Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 28, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Relief for PC Users on the Move
SINTEF (12/24/09)

The final version of a platform for developing the next generation of adaptable software for PCs will be released in 2010. The European Union's Music project promises to make it easier to develop software that automatically adapts to changes in battery levels, variations in network efficiency, and other physical factors that cause problems for PC users. Capacity, network access, and resources are issues that PC users have to contend with when they are at the office, at the airport, or out in the country, says Geir Horn of SINTEF ICT, which is leading the project and its 15 partners. For a PC user who needs a lot of battery capacity for a long trip on a train, the system would consider the relevant factors and determine what are the key applications to show and store. "With this project, the software will realize that you have poor network capacity, so it will block downloads of large attachments and ensure that you only see the subjects and senders of emails," Horn says. The platform would enable software to adapt on its own to the changing work environment of PC users. "This means that we will be seeing more smart programs in the future, and perhaps a lot of the frustration experienced by today's users of portable PCs will be reduced," Horn says.

Helping Children Find What They Need on the Internet
New York Times (12/25/09) Olsen, Stefanie

A study sponsored by Google and developed by the University of Maryland and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center focused on determining the differences between how children and adults search the Internet and find the barriers children face when trying to find information. Children often try entering whole questions into search engines and can become frustrated when the search engine fails to return an answer. Researchers say that more could be done to make it easier for young people to retrieve information. For example, University of Maryland human-computer interaction lab director Allison Druin suggests expanding the concept of keywords, such as allowing children to click on an image or video instead of typing words into a search box. Druin says search engines should do more to imitate the role of a parent by providing prominent suggestions for related content or an automated chat system to enable the search engine to help a child in the same way a parent would. Druin also points out that the bottom of the screen is "valuable territory" for young users, as children often focus on their hands and the keyboard when searching and the bottom of the screen is the first thing they see when they look up. Google is using the research to develop better search technology for all users, says the company's Irene Au. "The problems that kids have with search are probably the problems adults experience, just magnified," Au says. "It's helped highlight the areas we need to focus on."

Teaching Avatars
Gulf News (United Arab Emirates) (12/27/09) Moussly, Rania; Naidoo, Amelia

Universities in the Middle East are starting to take advantage of the educational possibilities provided by online virtual worlds such as Second Life. For example, Zayed University professor Brad Young is using OpenSimulator to teach his students the basics of three-dimensional (3D) concepts and the principles of server building within a virtual world. Young says he developed the idea of using a virtual world to teach as a way to connect with students who are familiar with 3D environments, and that his students enjoy controlling their own avatars. Currently, Young's students only use the virtual world for about six weeks out of the year. American University in Dubai IT department chair Khalid Khawaja says tools such as Second Life and OpenSimulator are primarily used for students to understand the technology. However, he says virtual worlds will eventually make the learning environment more exciting and could become a part of everyday life at the university. "It could be a matter of a couple of years where components of classes are happening in virtual environments like this," Khawaja says. A major benefit of teaching in a virtual world is the ability to simulate real-world situations to better help students practice real-life principles.

OLPC Unveils Slimline Tablet PC
BBC News (12/23/09) Fildes, Jonathan

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) recently announced that the latest version of the XO laptop series, the XO-3, will be available in 2012 and will cost less than $100. The XO-3 will be a slim-line touchscreen tablet PC that features a camera, an induction charger, and a carrying ring on one of its corners. It replaces the proposed XO-2, a foldable e-book, which was displayed last year but was never produced and OLPC has since scrapped. The XO-3 will feature design elements from the XO-1.75, which is set for launch in 2011 and features an ARM processor as well as technologies, such as a touchscreen, intended for the XO-3. The original XO laptop, which currently sells for about $200, has been distributed to more than 1.4 million children in 35 countries. OLPC Europe CEO Walter de Brouwer says that constantly decreasing electronics prices should enable the group to sell the latest machines in bulk to governments for significantly less. He says governments could pay OLPC back over a number of years, enabling students to have a laptop for less than one euro per month. De Brouwer emphasizes that OLPC is not a laptop company, and the organization recently announced that it would focus on promoting its concepts and education goals, instead of manufacturing. "The bigger appeal for us is deploying them and integrating them with education systems to transform a society," de Brouwer says.

Latest Computer Technology Helps Researchers Listen to Plants
Horticulture Week (12/24/09) Sidders, Jack

The use of speckled computing to compile data on poinsettias at a plant nursery in the United Kingdom marks the first time the technology has been used in horticulture. Developed by researchers at the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and the University of Edinburgh, the sensors were installed at Pentland Plant Nursery in July and have been used to provide readings every minute to help ensure that the plants remain in perfect condition. "We can check the temperature, light levels, moisture, and nutrients around the plant along with the compost to make sure that everything is perfect for the plant to grow," says SAC plant pathologist Simon Oxley. At the plant nursery, sensors are used to wirelessly deliver information to the laboratory. Moreover, linking the sensor specks with automatic glasshouse and environment systems could lead to light and energy savings. "Specks are finding new applications in a variety of other areas such as monitoring the natural environment and optimizing energy usage in buildings," says DK Aryind, director of the speckled computing consortium at Edinburgh. Speckled computing is used in the health care industry and also has potential applications in the retail sector.

Flexing the Boundaries of Flash Memory
CNet (12/27/09) Rosenberg, Dave

University of Tokyo researchers have used organic materials to create organic flash memory. Physically flexible, the nonvolatile memory has the same basic structure as flash memory. Organic flash memory has the potential to be used for large-area sensors, electronic paper, and other large-area electronic devices. However, organic flash memory's retention time is currently limited to 24 hours. Nonetheless, the development could lead to more physically versatile computing devices. For example, wearable storage that conforms to a body shape for video capture is a possibility, as is the use of rounded objects as storage devices. There could be practical as well as nefarious uses for non-linear, flexible technologies, from monitoring tire pressure to capturing data from someone's shoes to determine where they have been. The technology is unlikely to be ready for everyday use for a number of years.

Scholars Test Emotion-Sensitive Tutoring Software
Education Week (12/22/09) Viadero, Debra

University of Massachusetts Amherst's Beverly Park Woolf and Ivon M. Arroyo, along with Arizona State University's Winslow Burleson have developed an intelligent-tutoring system known as Wayang Outpost, which uses realistic problems to teach geometry. The system picks up on students' emotions through sensors in the computer, the students' chairs, and other parts of the learning environment. A bracelet sensor worn by a student detects changes in pulse and moisture levels on the skin. Sensors in the chair cushions determine a student's posture, which can be a good indicator of mood and attentiveness. The computer mouse is rigged with pressure-sensitive sensors that signal if a student is squeezing harder in possible frustration. A camera in the computer takes cues from the eyebrows, mouth, and nose to determine if a student is smiling, frowning, or yawning. The program combines and analyzes the data and can correctly identify variation in students' emotions more than half the time. The program uses animated characters that mirror the emotions of a user and offer an appropriate response. The characters provide feedback that emphasizes the value of effort. In addition to raising average achievement, the program improves the way that students think about their own math skills. After the tutoring sessions, students are more likely to believe they are good at math. Students also seem to get bored with the tutoring program less than with an unemotional system. The University of Memphis' Arthur C. Graesser and Sidney D'Mello also have been researching emotionally enhanced tutoring systems. They examined how students respond to tutoring characters of certain genders or racial groups, and found that students responded the same to all different characters.
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Understanding Interaction in Virtual Worlds
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) (12/23/09) Butt, Simon

University of Nottingham researchers, in collaboration with SRI International, two Canadian universities, and online games developer Multiverse, will study online behavior in virtual gaming environments. The Virtual Environment Real User Study (Verus) will explore how actual user characteristics compare with corresponding avatars in online virtual worlds. Verus researchers will gather volunteers and study their gaming behavior at several sites around the world. Co-principal investigators Thomas Chesney of the University of Nottingham and John Murray of SRI International hope the study will lead to advances in the use of virtual worlds in the fields of education, simulation, and training. "Virtual world interfaces are likely to increase in popularity and they could even become the main way we access information in the future," Chesney says. The study will be conducted with colleagues from Simon Fraser and York universities as well as Multiverse, which will contribute unique virtual environments. Research will include human-computer interaction studies, user surveys, on-site observations, and other ethnographic study methods. Study volunteers will give statements about their avatars and themselves and explain how the virtual environments are experienced. "A small sample will be, initially at least, studied more in depth to see whether using technologies like eye tracking and skin temperature may reveal significant objective physiological correlations between players' real-world states and virtual-world situations and activities," says Simon Fraser University's Suzanne de Castell.

Google's Top Inventor Says Talking Computers Are the Future
Silicon Republic (12/23/09) Kennedy, John

Google research director Peter Norvig recently discussed several aspects concerning the future of innovation, search programs, artificial intelligence, advertising, and media distribution. Norvig says that Google researchers are "are always reinventing things," which he says creates an environment that attracts the top people. "We're driven by the fact that we've got to have more users, more documents, and more speed," he says. The future of searching is in video, Norvig says. Google is working on indexing the actual content of the video as well as developing speech-recognition technology to index the words spoken in the video. Norvig anticipates more voice-activated commands in the future of computing and Internet manipulation. He says computers will be able to analyze searches and help users make sense of how group search results can be used together. Norvig's personal interests are in artificial intelligence and how it relates to advertising online. The goal is to create as many different modes of interaction as possible, so users can choose how to receive information. Speech recognition and computer vision also are very important to the future of online advertising. "You have a phone with a compass in it and there's StreetView that you can orient to the real world and it's not a big step from there to put advertising on it," Norvig says.

Immersive Game System Allows Physical Interaction Between Players (12/22/09) Zyga, Lisa

National University of Singapore researchers Jefry Tedjokusumo, Steven ZhiYing Zhou, and Stefan Winkler have developed first-person shooter gaming systems in both a virtual and an augmented reality environment. In the virtual reality system, players wear a head-mounted display that provides an image of the scene much like a computer or TV screen. Each player also carries a wand, which can be used as either a gun or sword. Players move throughout an empty room and are equipped with a tracking system to pick up virtual items. Players can walk, jump, or dodge enemies, while the player's avatar mirrors the action. The augmented reality system is similar except that the head-mounted display has a camera to capture the player's real-world view. The augmented system also can be played in any open environment. The system calibrates real-world data captured by the camera with the gaming environment. Both systems can display the player's view and the weapon's view separately, enabling players to look one way and shoot the virtual gun in a different direction. "Our immersive system can also be used to train for shooting accuracy, and the result will be very close to the real world performance," Tedjokusumo says. The researchers conducted a study to test both gaming systems. Volunteer players reported a preference for the virtual reality game mode over the augmented reality and traditional keyboard and mouse modes. However, the traditional keyboard and mouse system allowed for more accurate aiming of bulls-eye targets in the virtual world.

Financial Instruments Could Be Spiked With Unfindable Risks
Princeton Engineering News (12/21/09) Schultz, Steven

Princeton University researchers report that sellers of financial derivatives could intentionally include pieces of bad risk that buyers couldn't detect with even the most powerful computers. The research focused on collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), an investment tool that combines multiple mortgages with the promise of spreading out and lowering the risk of default. The researchers explored what would happen if a seller knew some mortgages were bad and structured a package of CDOs that benefited the seller. They found that the manipulation could be impossible for buyers to detect either at the time of sale or when the derivative loses money. The study was conducted by Sanjeev Arora, director of Princeton's Center for Computational Intractability; his colleague Boaz Barak; economics professor Markus Brunnermeier; and computer science graduate student Rong Ge. The researchers say their study indicates that mathematical models used for risk analysis at financial firms may be problematic. "We are cautioning that even if you have the right model it's not easy to price derivatives," Arora says. "Making the models more complicated will not make these effects go away, even for computationally sophisticated." Arora says the problem comes from asymmetric information between buyers and sellers, and goes against conventional wisdom of economic theory, which states that derivatives reduce the negative effects of unequal information. "We stress that certain derivative securities introduce additional complexity and thus a new layer of asymmetric information that can be so severe it overturns the initial advantage," Brunnermeier says.

UCD Computer Scientists Develop Technique to Improve Helpfulness of User-Generated Online Reviews
UCD News (12/18/09)

University College Dublin (UCD) researchers have developed a system to rate the helpfulness of online customer reviews. Some online services currently allow users to rate the helpfulness of a review, but the feedback is minimal and can be biased and poorly written. The new system applies machine learning to determine the factors that contribute to a helpful review. "It's about identifying which reviews are the most informative about the product or service," says UCD's Michael O'Mahony. The system uses four basic factors in determining the helpfulness of a review--reputation, social, sentiment, and content. Reputation analyzes all previous reviews written by the same author, determining if the author is known for providing useful comments. Social accounts for how often reviewers respond to other reviews, improving the quality of their own statements about products or services. Sentiment acknowledges that users tend to respond more to positive reviews, and takes the score attributed to a product into account. Content looks at how well the review is written by form and length because poorly written reviews are considered less helpful to users. "One interesting result that we noticed is that users tend to be drawn more towards positive reviews and often ignore negative reviews, even though the negative reviews can be very revealing and informative," according to O'Mahony. He says the new system can be used to promote helpful negative reviews that might otherwise be overlooked by users.

Securing the Information Highway
Foreign Affairs (12/09) Vol. 88, No. 6, P. 2; Clark, Wesley K.; Levin, Peter L.

The cyberinfrastructure of the United States is under the constant threat of attack, and the U.S. government must take quick and decisive action to protect these vital assets, write former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley K. Clark and Peter L. Levin, CTO and Senior Adviser to the Secretary at the U.S. Veteran Affairs Department. The authors draw parallels between cyberthreats and biological diseases, and note that "bodily immune systems work best when they are autonomous, adaptable, distributed, and diversified; so, too, with electronic security." They write that "as with their biological analogues, healthy electronic systems will focus protection at the gateways to the outside world (such as a computer's ports), rapidly implement sequential reactions to invading agents, learn from new assaults, remember previous victories, and perhaps even learn to tolerate and coexist with foreign intruders." Clark and Levin say the existence of a vulnerability will inevitably be discovered by a cybercriminal, and professional saboteurs will likely be unable to resist the lure of embedding intentional security holes. However, Clark and Levin note that the complete eradication of all threats to electronic security is both technically infeasible and unaffordable. "The best the United States can achieve is sensible risk management," they argue. "Washington must develop an integrated strategy that addresses everything from the sprawling communications network to the individual chips inside computers." Diversification of the U.S. digital infrastructure is a starting point, while securing the hardware supply chain is an additional step. The adaptability of hardware means that the current configuration and deployment of computer networks will not have to undergo a fundamental shift.
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