Apr 6, 2012Science and Technology
High-Tech Nova Weekly: Top five trends for 4/2-4/6

Here's this week's high-tech trends that either made headlines or went under the radar!

Facebook countersuit seizes the Yahoo gauntlet and backhands the patent troll

Facebook armors up and strikes backWhat began as the threat of a Yahoo patent jackal coveting the Facebook lion's share soon flashed fangs as a lawsuit on March 12, 2012, with Yahoo alleging Facebook's infringement of these 10 patents. The blatantly opportunistic timing of the move -- given Facebook's IPO -- is akin to Yahoo's attack against Google during its own IPO in 2004 and has been much decried by the online community as a villainous and vainglorious ploy to seize funds that would have been better earned by legitimate innovation rather than patent trolling. Facebook's former marketing director, Randi Zuckerberg, summed it up best with her tweet, "This Yahoo stuff feels to me like the business equivalent of when celebs do 'Dancing With The Stars' in a last-ditch effort to save a career." In response to Yahoo's attack, Facebook bolstered its 56 patents with some 'white hat' counter-trolling of Yahoo by purchasing 750 IBM patents that created a potential minefield. Armed to the teeth, Facebook today raised its blade and struck ten powerful blows in a countersuit against Yahoo. The ten Facebook patents bear a remarkable similarity to those ten wielded by Yahoo -- so begins the first major social media war.

The street-legal Terrafugia Transition flying car

The prototype flying car has successfully completed its first flight and customers are already placing orders for when the car releases next yearThe Terrafugia Transition is a street-legal airplane that can be driven like any other car, refill its unleaded fuel at gas stations and then unfold its wings to take off into the air. Created by the Massachusetts-based Terrafugia Inc., the prototype flying car has successfully completed its first flight. The company now hopes to sell the car within the next year and customers have already placed $10,000 deposits on the vehicle that is expected to cost around $279,000. For actual flight, however, the car still needs a runway -- it can't take off in the middle of traffic or short stretches of road. So, there may at last be an answer to all those futurists who are fond of asking, "where's my flying car?"

The business of facial recognition software

A Dell Sx2210t touch monitor with built-in web cam and facial recognition and running Windows 7 is seen being demonstrated at the Windows 7 Launch Party in New YorkWhat does the largest search engine in the world have in common with the largest casino in the world? Surprisingly, both of these corporate organizations, Google (headquartered in the United States) and The Venetian Macao (headquartered in China) make extensive use of facial recognition software. Not surprisingly, this software is also utilized by many governmental agencies including The United States Department of State and National Security Agency (NSA). Historically, facial recognition software -- produced using algorithms which integrate mathematical concepts with names such as the Hidden Markov model -- have had a mixed reputation because common environmental factors -- like light or lack thereof -- can have a great impact on the performance of the system. So can a new hairstyle. Or, for that matter, a new pair of glasses. Of course this hasn’t stopped such algorithms from being integrated into hardware and software products by their designers as a feature that provides strategic differentiation against competitors. Recently, rolled out its latest update to its API, which claims that it can determine a minimum, maximum and estimated age for each face it scans. The technology was developed to be integrated into apps or sites that contain age-sensitive material to prevent underage individuals from accessing it.  It also has other obvious uses, such as verifying age in liquor stores and nightclubs, or for the purchase of cigarettes. The company says that the software is now 30 percent more accurate with the newest update.

Firefighting robot created by Naval Research Laboratory

The robot can respond to human voice commands and physical directions that guide it to the fire, where it can then target the flames with a compressed air/water backpackEven in peacetime, fires represent one of the greatest risks to the US Naval Fleet. To this end, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), with support from the Office of Naval Research, is conducting research and developing new technologies to enable shoulder-to-shoulder robotic damage control teammates. The robot is a research platform for testing software for cognitive robotics and human-robot interactions. The knowledge gained from this research will be applied to firefighting robots used on ships. Through a combination of speech and visual recognition, the robot is able to identify trusted individuals, in this case, the human fire-fighting teammate. The human is able to provide situational information to the robot by voice and gestural commands. Here, the human partner is telling Octavia the general location of the fire before she enters the compartment. Using two infrared cameras, Octavia is able to localize the fire, allowing her to target it with the compressed air/water backpack.

Driverless cars take a step forward

Toyota Prius modified to operate as a Google driverless carGoogle’s work on the first marketable self-driving car continued this week with a bold new experiment -- Google’s self-driving Prius piloted a legally blind man to his destination. This is a powerful reminder that the possibilities of high-tech are more than just a sound bite on business news. Google isn’t the only company working on a self-driving or autonomous car, but they are one of the most serious in the field. The company’s self-directed cars are part of Google’s innovation lab, Google X, which is itself an attempt by Google to expand its market penetration and disruption beyond search engines and advertising. As more firms create more driverless cars, more consumers will opt for them and more states will find ways to integrate them into a world of traditional, manually operated cars. Once a critical mass is reached, look for driverless cars to go from a curiosity to something we can’t imagine living without. 

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