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From high tech to mall tech

Let’s call it trickle-down technology: the tendency of high-end renovation, and even military research, to eventually work its way down to mundane, even tacky consumer items. For example, could the inventors of the original laser, struggling in labs during the 1950s, have ever imagined that their research would lead to the combination laser pointer/windproof cigarette lighter? But it did. You can buy one today, in durable plastic, for *9.99. Could the scientists who developed fiber-optic cable have dreamt that some day their break through would lead to a techno-garish Christmas tree? Unlikely. Yet the process continues: a tech version of the great chain of being, with the lowest link currently on display in your local mall. So what technologies have recently reached the inevitable mall level? Three technology reporters ventured out into holiday traffic to find out.

 

An industry of shining lights

You could take a strand of optical fiber and use it zap 100,000 Web pages a second clear across the country. Or you could take several hundred strands of fiber and make a fake Christmas tree that glows in freaky shades of magenta and turquoise. It's the second application of the technology at work in Sterling Inc.'s fiber-optic Christmas trees, including a $140 54-inch model and a $90 36-inch version available at the Christmas Corner shop in the Prudential Center shopping arcade and many other area stores. For $90, there's a fiber-optic tree inside a snow dome that also plays Christmas carols.

It might run the risk of photonic overkill, but you could crown your fiber-optic tree with a 12-inch fiber-optic angel ornament, powered by a halogen light and available at Target for $15. And if you're already thinking ahead to Valentine's Day, consider Christmas Corner's 10-flower fiber-optic rose display for $25.

Sterling, based in Kansas City, Mo., has specialized in Christmas products since 1957, when it launched its first snow-in-a-can product. Today it offers more than 4,000 products, most of them, like the trees, manufactured at plants in East Asia. In the trees, the optical fibers are painted green and worked into plastic branches, with luminous color flowing from the tips of the "needles."

Before a dot-com-era glut of fiber-optic capacity globally drove the industry into a deep funk -- more than 120 million miles' worth was installed from 2001 to 2003 -- Massachusetts had emerged as a hotbed of companies making fiber-optic cables, components, and switches.

Some big names include Sycamore Networks of Chelmsford, Corning's Lasertron and NetOptix units, and Lucent Technologies Inc. facilities in North Andover and Sturbridge. Nortel Networks spent $1.4 billion buying optical-laser start-up CoreTek Technologies Inc. of Wilmington two years ago. Start-up Verrillon Inc. raised more than $25 million to open a new specialty fiber manufacturing plant in North Grafton last year.

Tree makers and telecom vendors may both be shining light through fibers. But, as Corning vice president Dan Collins notes, "To compare the fiber in a fiber-optic Christmas tree to the kinds of high-performance telecommunications products we make is like comparing a paper airplane to an F-16."

The fiber strands in a tree carry just one shade of light emanating from a color wheel in the base for three or four feet. But telecom fibers may carry 10 to 40 streams, each moving 10 billion bits of digital data every second, or the equivalent of millions of phone calls and e-mails. And the fibers carry those light pulses for 40 to 60 miles before they have to be amplified or regenerated.

Collins notes that the trees use fibers made of plastic comparable to swizzle sticks, while Corning optical fiber consists of strands of ultrafine glass thinner than a human hair.

And you sure wouldn't want to hook up an Internet switch to a fiber-optic Christmas tree, Collins adds.

With laser-based telecom applications, Collins says, "That light is so intense that it would literally burn you if it came out of the fibers being used in a tree."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

Creating robots of the future

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are working on ways to let robots interact emotionally with humans. But in the Mall at Chestnut Hill, humans already are interacting emotionally with robots. A small crowd of shoppers gathers around a pair of bright red and blue Boxing Robots in the window of the Sharper Image, as husband and wife Roger and Tsui Ong of Acton play around with the remotes. The muscle-bound bots pummel each other with hooks, jabs, crosses, and uppercuts, as lights flash to tally the hits.

The Ongs are shopping for a gift for the 9-year-old son of a friend. "It's a boy," Tsui Ong explained. "He will really like it."

And while the boxing robots use wireless controls, light-emitting diodes, and artificial intelligence pioneered in labs for automotive or industrial applications, the big attraction for the Ongs is the $39.95 price. "It's come down," said Roger Ong. "Forty dollars for two is a magnet."

A couple of aisles down, a sales clerk is showing off the latest model of iRobot's Roomba floor vacuum cleaner, listed at $249.95, complete with remote control, motion sensors, spot cleaner, and two "virtual wall" units that emit infrared beams to contain the Roomba to a specific area.

Holding another wireless remote the size of a boombox, a colleague is directing RoboScout, a 2-foot-high, egg-shaped robot with bulging pink eyes, out the door into the mall and back. "Backing, backing," the $399.95 robot warns in a high-pitched synthetic voice. RoboScout also will record a 15-second memo and bring you drinks.

Just a few miles away, across the Charles River, the Media Lab's Robotic Life Group is creating the robots of the future: Kismet, a robotic head that changes expressions in response to human visual and voice cues; and, Leonardo, a fuzzy-eared robot that makes eye contact and twitches when his ears are tickled.

"My group is currently focusing on the issue of building expressive and life-like robots," said Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Robotic Life Group. Breazeal describes her robots as "intelligent and capable in their interactions with humans" and "natural and intuitive to communicate with and engaging for humans to interact with."

Some of the technologies the group is exploring could be applied within five years to develop "animatronics" -- a mix of electronics and animation to create robotic entertainers for a Hollywood collaborator, Stan Winston Studio -- or to build robotic helpers for the home healthcare field, especially in countries, like Japan, facing labor shortages.

"Many exciting future applications for robots require them to play a long-term role in people's daily lives," Breazeal said. "Someday robots will be helpers for the elderly, teammates that can work cooperatively with people. . . . My group addresses issues of social competence and long-term human-robot relationships."

As for the mall robots that fetch drinks or battle one another for the entertainment of today's shoppers, Breazel said gamely, "I'm afraid that I haven't played with them or seen them."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

The evolution of data storage

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- When EMC Corp. chief executive Joe Tucci joined the high-tech industry in 1970, a data-storage computer the size of a washing machine held 19.2 megabytes of information. The DiskOnKey Pro, sold at the Bay Street mall here on the San Francisco Bay, now holds nearly seven times as much data. The tiny 128-megabyte device attaches to a key chain, stores about three dozen songs or more than 100 digital photos, and sells for $69. Some similarly sized devices by Iomega Corp. and other manufacturers found in other malls can house up to 1 gigabyte, or 1,000 megabytes, of data for around $400.

The capacity for data storage has skyrocketed since Tucci joined the industry, even as prices and the amount of space needed to keep the data have plummeted. Some of the gizmos near the top of this year's holiday wish lists are testament to how far the storage industry has come.

The FranklinCovey store is filled with hand-held computers by PalmOne Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. A case on the wall holds flash memory cards for backing up your hand-held computer's contents and for storing digital music and software. About the size of a postage stamp, the flash cards range from a 16-megabyte card for $10 to a 128-megabyte card for $90.

But the real advances in consumer-oriented storage are on display across the courtyard at the Apple Store. Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod is a souped-up portable hard drive for playing music. The $499 iPod, the biggest of the three Apple offers, packs 40 gigabytes of storage into a luminescent white device only slightly larger than a deck of playing cards. That's enough to hold about 10,000 songs.

"Forty gigabytes was a decent sized company 15 or 20 years ago," said Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group, a research firm in Milford, Mass. "Today it barely holds all my consumer interest for a few hours."

Case in point: the shelves of digital video recorders in the nearby Magnolia Hi-Fi store. After a mail-in rebate, the 40-gigabyte TiVo recorder costs $200, and the 80-gigabyte system costs $100 more. The competing systems by ReplayTV cost $50 less.

Storage hasn't simply gotten smaller and cheaper -- it has also gotten massive. The Symmetrix DMX3000, the biggest data-storage system sold by Hopkinton's EMC, sells for $4 million and is about the size of three refrigerators pushed together.

The DMX3000 holds 84.5 terabytes -- or 84.5 million megabytes. Major banks and phone companies use the systems to store mind-boggling quantities of information about their customers, said Chuck Hollis, vice president of storage platforms marketing for EMC.

But if they used those systems like a consumer might, these companies could use their EMC systems to house more than 155,000 digital copies of the film "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," or more than 21 million songs downloaded from the Internet.

"Boy, wouldn't that be a lawsuit?" Hollis said.

Chris Gaither can be reached at gaither@globe.com.

High tech to mall tech

The capacity for data storage has skyrocketed since EMC cheif Joe Tucci joined the industry, even as prices and the amount of space needed to keep the data have plummeted.   Story

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are working on ways to let robots interact emotionally with humans. But in the Mall at Chestnut Hill, humans already are interacting emotionally with robots.   Story

You could take a strand of optical fiber and use it zap 100,000 Web pages a second clear across the country. Or you could take several hundred strands of fiber and make a fake Christmas tree that glows in freaky shades of magenta and turquoise.   Story
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