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Spring training

Hits and misses from Demo 2003

Just as baseball rookies and stars reported to their teams in Arizona last week, 61 high-tech companies came to Demo 2003 (February 17-18, Scottsdale, AZ) to show off their newest products and technologies. The pitches ranged from new silicon to many IT-centric software products. As these products make their way to market, we'll surely see more misses than hits—just as we will as the action heats up in baseball’s Cactus League. But like a .300 hitter with home-run power, the show did feature some potential winning shots.

I attended Demo with a bent toward enabling technologies like ICs and software building blocks, as well as for neat end products. I’m not a good judge of some of the IT announcements. So it will come as no surprise that the Pixim D2000 Video Imaging chipset tops my list of home-run balls. We’ve seen great advancements in digital still and video camera technology, and much higher resolution could be on the way from Foveon (see "Image doctor," February 13, 2002). Pixim however, focuses not on resolution, but on dynamic range.

As the company demonstrated, digital cameras perform well when lighting is equal throughout a scene of interest. When part of a scene is much brighter or darker than another, however, one or the other area of the image suffers. Pixim demonstrated this reality by placing two people in the camera field with about 10 feet of depth separating them. Illuminating one subject and not the other, the company demonstrated how even a high-end security camera couldn’t capture both subjects with needed detail.

Like the managers scouring the fields of the Cactus League, Demo attendees are often looking for that true jewel in the rough—one that has the promise to grow into a superstar down the road.

Pixim claims that its D2000 solves this dynamic-range problem by coupling an image processor with the sensor array. The marriage enables analog-digital conversion at each pixel, allowing the processor to adapt each pixel for the ambient light at that pixel. Most imaging systems adjust for the average ambient light. The result was a security-camera reference platform that could capture the test subjects accurately. The company claims that security-camera vendors will ship products with the chipset shortly and expects that the technology will come to consumer cameras down the road.

My second hit leader at Demo was also photo related. The Picasa software package from Lifescape is the first photo-sharing application I’ve seen that I think I might use. The software does an outstanding job of helping you catalog photos on a PC or network into virtual folders ordered chronologically and labeled by subject. It is simple to use and allows a neophyte to crop images and rotate things to proper perspective. At these tasks, the package may or may not be better than other consumer photo packages. The real magic is in the sharing.

Most photo-sharing products come with onerous business models—with yet another service provider sure that you want to hand them $25 per month. Picasa costs $30, and for that price includes a peer-to-peer photo-sharing scheme. If I own Picasa and my Mom owns Picasa, I can share photos of her grandson that automatically make their way onto her PC. The only requirement is that both machines be connected and signed on at the same time. Picasa manages the connection, but the data moves in peer-to-peer fashion without being buffered on a Picasa server. There are no monthly fees.

I hope the company’s business model proves out. The company will augment income from Picasa with money it makes from service partners. For example, a user could choose some photos and send them to a professional printer. Picasa will have a partner make the prints and deliver them, and Lifescape will get a commission. The company also showed collaboration with a new version of the TiVO PVR. Picasa was able to publish photos to the TiVO for viewing on a connected TV. Picasa has many possibilities.

As you might expect, digital music was also on the Demo agenda, and like every year a number of players think they can finally make digital music pay off. In my opinion, the music services demonstrated offered no more potential than the ones from earlier years. We still need major studios offering major songs for unencumbered download at a fair price.

I did find the only piece of music hardware that was demonstrated compelling. TerraDigital Systems has a new take on Internet radio that’s integrated with a jukebox for MP3s. The system uses a transmitter connected to a PC/network to wirelessly send sound to up to three players—either standalone radio-like units or players that connect to audio receivers. The user interface is the compelling part of the product. Each player has an LCD screen with touch-sensitive input that allows control of the system from, say, the living room. You can choose Internet broadcasts, choose albums by name or genre and create playlists. The TerraPlayer is essentially as capable with a touchscreen as the best PC-based music applications are with a mouse. Plus, it displays album-cover art.

Alas, TerraDigital appears to be like the superstar baseball player that far overestimates his worth. Prices start at $800, and remember that you still have to encode and store all your music on your own PC. I get most of the same features with a $100 Kima wireless transmitter, although I have to manage my music from the PC screen rather than from my living room. TerraDigital had better reduce its price demands or it will likely be an early departee from training camp.

Moving from the stars to the utility players that could still develop with some polish, several companies presented new client software that can help tame the increasing sprawl of the Internet. The Grokker Desktop from Groxis holds the most potential, in my estimation. Grokker leverages existing Internet resources such as search engines and online bookstores to gather data on a subject of interest but presents the results quite differently. Grokker uses colored circles to help the user sort through search results much more quickly than with the typical list of 1000 hits. The graphic depiction of results presumably will allow you to quickly find the most relevant data and to create maps of related items. A trial version will ship shortly. A deal breaker, however, could be the lack of ability to leverage Google or AltaVista.

Like the managers scouring the fields of the Cactus League, Demo attendees are often looking for that true jewel in the rough—one that has the promise to grow into a superstar down the road. The two rookies from Demo that I plan to follow both have to do with language.

For all we can do with computers, we still aren’t very affective at designing programs that can understand context in regards to our complex language. Words or phrases simply can be used in too many ways. But Meaningful Machines has a new natural-language processing technology that shows great promise. At Demo, the company essentially demonstrated the ability to find synonyms for words and phrases. I wish I had a list of every test they ran, but one was a search for "Al Qaeda." The program delivered a dozen or so alternative spellings for the terror organization as well as a list of words and phrases like "terrorist" and "extremist." The program mines such data by examining the use of words and phrases in written text. The Meaningful Machines technology could be embedded into any number of products in the future, including language translators.

IBM also showed a translation product. At Demo Mobile last fall, I felt that the company’s ViaVoice Translator for the Pocket PC was one of the stars. But the translation software needs a lot of memory and processor resources. At Demo, IBM showed a new approach to character recognition and translation in which a Pocket PC with a camera attachment captured a phrase written in German, then transmitted the image to a central computer resource for recognition and translation. The demo was rough around the edges but indicative that small, low-cost clients could get powerful features down the road.

The regular season approaches.

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