of SARA Computing and Networking Services in Amsterdam, where the Huygens supercomputer is located.

Survey: Half of Americans See Another Country Emerging as World's Technological Leader
Duke University News & Communications (03/03/09) Merritt, Richard

Half of all U.S. residents expect that another country will become the world leader in addressing technological challenges this century, reveals a new Duke University survey. Only 34 percent of those surveyed gave themselves a grade of A or B for understanding "the world of engineers and what they do." Although 72 percent expect the technological advancements of the 21st century to surpass those of the previous century, only 49 percent believe the United States will lead the way in achieving those advancements. The Americans' Attitudes Toward Engineering and Engineering Challenges survey was commissioned by Duke's Pratt School of Engineering for a national summit on engineering "grand challenges" the school is hosting in early March. China was chosen by 20 percent of respondents as being the most likely to become the world leader, followed by Japan and Europe at 10 percent each, and India at 4 percent. Respondents were just as likely to say the United States' ability to compete in the technology industry has worsened over the past century as they were to say it has improved. "Americans understand that innovation is critical to their future, but also recognize that our country's continued leadership isn't assured just because we invented everything from the airplane to the personal computer," says Pratt dean Thomas Katsouleas. Respondents said the best way to improve the U.S.'s standing is with more training for workers, improved K-12 math and science teaching, and tougher standards for public school teachers and students.

THESEUS--Tool for Internet Services
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (03/09)

The Fraunhofer Institute's THESEUS Project aims to improve the use and exploitation of digital knowledge through the use of semantic technologies that will be able to recognize the meaning of information content. "The society of the future will be even more knowledge-based than the present one," says the Fraunhofer Institute's Hans-Joachim Grallert. "For that reason it is not only necessary to create the appropriate infrastructure, but also to ensure that existing knowledge is suitably prepared and made recognizable." Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institutes for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems are working on the digitalization of media types, including text, images, and sound recordings, and to make automatic semantic connections for this data. The Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) is developing technologies that will enable the best possible digitalization results, including algorithms for the restoration of text and video data. Searching video and photo archives has generally been a time-consuming process. In the future, metadata for multimedia content will automatically be generated, making searches far easier. Researchers are developing image-recognition systems that use colors or structures in an image to create metadata on the image's content and enable computers to identify what is in an image, leading to more accurate searches. Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics researchers are working on a sub-project called Medico that will develop software and tools for the automatic statistic evaluation of medical image data, such as computed tomography images, which will enable the matching of image characteristics to the symptoms of disease and allow images from one patient to be compared to a database of images.

Researchers Mine Millions of Metaphors Through Computer-Based Techniques
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (02/28/09) Krieger, Lisa M.

A digital humanities project that started at Stanford University is teaching computers how to analyze text and extract metaphors to build a searchable database, which will enable users to browse historic patterns of word uses. "As a tool, it provides a really powerful way of thinking about a lot of literature at once," says University of Virginia English literature professor Brad Pasanek, who is working on the project with computer scientist D. Sculley. The project is making tangible what the German linguist Herald Weinrich called the "metaphoric field." Digitized libraries have made a wide range of books available online, including obscure and rare books. Researchers can use data-mining techniques to search the millions of words in those books to study subtle changes in how the words have been used throughout history. "The nature of metaphor is such that it does not lend itself to easy detection by the usual sorts of pattern-matching algorithms," says Stanford computer scientist Matt Jockers, who created the digital database used for the project. Pasanek provided the computer with examples of metaphors and trained the software to recognize metaphors, using proximity searches between words likely to be metaphoric. Sculley says a similar technique is used in spam-detection software. "Pasanek's database is the first metaphoric field that we can actually see and use," says Stanford professor Franco Moretti. "It provides empirical proof for a daring but never wholly solid concept."

New 'Smart' Homes for Dementia Sufferers
University of Bath (03/04/09) Just, Vicky

A sensing system that assists people who suffer from dementia will be among the smart home technologies on display at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Pioneers 09 showcase event in London. Care homes in London and the West Country have been using the smart system as part of a trial over the past year, and its developers say it could be installed in residential homes. Developed at the University of Bath, the smart system is designed to monitor a person's movements around the home; provide voice prompts, such as for turning off the water or lights; and even switching off appliances to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. The Bath team believes the sensing system will enable people with dementia to live on their own, and ease some of the burden on families, healthcare professionals, and healthcare budgets. Operating on a "plug in and use" basis, with minimal visibility or intrusiveness, the sensing system makes use of the voices of relatives or friends to deliver reassuring messages and influence behavior. "The next step is to make sure the systems can be managed by nontechnical local authority carers and healthcare staff," says Roger Orpwood, the lead scientist for the project.

Google Launches Google Code Labs
eWeek (03/03/09) Taft, Darryl

Google has created a new Web site that will give outside developers an opportunity to contribute to the development of the company's products. Google Code Labs already offers more than 60 application programming interfaces (APIs) and tools that are in their early stages of development, says Google's Tom Stocky. Google will look to graduate APIs and tools from Google Code Labs, and will offer deprecation policies and other critical support services. The first set of graduates includes App Engine, Google Web Toolkit, AJAX Search API, Maps API, Earth API, Calendar Data API, and YouTube APIs. For example, each version of the Visualization API terms, Contacts Data API terms, and Picasa Web Albums Data API terms will be supported for at least three years from when they are deprecated or a newer version is introduced. Google also will require a dedicated, ongoing engineering team and comprehensive test suite to graduate an API from Code Labs. Some graduated products may have experimental features that allow them to be changed or removed at any time.

Serious Games for Serious Health Problems
ICT Results (03/06/09)

The European Union-funded PlayMancer project recently demonstrated the future of serious games dedicated to improving people's health. PlayMancer is working to improve the technology for serious game engines and tools for three-dimensional networked gaming and games geared toward objectives other than entertainment. "We want to build actual games, serious games, around serious health-related problems like bulimia and chronic pain," says PlayMancer project manager Elias Kalapanidas. He says PlayMancer is developing games that are more universally accessible. For example, people with chronic pain could play games designed to ease their symptoms, while a therapist monitors progress online to adjust settings to improve results or prevent injury. "Our games are aimed at specific health problems initially, which could make the market even harder to develop, but all the studies and analyses point to strong potential," Kalapanidas says. "So, it's only a matter of time with the way computers and gaming are evolving." The Technical University of Vienna, a PlayMancer partner, recently demonstrated the project's early technical prototypes at the Vienna Science Fair. "We attended this very high-profile fair in Austria because we know the success of our final games and development tools will rest to a large extent on how well we can get the message out about them," Kalapanidas says.

More Science, Less Drama: IT Pros Defend Engineering Careers
Network World (03/02/09) Dubie, Denise

Many information technology (IT) professionals believe that parents could be doing their children a disservice by not encouraging them to pursue advanced studies in math and science. A survey by the American Society for Quality found that more than 85 percent of students are not considering careers in engineering, and that parents did not promote engineering as a viable career option to their children. The survey also found that some parents suggested that their daughters pursue careers in acting over math, sciences, and high-tech careers. Many working IT professionals say the ever-changing industry provides a fulfilling career for those who enjoy problem solving, challenging situations, and variation in their daily lives. The survey found that 44 percent of those not choosing a career in engineering listed a lack of knowledge about the specific field and the overall industry as a reason for not pursuing a career in IT. IT professionals say that students need a better understanding of how math and science influence and relate to things that are important in their lives. "Clearly, there needs to be much more focus on math and science in schools," says an IT professional in response to the survey. "We need more math majors and fewer drama majors if the U.S. is going to remain competitive in the 21st century."

Future TV Screens Seen in Coffee Stains
New Scientist (03/01/09) Ananthaswamy, Anil

Ivan Vakarelski at the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences in Singapore believes he has found a more affordable way to make super-thin coatings for liquid crystal displays and plasma screens. His approach is based on the way spilled coffee makes stains on a surface. By controlling the process in which evaporating liquid drives coffee particles to the edges of the spill and granules form, Vakarelski and colleagues have created a technique for assembling a nanoscale conductive coating. The team suspended gold particles, left them to dry on a glass plate covered with closely packed latex microspheres, added surfactants, and lowered the temperature. The researchers were able to control the evaporation and convection rates, which caused the gold particles to move to the base of the latex balls, where they settled and formed rings and bridges. The evaporated liquid left a network of connected gold nanoparticles. "A key advantage of their approach is that the resulting networks are semi-transparent and their density can be tuned by varying the size of the [latex-microsphere] template," says Jennifer Lewis, an expert on the self-assembly of nanoparticles at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Researchers Strive to Improve Online Education
ASU News (02/26/09) Martin, Verina Palmer

Arizona State University's (ASU's) New American University project aims to enroll 100,000 students in online courses by 2012, which will require finding more effective ways of providing instruction online. "Learning can be as effective online as it can be face to face," says ASU professor James Klein, who is investigating the use of collaborative learning in several settings, including online and in the classroom. Klein's research has explored the effects of collaboration in such settings on students from public schools, community colleges, universities, and corporate training sessions for working adults. One study examined how to teach teachers online and help them integrate technology into their classrooms. "The continued proliferation of online courses means we must continue to do research in this area," Klein says. "What we know is that interaction increases learning." Klein's research has revealed that people who work face to face have higher positive attitudes than people who work online, but that online students learn as much as students in the classroom. Overall, students prefer working together over individual studying, but collaborative efforts do not necessarily result in better information retention, and forced online interaction results in lower student motivation. Klein says because online courses could have a significant impact on higher education it is important to develop well-designed tools, strategies, and interactions.

MIT Speeds Health Work in Project That Uses PDAs to Track TB Data
Campus Technology (02/25/09) Schaffhauser, Dian

A program developed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student that used personal digital assistants (PDAs) to monitor the test results of patients with tuberculosis has been a success in Lima, Peru, and has now been expanded across the city. For the healthcare workers who visit more than 100 healthcare centers and labs twice a week to record patient test results on paper, and then transcribe the results onto two sets of forms per patient when they return to the main office, the PDAs allow them to enter the data remotely and sync up with their computers when they go back to the office. "The doctors get what they want, the administrators get what they want, and the team only has to enter the data once," says Joaquin Blaya, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST). Blaya worked with HST, the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Partners in Health, and the non-profit's sister organization in Peru, Socios en Salud, to devise the program. The handheld devices use specially designed software to maintain patient data. The program has reduced the average time patients' test results reach doctors from 23 days to eight days, and also costs less than the previous paper-based system.

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