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CES Notebook: A Victory Lap in an Autonomous Car

Boss Chevy Tahoe DARPA



NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Click here for a full list of our coverage of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show.

LAS VEGAS–On their final day at CES, the SciAm team declared victory on the imposing, sprawling conference. Sure there were cavernous showrooms, hordes of gadget-lusting revelers and rampant consumerism. But, after cutting through the plethora of touchscreens and iPod docks, getting pummeled by gaming outerwear and sitting down for a chat with the world's second richest man, it was time for a victory lap.

And who better to celebrate with than another winner? Pardon the anthropomorphizing, but the only company worthy of keeping on our last day at CES was an autonomous Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss," the radar and laser-festooned victor of this past November's DARPA Urban Challenge in Victorville, Calif. (Boss, who was designed and engineered at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with help from General Motors, Continental and Caterpillar, among other corporate partners, won by completing a course that included traffic jams composed of cars driven by both humans and other robots.)

Look, mom! No hands!

It's not worth lying about this: The team was nervous when riding shotgun in Boss's cockpit with no warm body in the driver's seat. A clockwise turn of a large button on a raised platform between the front driver and passenger seats, and the car lurched forward, the steering wheel turning and the pedal engaging as though an apparition was at the wheel. (Click here to view a related video.)

The vehicle incorporates 30 to 200-meter radar and LIDAR, the latter in both wide-field and scanning (for planar views). Its main sensor sits on a perch atop the vehicle and resembles a silver coffee can with a mirror. Inside are 64 lasers, positioned at different orientations, which the car uses to formulate a 3D model of the surrounding world, says Jarrod Snider, a controls engineer at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute. In the trunk are the brains of the machine, where an array composed of as many as 14 blade servers, each powered by Intel Core 2 Duo processors, processes information from cameras, radar, lasers, GPS sensors and accelerometers. (Click here for a related video.)

So what does that kind of computational firepower do when Boss, say, comes to an intersection? According to Snider, the car can identify that it's approaching a cross-street and even parse what type it's approaching (say, a four-way stop). "It uses localization sensors to know it's arrived there, then it stops at the right place," Snider explains. "Then, it uses its lasers and radars to detect and track cars -- then it determines what those cars have done. So, if another car gets there before us, it should have precedence; if the car gets there after us, we should take precedence."

The effectiveness of all this built-in logic is borne out in the test drive. Although the car pitches a bit as it lurches down the road, it is remarkably courteous and responsive. (And it's never talking on the cell phone while it's driving.) Sure enough, when it reaches an intersection, Boss makes a full and complete stop, allowing a Hummer H3 that got to the crossing first to pass through. "It's very patient and by-the-book," said Snider.

Solar charger recon

After being shown who actually is boss, the team had time to tie up some loose ends and set out to interrogate a solar charger company. Solio makes portable, hybrid energy chargers, mostly for the outdoor adventurer set. The modules can charge their lithium-ion batteries conventionally--via an outlet--or, when opened, can soak up energy from the sun through photovoltaic cells. (Click here for a related video.)

The newest member of the Solio family is the Solio Magnesium, which boasts an eco-friendly magnesium oxide shell, which the company claims is biodegradable. While details on how or why were scarce, sales and marketing vice president Dan Porras said that, according to Solio's product engineer, if you throw the casing (not the battery or the solar cells) into the ocean, it will degrade.

The fan-shaped, three-blade design of the Solio Magnesium has plenty of surface area that can be exposed to the sun, yielding a full charge after eight hours of exposure to direct sunlight. According to company literature, it will hold that charge for up to year.

Geeking out over an inessential keyboard

Andre Lebedev, a Moscow inventor and designer, made a keyboard that you don't need, but if you see it, you'll want one. And if your gadget lust starts spiraling out of control, the only antidote is the price tag: $1,500. (Click here for a related video.)

Lebedev's OptimusMaximus keyboard replaces boring old keys with organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays, which turn each key into a little 10x10-millimeter monitor. "You may show pictures, images, weapons, porn -- anything can be displayed on the keys, even animation" explained Lebedev. The keyboard comes with software, called Optimus Configurator, that allows a user to remap any of the keys to trigger nearly any combination of inputs.

Lebedev used OLED displays because they have a superior viewing angle. "It's almost 180 degrees," he said. "The image doesn't disappear. There are no shades, no ghosts. They are extremely clear and the resolution is incomparable to anything else because when you look at the screen, you don't see pixels." Art Lebedev Studio sees the Optimus Maximus as a useful tool for designers, type-setters, video editors and other professionals who need more flexibility than a normal keyboard allows (and tend to use several hotkeys and macros during daily work).

For $500, you can buy the keyboard with just one OLED key; the rest of the computer will have standard buttons. Then, whenever you have a free $10, you can get a new OLED key, until you replace all 113 keys.

A new kind of instant gratification from Polaroid

When the team heard that Polaroid had developed a way to reproduce the immediacy of the original Polaroid system in digital cameras and camera phones, nostalgia mandated that we check out their digital instant mobile photo printer.

The little Bluetooth-enabled module is nearly pocket-sized, at three by five inches, and can print 15 two-by-three-inch photos on a full charge of its lithium ion battery. It prints via ZINK (zero ink) technology on ZINK photo paper, which is a sheet covered with billions of cyan, magenta and yellow dye crystals in their colorless forms. "ZINK Technology is a company that incubated within Polaroid over a decade ago," says Polaroid global product planner Andy Mitchelides

The crystal layer is covered with a heat-sensitive polymer coating, which breaks down under heat—in a process called "thermal printing"—allowing the crystals to colorize and an image to display. Photos can be sent via USB or wirelessly to the printer, which needs to be loaded with a new sheet between each print. After the image is transmitted, the printer renders it and then passes the paper through a heat source that activates the crystals and copies the image to the surface. The whole process takes about 30 seconds, and the result, dangling from the device like some bit of 80's nostalgia, is a print that's a reasonable simulacrum of the original Polaroids.

Oh, memories! And now, CES 2008, you are one, too. That's all the news that's fit to print--some of what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

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