Technology: October 2008 Archives

A note from Graham Titterington at Ovum explains why IT vendors are having a hard time presenting a greener image. He attended a vendor's shindig only to find that, when it came to their carbon footprint, some were forced to wear supersized clown shoes:

"One of the delegates, who had travelled from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam, had been told that he had to fly there as it was not company policy to reimburse train fares – despite the fact that in this case there is no direct air service and flying was both considerably more expensive and slower! As this journey involved two relatively short flights, the fuel consumption per passenger was probably about ten times that of the rail option."

As Titterington concludes: "Every company is trying to maximise the revenue potential of jumping on the green bandwagon...However, a bit of joined-up thinking would help to keep the cynicism in check."

Mind you, it's easy talk. Even Franz Kafka couldn't have imagined the arcane stupidity that permeates many corporate travel policies. It's as though HR and finance have regular meetings to work out how far they can push it:

"I know, we'll only pay out if they have video evidence showing they hopped unicycled least one mile for every hundred travelled."

"But it's got to be a pool unicycle. They can't bring their own."

"Yeah, that'll get 'em."

Chipmaker Atmel is banking on an avalanche of iPhone-like handsets that understand multi-fingered gestures. At the start of the year, Atmel decided to buy a UK-based startup Quantum Research Group that had already locked horns with Apple over the capacitive sensors used in the iPod, iPhone and the recent MacBooks.

A lot of QRG's business has been in home appliances - touch panels on the front of ovens and the like. Now, armed with QRG's own technology, Atmel is going after the handset makers who want touchscreens that understand gestures so they can fend off competition from the iPhone.

Chris Ard demonstrates the Atmel multitouch sensor

Atmel's controller divides the screen into 48 mini-touchscreens each functioning independently. Director of marketing Chris Ard reckons this works better than the existing methods which pick up touches on a single grid of X-Y lines. You can see how the controller registers Ard's touches on the laptop in the picture.

“We believe that we have unique IP on this. I think we are alone in individually addressing the touchscreen elements," Ard reckons.

However, perhaps more important than any claimed technical advantage is that the company has written software to decode common gestures such as pinching and wiping actions, similar to those found on the iPhone. However, the controller is limited to two discrete touches.

Asked whether Atmel is concerned about Apple's patents in this area - and bearing in mind Atmel now has a bunch of its own - Ard retorted that, right now, Apple has a bunch of patent applications. They have yet to be granted.

The controller is designed to work with two types of touchscreen. One is aimed at high-end handsets. The other is a cheep and cheerful single-layer single-touch design that is less accurate, largely because the links from the sensor elements to the controller have to wind around each other. A multi-layer design lets you have cross-overs.

“We think the single-layer version will be the most important part of the market because it will reduce the cost, taking it down to that of the resistive screen products,” says Ard. “It offers better light transmission than resistive and, because the sensor sits behind the display panel, you can’t damage it.”

Ard claimed the capacitive design will help with the design of thinner phones as the sensor is about 150µm thick versus the 500µm of the resistive touchscreen sensor array used on most smartphones today.

Finding work for the GPU

21 October 2008

Returning from a visit to Germany that took in a visit to the company's Berlin-based raytracing and 3D-animation subsidiary Mental Images, nVidia's CEO Jen-Hsun Huang and senior vice president of marketing Dan Vivoli stopped off in London. In between working out which series of Star Trek was the best - Huang favours Voyager - and marvelling at Vivoli's mental stamina - he is apparently able to stand up to repeated viewings of Chevy Chase movies like Caddyshack and Christmas Vacation - we talked about the future of the graphics processing unit (GPU) and how nVidia is looking less at graphics and more at physics.

Huang calls the plan 'Graphics+'. I got the feeling that he had been working on the elevator pitch for the plan: "We are going to take graphics to the next level. We think 3D is cool and great but we are going to find a way to take graphics in a giant leap to the next level. We will surprise users so they will buy a new generation of computers."

The key to that, naturally, is the GPU, reborn as a massively parallel processor that can crunch through graphics-related jobs that a couple of years ago you could only run on server farms tucked away in the basements of Hollywood animation houses.

Almost 40 years ago, Columbia Records tried to cash in on the Californian counterculture with the slogan "But The Man can't bust our music". The record company "wasn't like the others", it wanted everyone to know. It was different. Then the company released the first Chicago album after demanding a royalty cut because it was too long. And it didn't take long for MOR syndrome to take over.

At the Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference I wondered what slogan the venture capitalists might adopt as they try to entice researchers to create bioengineering startups to follow in the wake of Amyris Biotechnologies. Many of those researchers have bought into a technological counterculture where community spirit and an open source ethos rule. And, at the least for the moment, the VCs are singing the same song.

Talli Somekh of Musea Ventures presented himself as a former "activist for open source" who was behind the synthetic-biology community's plans to try to prevent its inventions from being locked up behind patent firewalls.

But the spectre of Dr Evil was there too. Drew Endy of Stanford University, who is trying to set up a non-profit 'biofab' in the Bay Area worried aloud about how such an institute might deal with industry aka EvilCo.