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February 2010

February 24, 2010

The World Electric – Part I

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TWE At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (aka: Chicago World’s Fair) Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla introduced the world to alternating current as well as the Westinghouse brand light bulb of which 100,000 were used to light the event. There was a great optimism with regards to technology and the future during that period and a little over 110 years later I believe that enthusiasm still survives.  The idea of an electric world where everything would be powered by this magical force won over many of the visitors to the fair and set in motion a technological revolution.

Today, electric power is so common, that it is considered ubiquitous and quickly obvious by its absence.  It is unthinkable that a residential or commercial structure would lack electric services.  Our very existence is dependant on electric power and without it much of the world would die due to starvation and disease.  We often take this modern marvel for granted and realize just how much we depend on it when it’s not there (I have first hand accounts during the 2004 Florida hurricane season when friends lost power for weeks).

So looking forward into the 21st century, how will electricity be viewed in 2093 - 200 years after the 1893 event? I think it will be considered the primary power source for everything including all transportation and personal vehicles.  The raw energy sources for the current state-of-the-art power plants come from many different forms and many rely on carbon based fuels.  This will shift eventually toward cleaner forms of energy such as harvesting (e.g. wind, solar, wave, etc) and other nuclear methods (e.g. LFTR technology, fusion, etc. - see my post, "The End Of The Carbon Age"). This shift will provide electrical power at lower costs, and combined with improved storage and transmission technologies will finally give us an all-electric infrastructure.

But what is the future of the semiconductor industry in an all-electric world? It is hard to fathom how semiconductors of the late 21st century might be fabricated or what functions they may provide.  Carbon nano-tubes may replace silicon as the material of choice in future devices - as Yoda might say, "The future, cloudy it is..."  But there can be no doubt that semiconductor nanotechnology will be central to the everyday life of the citizens of that era just as it is today. It is difficult in our modern world to avoid using something that does not contain electronics. So the next time you pick up your cell phone to text your friend, log-on to the W3 or play that game with your PS3, remember to thank a semiconductor engineer (or any engineer for that matter). 

Over the next several weeks I will be exploring possible technologies that may emerge as the functional device building blocks of the next wave of semiconductors.  There are so many candidates I will try to focus on the key technologies so reasonable predictions can be made.  So get out your virtual time machine and let’s take a look into the future... cloudy as it may be! Till next time...

February 04, 2010

Of Mice and Pads

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Is the mouse approaching retirement? I’m taking some literary license with the title of this post to borrow from the works of Robert Burns (i.e. a poem entitled "To a Mouse") to contrast a similar symbolism found in the poem itself... in our case the end of computer mice and the rise of "touch".  With their latest entry, Apple’s iPad along with many other touch enabled smart phones and touch screen computers are laying the ground work to retire the computer mouse to the realm of museums.

It is curious to note that analog technology is the first to "see" information... that is, humans and the world around us is analog in nature.  So when information is gathered, it is first in the form of analog signals.  It is also the last - LCDs convert digital pixels into light (using analog transistors on the glass) for us to see and perceive.  Audio is produced by amplifiers driving mechanical sound generators (e.g. speakers) to produce sound.  Seeing and hearing are native to humans and so is touch. 

A baby instinctively understands touching and being touched.  They first communicate via primitive exchanges of touch and learn to coordinate seeing and touching as they grow... it is as natural as breathing.  However, for the past 20 plus years or so, the computer "mouse" was a mechanical means to "point" and "click" on an object on a display.  It is not a natural motion to move a "mouse" which in turn moves a "cursor" that the user attempts to align with an object located on a display.  These are disjointed actions and often difficult to learn - but learn we must since it is a requirement of modern computer operating systems!  Imagine trying to use Windows or OS X without a mouse... I have... it isn’t pretty.

But through the work of people like Jeff Han and his company Perceptive Pixel, Apple Computer, Microsoft, and many others, the concept of touching a computer display is now well accepted.  I own an iPod Touch and the interface is so natural, I wish all computers worked this way.  But engineering touch into displays has been an uphill road with many barriers.  Resistive methods expose circuitry to electrostatic discharge, capacitive methods require more complex electronics, camera methods are not easy to implement on LCD displays, and the list goes on.  However, I will predict that in 5 to 10 years, like LCD backlights moving to LEDs, all displays, whether they are OLED, LCD or other technology, will be touch enabled.  They will be built that way by default.

Touch is emerging as one of the last great interfaces between humans and machines (spoken word is close behind).  With Windows 7 having native touch support and Apple’s iPad designed for touch it should be obvious that finally, the natural analog method for interfacing to a machine (point and touch, flick, drag, draw, etc) will soon be ubiquitous and machines without it will be considered "yesterday’s technology". 

I often think back to the days of alphanumeric only displays on computers.  Yes... I am that old.  You had 256 characters to use (some of which could be placed next to, above and below to form primitive graphics) and most of the information displayed was text... there were no (or extremely limited) graphics.  If the system was a work station, the graphics were formed by electron beam vectors on cathode ray storage tubes which "drew" the drawing while you watched... we’ve come so far.  However, that was not that long ago and today almost all computers have fantastic graphical capabilities! So mark your calendar... it’s only a matter of time before the mouse (like the poor mouse in Burns’ poem) is history. 

Till next time...

Author's note: iPad and iPod are trademarks of Apple Computer... incase you didn't know...