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This article is from the In-Depth Report Consumer Electronics: More Than Just Fun and Games

CES Notebook: Of IBM Demos, and Vests that Hit Back

Technology to better control your virtual avatar, gear worthy of getting "fragged" in and high-concept environmental sensors
Nokia sensors



NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

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

LAS VEGAS—On Day Two of the Consumer Electronics Show, the SciAm team literally played it close to the vest. Avoiding the punditry of the seminars, and following a tip from a recent SciAm.com article, the contingent sought out gaming vest that translates the force of virtual bullet impacts into actual thumps—perfect for Halo frag fests.

It took nearly all day to track down the device. Along the way, the team took in some demos at the IBM station, saw an ultra-secure hard drive and discovered a mobile phone company's grand environmental monitoring concept.

A Hard Drive Built Like Fort Knox—But Who Needs the Protection?

The star product at the Seagate booth is the Maxtor BlackArmor hard drive, a nearly impenetrable data safe guarded by Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption, an algorithm issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2001 and benchmarked for five years. Essentially, it's the sort of cryptography the U.S. government uses (if that gives you greater peace of mind). First off, the firmware (the application that controls the device) is located in the guts of the drive and does not require drivers for your PC. (The drive is not yet compatible with Macs.) When you plug BlackArmor into your USB port, it registers as a 3.5-megabyte CD. The device is locked until a password is entered, at which point it presents itself as a 160-gigabyte hard drive. "The drive is not a drive until it is unlocked," explains product manager Jon Van Bronkhorst. When power is cut to the drive, it automatically locks back up and cannot be unlocked without the password, from which the encryption key is partially generated. The downside: like the speakeasies of the 1920s, if you forget the password, you're not getting in.

Nokia Keeps Tabs on the Local Environment

In a corner of the Finnish cell phone maker's demo pit were bronze-colored sensors, which are part of Nokia's ambitious Eco Sensor Concept. The hope is that, in the future, people will wear these devices, which collect various forms of data: environmental (ultraviolet radiation levels, levels of airborne carbon monoxide and particulate matter), health (heart rate, local noise level) and weather (air pressure, temperature and humidity). The goal is a detailed picture of a person's surroundings and their effect on the wearer. (Click here to watch a related video.) The sensors are made using printed electronics, where inks that conduct electricity are layered on plastic surfaces, which in this case are made from biomass that is converted into polylactic acid in a low-energy process.

The company wants to "bring the awareness of the local environment and share the data," the restrained booth attendant explained. Then people will know, "Is it safe where I am? Is it safe where we are going?" Data on the sensors, which can be worn on one's clothing or on a watch-like assembly, can be synced to a cell phone or other mobile device and then shared with friends. It's sort of like citizen reporting on your current location.

IBM Offers Immersive and Collaborative Graphics Experience

Upon arriving at the sprawling IBM corner, it's hard to miss the Deep Computing Visualization display. Where else at CES could you see a two-by-two grid of higher-than-HD-quality monitors display a rotating 3-D image of a skyscraper, folded protein or brain slice? Feed the powerful IBM computer running the displays a 3-D image created in an application with an open graphics library (OpenGL), and the system renders and scales it to the largest output device you have available. The visualization algorithm then allows you to rotate the image and continue feeding data, which updates the display in real time. It can also take a 2-D image and shift it a bit, allowing it to be viewed three-dimensionally once rendered, provided you have 3-D glasses.

Earl Dodd, a product specialist, said that Harvard University has a similar rig running through an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer that allows them to study tumor growth. "Information and data is moved in real time to Deep Computing Visualization and can be used to view a tumor as it's growing--or hopefully not growing—because some other agents have been injected into the tumor," Dodd said. "And they can also share that with their colleagues at the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or...with Boston's Mass General, the hospital, so they can actually collaborate."

Making Faces for Your Virtual Self

Emotiv Systems, a partner of IBM, is a company developing pioneering technology to transform human thought into action in a metaverse, like Second Life. Their method involves translating brain waves, measured by electroencephalography (EEG), into data transmissible to a gaming application. (Click here to watch a related video.)

To demonstrate the Expressiv application, researcher Marco Della Torre wore an EEG helmet with electrodes placed in various spots on his head. Using only data from the EEG, an on-screen avatar mimicked his facial contortions, such as smiling, clenching his teeth or blinking.

"We're showing how it can enrich an experience in a virtual world—how it brings an avatar to life and communicates your feelings so directly," Della Torre said. In the "affectiv" mode, the program measured his excitement level, which could be used to determine the demeanor of your avatar. Eventually, a game may be reactive enough to sense a user's complacency and ratchet up the difficulty level. Finally, in a telekinetic display similar to "The Force" (or "The Schwartz," if you prefer Mel Brooks to George Lucas), Della Torre demoed the Cognitiv suite by pushing a cube on the screen back merely by intently focusing his mind on doing so.

The applications of this sort of technology, as it continues to develop, could impact areas as disparate as the automotive industry and efforts to combat mental disorders, such as autism. For now, Emotiv is targeting gaming, with an expected rollout of their wares in late-'08.

The Team Finally Triangulates the Vest

TN Games has been selling its 3rdSpace Gaming Vest since November. The company had it and two new prototypes that gaming enthusiasts and courageous reporters could try out. One of the prototypes was a helmet and a new vest to use for car racing games.

TN's products bring part of the action on the screen to the gamer's body. If your character in "Unreal" is shot in the back or in the back of the head, plastic, pneumatic cells in the gear will get a burst of air and jab the wearer in the corresponding area. The vest has four cells on the front and another four on the back, whereas the helmet has four pressure points around the head. A USB cord goes into the gaming console to sync the equipment to the game and an air compressor delivers the pokes and prods. (Click here to watch a related video.)

The technology, invented by vascular surgeon Mark Ombrellaro, was additionally intended to allow him to give examinations remotely to patients in rural Texas via the Internet. "While that vest was being approved by the FDA, he was like, 'Well, what can we do with the technology?'" recounts his brother John, who handles TN's sales and marketing. "Let's do gaming." Although the Gaming Vest has only eight pneumatic cells, the vest for telehealth has 64 cells trained on the abdominal area alone.

After donning TN's products and, in various games, getting trapped in corners and driving into walls, CES Day Two came to a close. The SciAm reporting team stumbled out of the expo mildly concussed and with the wind knocked out of them.

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