Carnegie Mellon University

CTTEC

Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation

Friday, December 4, 2009

Organic Photovoltaics Nearing Mass Production

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) is an innovative solar cell technology based on conductive plastic materials such as polymers. Such devices are fabricated by ultra low-cost, roll-to-roll printing techniques. They are formed by layering extremely thin, photo-active coatings on lightweight, flexible carrier substrates, which are organic in nature as well. OPV is one of the most dynamic, rapidly developing technology segments pertaining to renewable, or green, energy. Despite the current upheaval in world financial markets, OPV continues to gain in economic importance and make steady technical progress. Various OPV technologies are being developed in industrial and academic research cooperatives and project-based partnerships. At this time, OPV is well on its way to broad commercialization, as first products are available on consumer markets. By heavily investing in manufacturing capacity, the OPV industry is gearing up for mass production of a new kind of lowcost, organic and printed micro-electronics. Current trends and the latest developments in this field will be on display at LOPE-C in Frankfurt, Germany from May 31 - June 2, 2010.

Consumer Goods and Utilities for Mass Markets

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) is a key segment of organic and printed electronics. OPV opens up a new and advantageous way of clean electricity generation using lightweight and low-cost solar cells. Their every-day utility will go far beyond today's cell types made of crystalline silicon sealed in relatively heavy glass modules. OPV cells will be an integral part of a broad range of customary, as well as absolutely novel products operated by their own, grid-independent local power - without constraining their originally intended functionalities.

First examples of such solar-enabled consumer products are handbags equipped with flexible organic solar cells. OPV-functionalized bags serve as charging stations for mobile phones and other portable devices carried inside to keep them operational at all times. Other innovative OPV products, forerunners of mass-market consumer and utility goods, are sun shades and umbrellas covered with thin, flexible organic solar cells. While offering shadow, they also provide power for charging laptops and communications devices. Tents, for military purposes or recreational use, are further examples. Next in line are car roofs as solar generators. Then, all larger-size outdoor objects exposed to the sun's radiation. They all may be suited as carriers of large-area organic photovoltaic devices. From there, it's just a small step to another timely concept: realizing the Zero Energy House through "building integrated photovoltaics", or BIPV.

Building Integrated Photovoltaics

Organic photovoltaics enables large-scale solar energy generation directly integrated in roofs and facades. This includes new housing as well as the energetically renovated building stock. Building-integrated photovoltaics, if based on organic and printed electronics, should become an integral part of house construction leading to novel architectural solutions for residential and industrial buildings. Due to its low weight and easy malleability, BIPV should be able to replace today's add on crystalline silicon roof modules.

BIPV cells can be integrated already in the building's design. Forming a second, outer skin, they conform to a building's cubature. This is similar to "smart" fabrics, where organic solar cells excel by their robustness and flexibility without constraining the textiles' original functionality.

"In all these applications, organic and printed photovoltaics can be realized much easier and more cost efficient," says Dr. Klaus Hecker, Managing Director of the Organic Electronics Association (OE-A), a Working Group within VDMA. "Solar cells can now be directly integrated in their intended applications. They become a functional part as well as a design component of a product."

Organic Photovoltaics: from Lab to Fab

Functionally integrated solar local energy generation increases the utility of consumer products and commercial objects. This is the decisive advance that organic photovoltaics will bring about. The most relevant observation in this context is that OPV technology is currently moving out of the R&D stage and is moving towards industrial manufacturing - lab to fab. At LOPE-C 2010 (Large Area Organic and Printed Electronics Convention), the annual conference and exhibition of the OE-A, taking place May 31 to June 2, 2010, organic photovoltaics is set to claim a major share of marketer and investor attention.

"2010 will be the year of OPV moving into initial production for a variety of consumer oriented applications", says Andrew Hannah, CEO of Plextronics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a leading industry player. A Carnegie-Mellon University spin-off, Plextronics specializes in OPV and OLED (organic light emitting diode) lighting ink products. The market for printed electronic devices, components and systems, according to Andrew Hannah, could surpass $300bn worldwide within the next 20 years. As one of the leading vendors of conductive polymers and organic inks used in the coating processes of OPV modules, Plextronics is currently developing large-scale coating processes to help spur the introduction manufacturing of commercially viable OPV modules.

Heliathek GmbH, located in Ulm and Dresden, Germany, has concluded another round of venture capitalization led by Wellington Partners in the amount of $27m for establishing a production facility for organic solar cells for mobile applications and BIPV. With their OPV tandem cells, Heliathek currently achieves an efficiency of slightly above 6 percent and is planning to utilize a large-area continuous vacuum coating process.

First Consumer Products: Bags and Backpacks

"At LOPE-C 2010, we will see numerous attendees carrying the first available OPV products, such as bags and backpacks," says Thomas Kolbusch, VP of Coatema Coating Machinery GmbH of Dormagen, Germany.

This is an important indicator of OPV nearing marketability, Kolbusch says: "These products are now offered by several new vendors." They serve as a market opener and attract the early adaptors of novel consumer goods based on organic and printed electronics. Coatema offers a broad range of equipment for the automation of OPV cell manufacture and encapsulation between robust and flexible, yet transparent barrier layers protecting against degradation by oxygen and vapor penetration.

Coatema also makes machinery for substrate bonding of organic cells. At LOPE-C 2010, the company will demonstrate a large OPV coating machine. According to Kolbusch, a cumulative installed basis of 2 gigawatts of flexible organic solar cells during 2010 is a realistic forecast. On the other hand, there is no doubt that OPV still has to overcome major challenges. Kolbusch: "Especially BIPV applications will require long-term stability - whereas efficiency, in the light of ultra low-cost manufacturing, is of second priority. We are seeing strong demand for the development of flexible OPV barrier materials at a reasonable cost."

OPV Efficiency Jumps to almost 8 Percent

In terms of efficiency, OPV has recently encountered a major step upwards. Current record holder is Solarmer Energy Inc. of El Monte, California. Their flexible plastic solar panels have reached an independently (NREL) verified efficiency of 7.9 percent. This, of course, pertains to an R&D environment.

Commercially available OPV modules, at this moment, can muster just 3 to 5 percent. Compared to off-the-shelf crystalline silicon solar modules this appears minuscule. But in practice, the OPV cells' low efficiency is more than compensated for by the much larger usable receptor areas due to substantially lower weight and simpler integration to products and industrial objects.

One of the leaders of the OPV industry, Konarka Technologies of Lowell, Massachusetts, has begun marketing, in the fourth quarter of 2009, three standard types of organic solar cells made of its photovoltaic "Power Plastic®" material, delivering a power output of up to 7 watts. In light of this, Konarka has recently expanded its manufacturing capability with a 250,000 square foot facility with 1 gigawatt nameplate capacity. A very popular current consumer market application of Konarka's flexible OPV panels are those popular bags for recharging mobile phones, digital cameras and other small portable devices. With its technology partner Skyshades, Konarka also is marketing larger OPV panels to be integrated in umbrellas. With their higher output, they are able to recharge laptops. These applications are aiming for cafes and hotels, for solar powered awnings and tents.

With another project partner, Arch Aluminum & Glass of Tamarac, Florida, Konarka recently has announced organic cells suited for BIPV. Konarka's "Solar Curtain Wall" consists of a large-area, partly transparent, partly opaque, OPV façade of an industrial building. Each individual module generates 40 watts, yielding a total of 1.5 kWh for the entire wall. The system is operated as test site and pilot for future use.

News Story Courtesy Nanotechnology Now 


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Students bring together sports and smarts

When smarts meets sports, technology such as the YinzCam, allowing Penguins fans to access different camera angles at Mellon Arena on their phones, is the result.

Now, the professor whose project was behind the YinzCam is giving Carnegie Mellon engineering students an even greater outlet to marry a passion for sports with invention.

Priya Narasimhan's unique Sports Technology course, a 15-week project course in which students use embedded and mobile-systems technology to enhance the sport of their choice, is wrapping up its first-ever semester.

And based on what her students demonstrated Wednesday on campus, Pittsburgh may soon be just as known for its sports-technology development as its sports teams.

"We're a sports city," said Narasimhan, who had never watched a football game until she arrived in Pittsburgh in 2001 but then fell in love with the Steelers. "Maybe (these students) are building the things that will be used five years out in the industry."

Students taking the course got to pick the sport and how they wanted to improve it, be it coaching, refereeing, fan experience, athlete performance or anything else that grabbed their interest.

"And this is the perfect city to do this course because our sports teams are willing to go to pilot with things," Narasimhan said. "So if there's something here that looks promising, we can go to one of our sports teams and say: 'Would you like to try this?'"

That may be the case with the Penguins and one project demonstrated yesterday. Using a bubble hockey table to illustrate, one group of students is developing a technology in which multiple camera angles mounted in a stadium or arena can allow fans to seamlessly view the game action no matter the position of the play.

"Fans have nosebleed seats, they can't really see what's going on in the game," said Sunny Atluri, who is working on the project. "We invented software that will take different feeds, find out the overlapping regions automatically and scroll between them with a smooth transition. ... Pretty much, it lets you be anywhere you want to be from your seat, that's our goal."

Other projects demonstrated yesterday were:

Kinevision allows runners to see their stride through the use of six sensors attached to the arms and legs that transmit data to a computer, and students believe they could package and sell the product for about half the cost of comparable devices currently on the market. 

The GIGA golfing aid measures the strain of a golf club, with the idea that the maximum strain when a pro golfer swings occurs just before hitting the ball, while the maximum strain from an amateur is on the upswing.

Tune is a program that automatically adapts the music a jogger is listening to according to pace and location.

The Smart Tennis Racket uses sensors to measure where a player is hitting the ball for later evaluation of progress as players learn to hit the sweet spot more consistently.

The Sports Agnostic Measurement Platform for Later Evaluation - or SAMPLE - is another measuring device, demonstrated yesterday on a hockey stick to track rotation, speed and other motion data of a slapshot.

There are 26 students in the first class, and Narasimhan hopes it will become a curriculum staple.

"I think there's been a lot of interest generated," she said, "and that we have generations of students coming out thinking about this as a career option."

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media 


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sodium-Ion Cells for Cheap Energy Storage

DOE funds the development of low-cost sodium-ion batteries.

A new type of sodium-ion battery could prove to be a practical option for storing power from wind and solar farms, says Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Whitacre's startup, 44 Tech, based in Pittsburgh, PA, will receive $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, as part of the 2009 Recovery Act, to develop the technology. The funding, announced last week, is part of a $620 million package for improving the electricity grid.

The startup's batteries could be not only cheaper but also longer-lasting than existing batteries, Whitacre says. This would make them particularly useful for storing large amounts of electricity cheaply--something that will be essential for making renewable energy the primary source of energy in the U.S., rather than just the supplemental source it is now. Such storage will make it practical to store energy from wind turbines and solar farms for use when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

Whitacre's sodium-ion cells are similar in some ways to lithium-ion cells--the type used in portable electronics and in some electric vehicles. In both types of cell, ions are shuttled between the battery's positive and negative electrodes during charging and discharging, with an electrolyte serving as the medium for moving those ions. But because sodium is orders of magnitude more abundant than lithium, it is cheaper to use. To make the cells cheaper still, Whitacre plans to operate them at lower voltages, so that water-based electrolytes can be used instead of organic electrolytes. This should further decrease manufacturing costs, since water-based electrolytes are easier to work with.

The change to water-based electrolytes could also make it possible to eliminate much of the supporting material needed in conventional lithium-ion cells, again reducing costs. This is because increasing the ionic conductivity makes it possible to use thicker electrodes with fewer layers of separating and current-collecting materials inside the cell.

"In principle, a sodium-ion system can be low-cost, and with aqueous electrolytes, it could be really low-cost," says Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics and chemistry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Researchers have looked into sodium-ion batteries in the past, although typically they have used high voltages and organic electrolytes. Using lower voltages reduces the amount of energy the batteries can store--a problem for electric vehicles, where space and weight are limited. But for stationary applications like storing renewable energy, "it's all about cost," Whitacre says.

Dahn argues that sodium-ion cells shouldn't be developed just for large-scale electricity storage. Higher-voltage sodium-ion batteries may eventually prove a much better solution than lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, he says. So far, however, very little research has been done on them relative to lithium-ion batteries. Factors that have kept researchers away--such as the large size of sodium ions and the effect this has on the amount of power the batteries could deliver--have been addressed by recent advances in materials manufacturing. The abundance of sodium could also make these batteries extremely attractive. "It's amazingly more abundant than lithium," Dahn says. "I think it's something that's really important to work on going forward. I hope [the] DOE funds the nonaqueous work, too."

So far, Whitacre's work is at an early stage. He has demonstrated small battery cells in the lab and has filed for a patent covering the technology. He has not disclosed what materials he will use for the electrodes and the electrolyte, and it's too early to provide specific figures about cost, he says. The next steps include making larger prototype batteries. Part of the $5 million award will go to Carnegie Mellon for fundamental research.

News Story Courtesy Technology Review 


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mini Helicopter ‘Sensorfly’ That Cannot Be Knocked Out

Scientists have developed mini helicopter, ‘Sensorfly’, that can remain airborne even after getting knocked to the ground and can also caution fellow copters if they hit an obstacle.

According to a report in New Scientist, the ‘minicopters’ have been developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley in Moffett Field, California. The robotic copter is manufactured by adding custom processors, sensors and software to rotors and motors from an off-the-shelf toy helicopter. Each robot has a radio, accelerometer, compass and gyroscope.

The copter senses if it hits something, then backs off and warns fellow copters around of the rough location of the obstacle. The copter will hover in a place as long as the twin rotors are spinning.

It is designed in such a way that if it is knocked to the ground, the craft is airborne again after repeated trials. Squadrons of the craft can be connected with each other using radio. They share information between themselves and back to a controller and use the time delay on the radio signals to track their relative positions.

“The current prototypes can carry only 5 grams of cargo, but that is enough for a small camera or microphone,” said Zhang.

“The networked helicopters are the most lightweight mobile sensor network to date,” he said.

Currently, the ‘Sensorfly’ can only keep up the flight for 5 minutes, which, as per Zhang, should get better with superior batteries.

News Story Courtesy Indiaserver.com 


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Carnegie Mellon behind region's companies leading in language tech

If that Northwest Airlines plane had some Pittsburgh-grown technology for its co-pilot, it would not have over-shot its airport by 150 miles in late October.

A synthesized voice would have repeatedly told the pilots something like, "You just missed Minneapolis." The voice might even have scolded the crew in Spanish or some other language.

Led by a deep research base at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh is a virtual mecca of language technology. The region is home to 20 or more companies, mainly spun out of CMU, that employ computer technology to unravel babel.

The software applications at these companies can convert text to synthesized speech or human speech to text, sort vast amounts of text, and even translate human speech into synthesized speech of another language in seconds.

"In the United States, this is clearly the place for language technology," said Jaime Carbonell, a CMU professor of computer science and director of the university's Language Technologies Institute. He has been involved with five spinout companies.

They range from older spinouts, such as Lycos Inc., a popular Internet search engine company that now is part of a Korean company, to Vocollect Inc., a Wilkins-based company whose computer products use voice-recognition technology that supports 26 languages.

More recent spinouts include M*Modal, Squirrel Hill, which converts doctors' and others' spoken words into text; and Carnegie Speech, Downtown, whose software detects and corrects speech for people in classrooms, government and corporations in 20 countries.

The University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have language technology programs, said Carbonell. "But CMU is by far the largest and has the advantage in that we started first."

The Language Technologies Institute, in fact, grew out of voice-recognition research funded in the 1970s by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose support led to development of the Internet. Three CMU programs were merged to form the institute in 1996.

CMU's speech recognition systems could convert only "a few dozen words" into text at first, Carbonell said. But by the 1990s, the capability grew to hundreds of words and stands at thousands.

Alex Waibel, CMU professor of computer science and language technology, has worked in the field since the 1980s and heads the institute's International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies, or InterACT.

He began developing programs to translate English spoken into a microphone into synthetic Spanish coming back through a computer speaker around 1990. It was "a bit awkward" and "took several minutes to do one sentence," Waibel said.

Now, he's got an iPhone app for that. It can begin spitting back up to 40,000 words -- from English to Spanish, or vice versa -- within about three seconds and costs $24.99.

Meaning, an American speaking no foreign language can take an iPhone to a Spanish-speaking country and converse and function effortlessly. Conversely, a Spanish-only speaker can use the iPhone app to communicate in English.

"We don't really know how many of these apps we might sell. But it just came out Oct. 21, so it's very new," said Waibel, who developed the technology at his recently launched Jibbigo Inc. The names stands for, "the gibberish of language on the go," he says.

But the market should be vast, he estimates, because users avoid two downsides: No need to type anything, and especially, no need to connect to a server and ring up a big phone bill from abroad. The voice recognition, language translation and speech synthesis capabilities are built into the cell phone.

"That means you can use it in the remotest village or on a plane or in the military without the enemy detecting where you are," said Waibel, who intends for Jibbigo to target health care workers in developing nations and government installations overseas.

To use the app, the user speaks a sentence, such as, "Where is the nearest hospital?" into the iPhone. Within three seconds, the device repeats the sentence in the opposite language. To erase and rephrase the sentence, the user just shakes the iPhone.

"So far, it's English to Spanish and Spanish to English," Waibel said. "But in the next six months, we hope to have four more languages." A laptop version already handles seven languages.

Another CMU spinout, Cepstral LLC, South Side, could have helped those Northwest pilots touch down in Minneapolis or provided navigational or other assistance. Founded in 2001, the South Side company's technology incorporates voice recognition, text searching and voice synthesis, Carbonell said.

"Like if a pilot is arriving somewhere and needs to be told something," he said. "That can be done by speech, and it calls attention to things immediately, without distracting your eyes."

Carnegie Speech, Downtown, provides voice recognition and speech synthesis technology. Co-founded by Carbonell in 2001, it went into commercial production in 2005, reached "several millions" in revenue and sold into several major markets, said CEO Angela Kennedy.

For instance, Carnegie Speech technology helps call-center operators and others with thick accents perfect their English pronunciation. The market is especially large in India and the Philippines, where operators' accents often frustrate English callers.

"The global spending in the market for improving speaking skills is about $6 billion right now," Kennedy said.

When CMU foreign language students were given 15 minutes to try out the system, they didn't want to leave the lab, said Maxine Eskanazi, associate teaching professor and Carnegie Speech co-founder. "So I figured it was pretty good," she said.

Called "Native Accent," the system displays on a computer screen the words a student speaks, with mispronounced words shown in red. When pronounced better, those words appear in yellow, then in green when the student "gets it right," she said. The screen illustrates the correct tongue and teeth placement to form the words.

It's also the company's technology bus riders have heard on the phone since 2005 when they call the Port Authority of Allegheny County after hours for scheduling and route information.

Carnegie Speech plans to serve a market being created by a new rule. Namely, the International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations, is requiring all civilian pilots and air traffic controllers to speak English by March 2011 in order to be certified.

"We think the size of this aviation market is probably about $300 million," Kennedy said. "This is a great thing for us."

Another product of CMU is M*Modal, Squirrel Hill, founded by three of the universities' students about 10 years ago. The company converts speech into text, especially creating clinical documentation and data.

"In its simplest form, it's converting what a doctor says into text," said Dr. Nick van Terheyden, M*Modal's chief medical officer.

The specialized speech-to-text technology enables hospitals and other health care providers to more cost-effectively and accurately search and use medical data. It grew the local company's work rolls from a half-dozen originally to about 40 today, he said.

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media 


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Feds back high-volume battery project

A Pittsburgh-based project to develop a high-volume battery that will store power from the electrical grid, reducing the need for power stations and avoiding waste, will receive $5 million of $620 million in federal stimulus money, the Department of Energy announced today.

44 Tech Inc., a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, will receive the money as a federal match to develop a new, low-cost, long-life, high-efficiency sodium ion battery for the proposed grid.

Today's announcement, made in Columbus, Ohio, adds to a current $3.3 billion outlay under the federal economic recovery act. The money is designed to develop a new power grid, said Matt Rogers, a senior advisor on recovery act allocations to energy secretary Steven Chu.

The new power grid -- called the Smart Grid -- is designed to increase efficiency and anticipate surges and declines in demand by factories and consumers.

"It's anticipating more renewables coming into the sytem and it's anticipating electric vehicles," Mr. Rogers said.

News Story Courtesy Pittsburgh Post Gazette 


Monday, November 23, 2009

NASA selects Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon for two Moon contracts

NASA today selected Astrobotic Technology and Carnegie Mellon University for two contracts to study Moon excavation robots and methods to simulate the one-sixth lunar gravity on Earth.

Lightweight excavation robots are key to recovering the water and hydrocarbon deposits at the Moon’s poles, which will enable explorers to “live off the land” rather than hauling all their supplies from Earth at great expense. New results from NASA probes released last week show that the water content in the polar soil is 10 to 30 times richer than previously thought, and in easier-to-access places than the floors of deep craters.

“We intend our robots to be prospectors for water and hydrocarbon resources, and then to demonstrate how they can be turned into rocket propellant and life support supplies,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, founder of Astrobotic Technology and a research professor at the university’s Robotics Institute. “Creating propellant at the Moon will halve the cost of lunar exploration and advance the date when we can send human expeditions to Mars.”

Excavation is expected to be required to remove a top layer of dry soil covering ices deposited by comet and asteroid impacts.

The lunar gravity simulation study will examine the best ways to mimic the effects of the one-sixth lunar gravity via various active and passive gravity-offload mechanisms and ways to make the apparatus scaleable and transportable for field tests in challenging terrain.

NASA selected the excavation robot proposal under its Small Business Innovation Research program and lunar-gravity simulation proposal under its Small Business Technology Transfer program designed to move university research into the commercial sphere. The two Phase I awards total $199,850 and may lead to Phase II awards in six months totaling $1.2 million.

Astrobotic Technology Inc. is a Carnegie Mellon spin-off that will fund a series of robotic Moon missions, first winning the $20 million Google prize and visiting Apollo 11 on the “Tranquility Trek” expedition in late 2011. The Trek robot will be a rolling TV studio and Internet node, sending back high-definition video of its adventures. Later missions will prospect for water ice in deep polar craters and seek out volcanic caves as low-cost shelters for both robots and astronauts.

News Story Courtesy Astrobotic Technology 


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

WorldHeart Signs Agreements for Next-Generation Minimally Invasive Blood Pump

World Heart Corporation (WorldHeart) announced today that it has finalized assignment and exclusive license agreements with LaunchPoint Technologies Inc., (LPT) Goleta, California, and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for its next-generation minimally invasive blood pump, the MiVAD. The MiVAD(TM) is designed to provide partial cardiac support between 2-4 liters per minute to less sick heart failure patients than those served by existing full-support Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVADs).

The MiVAD design is based on the Pediaflow(TM) LVAD design and intellectual property. The PediaFlow LVAD, a miniaturized implantable fully magnetically levitated blood pump, is intended for neonates and has evolved significantly through design and development. The latest version of the PediaFlow pump is approximately the size of a AA battery and was successfully evaluated in a multi-month animal trial this summer. The Pediaflow LVAD development has been led by the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has been primarily funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute with supplemental funding and technology contributions from WorldHeart. WorldHeart, CMU and LPT are members of the development consortium. The work completed on this device is the foundation for the MiVAD. Additionally, the MiVAD will incorporate existing intellectual property as well as internal and external design features from the Levacor(TM) LVAD.

Mr. Alex Martin, WorldHeart's CEO, commented that, "while WorldHeart continues to focus on the clinical use and commercialization of the Levacor LVAD, these agreements allow WorldHeart to accelerate the development of the MiVAD and related technology in the area of miniaturization of magnetically levitated blood pumps".

Dr. Brad Paden, founder and CEO of LPT added that, "we are pleased that this breakthrough miniaturization technology will be integrated with WorldHeart's existing and complementary fully magnetically levitated blood pump platform to meet a new, large and promising clinical need".

About World Heart Corporation

WorldHeart is a developer of mechanical circulatory support systems in Salt Lake City, Utah with additional facilities in Oakland, California, USA and Herkenbosch, The Netherlands. WorldHeart's registered office is in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

News Release Courtesy World Heart Corporation 


Monday, November 16, 2009

Silicon Vox races to market its silicon-speed speech recognition tech, hiring

The next time you hear the words "this conversation is being recorded for quality control purposes," think of Pittsburgh-based Silicon Vox.

Speech recognition technology is a $10 billion market, so the system that can translate human speech into text most efficiently and quickly will ultimately win a large piece of that pie. Silicon Vox is in the race and believes it's ahead of the competition.

A Carnegie Mellon spinout, the company, in semi-stealth mode, has raised $1.3 million to date, is seeking another $400,000 in seed funding and anticipates a $5 million Series A round in late 2010.

What makes Silicon Vox unique is a hardware platform that compliments the software, enabling the system to run 20 times faster than systems currently on the market, and for half the price. Its slim suitcase-size also consumes far less space.

"Nobody currently in the market is selling anything that could compete reputably with what we have," says Anthony Gadient, CEO. "There are other researchers looking at hardware implementation at UC Berkley and in South Korea, but we hope to be the first on the market."

The product, still in development , hopes to be ready by July 2010. Silicon Vox believes the company will be profitable by early 2011 with projected revenues of $2 million in the first year. The company currently employs 11 and plans to double to 21 employees within the year.

Initial users of the Silicon Vox system will come from the telecom, financial and national security areas where conversations are mined for business intelligence: to understand which sales promotions are most effective, to determine if frauds are being perpetrated and to understand the problems encountered by customers and what the competition is doing.

News Release Courtesy Pop City 


Monday, November 16, 2009

Carnegie Mellon Converts Gas-Powered Cars to Electricity

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University aren’t waiting for big car companies to bring affordable electric vehicles to the market. They’re proving that with some tinkering, today’s gas-powered models can be rigged to save as much as 80% in energy costs.

Project ChargeCar, led by the school’s Robotics Institute, is a holistic approach to automotive over-consumption. Here are the basics

- A supercapacitor, which can store and quickly release large amounts of electricity, is installed between a car's battery and motor. The supercapacitor's stored energy can be used instead of the battery's, cutting the charge/discharge cycle that shortens battery life. It also makes the car more responsive.

- Vehicle architecture, dubbed smart power management, uses artificial intelligence to manage the flow of electricity among the battery, supercapacitor, and engine. It decides whether to pull electricity from the battery or the supercapacitor and where to store the power gained from regenerative braking.

- Researchers say intelligent electric car control could recapture 48% of the energy used during braking, reduce the load on batteries by 56%, and reduce battery heat by 53%.

- People upload GPS data from their commute to, which uses an algorithm to figure the energy costs of gasoline vs. electricity for their route, and how much wear and tear on a battery could be saved by using a supercapacitor.

Researchers think that converting gas-powered cars to electrics with supercapacitors could spur the economy, too. ChargeCar just received a grant from Heinz in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to train local Pittsburgh-area mechanics in the craft. They think conversions will cost commuters around $8,000—much less than a brand new electric vehicle typically priced at some $50,000.

I spoke with the project's leader, Professor Illah Nourbakhsh, on the phone today. He told me that if the Web site, ChargeCar.org, catches on, they hope to use the crowdsourced commuter data to create custom conversion kits tailored to individual vehicles and routes. Some 3,000 miles worth of commutes have been uploaded so far from drivers around the country.

Professor Nourbakhsh also clued me in to something the university hasn't yet announced: ChargeCar will host a national competition to improve the algorithm on its Web site. You might remember a similar competition from Netflix . The winner will receive a brand new electric car.

Check out some of the other fascinating projects Nourbakhsh and the rest of the robotics team at Carnegie Mellon are working on here.

News Story Courtesy BusinessWeek Author: Damian Joseph 


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Blue Belt hopes to make cut, replace other hospital tools

Orthopaedic surgery is a little like carpentry. The more precise the cut, the better the result — and if a surgeon could use a familiar tool enhanced with technology that senses where a bone should be trimmed, so much the better.

Blue Belt Technologies Inc. of East Liberty used those ideas to design its Precision Freehand Sculptor, which more than 100 surgeons have tested on artificial, animal and cadaver bones. The Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company is attracting investments and attention in Pittsburgh's technology community as it prepares to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for the tool.

"Our hope," CEO Craig S. Markovitz said Tuesday, "is to have the device prepared for sale within a year."

The computer-assisted sculptor snaps on to a standard, hand-held surgical drill that orthopaedic specialists use to correct spinal problems and replace knee and hip joints, for example. Sensors on the device help it to follow a surgeon's preset pattern, which is based on a patient-specific image of the target area.

A surgeon moves the sculptor to shave an area of bone to the desired depth, following a color-coded picture on a computer monitor. The rotating burr at the tip of the sculptor, meanwhile, follows the pattern as it's moved across the bone, extending and retracting as needed as it cuts.

Onscreen, dark blue sections of the picture represent the thickest sections of bone to be removed. Those sections turn to bright green as the sculptor drills on, meaning that a layer closer to the desired depth has been reached.

When yellow appears onscreen, the sculptor stops cutting on its own in those spots.

Surgeons already refer to onscreen magnetic resonance or other images as they operate, said Dr. William Welch, chief of neurological surgery at The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia.

Blue Belt's tool, which he's tested in laboratory settings, promises to further improve surgical results and enhance safety, he said.

"It takes a fairly straightforward technology and applies it elegantly," Welch said of the sculptor, adding that similar, sensor-based technology could be used with dozens of other surgical tools.

"It is the logical next step," he said. "But they are the first company to do it."

Dr. Anthony M. DiGioia III, an orthopaedic surgeon and founder of CMU's Center for Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery, and Branislav Jaramaz, an associate research professor with the university's Robotics Institute who has patented several surgical devices, cofounded Blue Belt with Markovitz in 2003.

They were advisers to a doctoral student who came up with a general concept that gradually evolved into the sculptor, Markovitz said. He has a background in venture capital and is a managing director with the health care and business advisory firm AMD3 Consulting Inc.

Blue Belt — named for the local road system which passes the CMU campus — closed on $2.4 million in financing in October led by private investors, including the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and Innovation Works.

The company, which has 10 full-time and several part-time employees, was a finalist last month in the Life Sciences category for the Pittsburgh Technology Council's annual Tech 50 awards.

In addition to making a smooth cutaway for an implant used in a knee replacement, for example, Blue Belt's sculptor is designed to save time for surgical teams and money for hospitals, Markovitz said.

Carts filled with trays full of guides and other devices used to cut bone during a variety of orthopaedic procedures are lined up outside operating rooms on a typical day.

"This device is designed to replace all of them," he said.

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media


Monday, October 19, 2009

Bossa Nova - Serious Child's Play

Bossa Nova robotics is a neat example of one city's transformation from 20th century industrial relic into a more entrepreneurial 21st century metropolis. It's a start-up specializing in robotic toys "designed in Pittsburgh, made in China and distributed everywhere," says co-founder David Palmer. Bossa Nova's babies are called Penbo and Prime-8. The first is a robotic penguin ($79.99) that needs some nurturing. It responds to touch and sound, and it has a penguin egg that pops out, makes sounds and communicates with its mother via a heart-shaped infrared receiver. Prime-8 ($99.99) is a game-playing gorilla that has what Palmer calls an aggressive and dynamic play pattern. The ape can chase its owner and fling coconuts at anyone crossing its path. "It's an exciting year for us--our launch year. We have looked forward to this for four years," he says.

These are smart little toys, having grown up at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the renowned tech-computer-engineering school. In the aftermath of steel's fade-out, CMU emerged as the city's high-tech incubator. "The toys were initiated from five-plus years of research on high-performance legged robots," says Sarjoun Skaff, Bossa Nova's chief technologist, who conducted much of that research. When Skaff let his lab bots loose in front of children assembled on the CMU campus, they were enthralled. "That was really when we understood a magical connection between a dynamic, mobile robot and children. We knew we had something if we could lower the cost," says Skaff.

That's a challenge that even the biggest companies face: how to get an expensive prototype created in a controlled lab environment to be affordable and robust in the chaotic world of the consumer--and in this case, a consumer whose bicycle may still have training wheels. Skaff's lab bot cost $20,000 to build. Bossa Nova's products had to retail for less than $100. Call it an order-of-magnitude problem.

While Skaff worked on building cheaper components, Palmer, a former strategic planner at FedEx, tapped the city's and state's emerging incubation systems. A nonprofit called the Technology Collaborative, which promotes robotics, helped with office space and grants for product design. A state-sponsored incubator called Innovation Works provided early-stage funding. Bossa Nova won a business-plan contest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council and gained more exposure, money and advice. "We could not have survived without all of them," says Palmer. This would not have happened in the old Pittsburgh, which was insular and somewhat skeptical of entrepreneurs.

Like most other newbies, Bossa Nova made missteps. The biggest: trying to shape a single toy that would appeal to both boys and girls. The company was strongly advised to refine its robot's purpose. What emerged was two separate products: one designed around power, for boys, and one around interaction, for girls. Palmer and Skaff say their attempt to create a single product probably set them back a year. "We felt like we were smart-enough guys to learn it and do it on our own," says Palmer.

Another part of maturing is knowing when to shift from entrepreneurial mode, in which creativity and development trump all else, to business mode, in which adult supervision becomes mandatory. For Bossa Nova, that meant hiring a toy-industry gun, in the form of new CEO Martin Hitch, a veteran of Mattel and Hasbro. Penbo and Prime-8 were introduced in Europe this year, using local distributors. But the company, whose revenues are approaching $4 million, wants to crack the U.S. market and its big retailers. With the selling season for next year under way, Hitch will help Bossa Nova get six products into the mix.

A 12-person outfit like Bossa Nova, or 100 firms like it, will never replace the jobs at the big steel plants that once defined Pittsburgh. Palmer and Skaff wanted best-in-class manufacturing; for robotic toys, that means China. But Skaff says Bossa Nova is by no means constrained by child's play. He sees a company that can grow with its customers. "As the children age, they will be familiar with our toys," he says. "We will introduce robots that accompany them in their lifestyles." In other words, personal robots, born in Pittsburgh.

News Story Courtesy Time


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Newfangled Pogo Stick Soars 9 Feet

We're not certain anyone should try this at home, but modern pogo sticks routinely soar 8 feet into the air. One developed at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute can clear 9 feet or more. In case you need a comparison, that'd put your feet above the typical home's roof gutter.

The BowGo uses not a traditional coil spring, so yesterday, but a fiberglass bow of high tensile strength.

The fiber-reinforced composite bow can store as much as five times the elastic energy per unit of mass as a steel coil spring, says BowGo's inventor Ben Brown, a Robotics Institute project scientist.

The bending bow avoids the problem of friction created by the old-fashioned coil springs, which inevitably buckle sideways.

"This feels very different from other pogo sticks, including the extreme sticks now on the market that use elastic bands or air springs," Brown said. "It's very smooth, and you can jump really high."

And you can compete. Folks now use advanced pogos for stunt competitions and, of course, the high jump.

News Story Courtesy LiveScience


Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Robot Has Come To Conquer Human Race…With Snacks!

Watch out Jeeves, robotic butlers could be trying to replace you. Developers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a humanoid robot that rolls around offering people snacks and souvenirs. The aptly named SnackBot is a multidisciplinary experiment that will function as a research platform for robotics, design, and behavioral sciences. SnackBot can detect humans, travel without colliding with moving objects, and even recognize people it knows. Check out the cool video from BotJunkie after the break. Snackbot was also featured in a CBS report about the economy of Pittsburgh, that video is after the break as well.

It’s sort of assumed that robots could one day function as our servants. In order to work in a human environment robots have to navigate their way around, communicate, and be accepted. SnackBot aims to learn more about each of these tasks while providing a useful community service. As robotic engineers become more adept at mimicking the human body, the most critical determinant of success may not be robot capability but human-robot interaction. Projects like SnackBot could help us plan how best to incorporate robots into our daily lives. Should they be cute? How well do they need to understand human speech? What tasks will humans trust robots to perform? Answering these questions will determine what robotic engineering tries to accomplish in the years ahead.

Maneuvering through a dynamic work space isn’t simple, and SnackBot has to offer snacks while it’s dodging around. In this way, the robot is similar to the PR2 from Willow Garage. Both can reason how to traverse through areas with moving objects and humans. Both can also plan a route with incomplete information. SnackBot, however, is much more focused on communicating with people.

As described in their paper in the Proceedings of Human Robot Interaction, the Carnegie Mellon Team is using SnackBot to understand how humans perceive and dialogue with inanimate objects. The CM design team went to great efforts to develop SnackBot holistically, considering it as a provider of a service while still worrying about the technical aspect of its build. To this end, SnackBot focuses a lot on communicating with humans. It has a LED mouth to give the impression that it is ‘talking’, and can interact with humans passively (it sits in a room and lets people approach on their own) or actively (it can follow maps to deliver snacks to those who request them).

The height of SnackBot was also determined through a survey where people rated their interactions with different sized bots. Small bots were too servile, and the taller bots were easier to interact with and no more intimidating for their size. Hence SnackBot is tall enough to be near chest level for most adults. In this way, SnackBot is as much a study in behavioral sciences as it is in robotics.

The results are…cute. Just like the ACE robot in Munich, the SnackBot project demonstrates that humans are quite willing to treat robots with respect and help them accomplish their tasks. It probably doesn’t hurt that SnackBot is feeding the people it talks to. It’s cool that Carnegie Mellon decided to approach this project from many different disciplines and with holistic considerations. As robots become larger parts of our lives, designers will have to worry as much about how the machines will be perceived as about how they can accomplish their jobs. Human-robot interaction may dictate the size, shape, and attitude of bots. I hope they all come bearing gifts.

News Story Courtesy Singularity Hub


Thursday, October 15, 2009

CMU professor recognized for making things miss

Computer scientist one of 'Brilliant 10'

If two airliners are headed straight at each other, one standard emergency maneuver is for both of them to turn right and then curve back to their original course, almost as though they were driving opposite ways on a rotary in the sky.

But if the airliners are headed toward each other at a 45-degree angle, that maneuver can cause a collision, rather than avoid one.

That's one reason the aviation industry is working on upgrading its collision avoidance systems, and it's also a reason why the work of Carnegie Mellon University's Andre Platzer is gaining more recognition.

Dr. Platzer, a 30-year-old computer science professor, is named in today's edition of Popular Science as one of its "Brilliant 10," which the magazine calls "some of the nation's most promising young researchers."

He is being recognized for his development of software for checking the reliability of computer control systems like the ones that maneuver aircraft, oversee train safety or distribute electricity on power grids.

These are all examples of "hybrid systems" -- computer programs that make decisions in the face of constantly changing variables, whether it's the speed and position of other planes in the sky or the separation distance and wetness of the tracks for two speeding bullet trains.

These computer systems not only do vitally important jobs, but have become so complex that it is impossible to test every conceivable scenario that they might face.

"You can build very, very complicated systems today, but they are so complicated that you can no longer understand them. The more components that work together, the more tricky it is to follow their operation," he said.

"What my software does is to analyze these systems to find out if they really work."

His algorithms, embedded in a program called KeYmaera, enabled him, for instance, to determine how two intersecting planes could collide while trying to get out of each other's way, and to devise new escape maneuvers that avoid that problem.

Dr. Platzer grew up near Hamburg, Germany, and had some success when he was younger as a ballroom dance competitor, before mathematics and computers captured his passion.

After getting his master's degree in Germany, he was accepted into eight or nine Ph.D. programs, he said, and he then had to think long and hard about what he wanted to specialize in for his dissertation.

He decided that hybrid systems would be his focus, and that led him to Carnegie Mellon, where Professor Edmund Clarke is world-renowned for developing techniques for checking the reliability of computer control systems.

One area that may benefit soon from Dr. Platzer's software is train control in Europe, where passenger trains now hit 200 mph and are being designed to go even faster.

As more of these trains are built and their speed goes up, he said, the biggest challenge is making sure that no train runs into the rear of another one. That requires integrating automated sensors that track the positions of trains with the controls that can apply emergency braking.

While that might seem to be an "elementary school physics problem," Dr. Platzer said, "in reality it depends on the slope of a track, the mass of a train and the slippery conditions caused by the weather, and you have to take all these things into account."

One other big advantage of programs like KeYmaera: They can save truckloads of money.

"One of the major problems in the aviation and car industry," he said, "is they don't want their systems to fail and yet they have a serious issue with making sure everything works well. I've seen statistics that the cost of debugging their software systems is more than 50 percent of the total cost" of the software.

By cutting down on the number of debugging tests that are needed, KeYmaera can save these companies a lot of money.

He said he is proud to get the Brilliant 10 accolade not only because it recognizes his achievement, but because it might entice more students into his field.

"I think people understand how important it is to insure that all these computerized systems work correctly, but it's also kind of a terribly intimidating and difficult-to-understand field, so hopefully more people will now dare to go down this road."

News Story Courtesy Pittsburgh Post Gazette


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Krzysztof Matyjaszewski

A chemist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Matyjaszewski is the winner of this year's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge academic award.

How did you get into this field?

My basic area of research is polymer chemistry, which intersects in many important ways with green chemistry. The challenge is to find clean substitutions for more toxic chemical processes that cost the same or less. The ideal situation is replacing something toxic with something environmentally friendly — such as replacing a toxic metal in a catalytic compound with a vitamin that biodegrades.

What research problems do you work on?

We focus on three areas: working towards cleaner, more effective catalysts; creating degradable materials by controlling macromolecular structures; and working at the interface of biochemistry and materials science to create smart polymers that safely deliver agents to specific sites.

Do green projects have enough funding?

Funding support is important, but more important is the balance between how much something costs and how important it is. Sometimes, if you want to make something more environmentally friendly, it is more expensive.

How important has a mentor been to you?

Always, you rely on mentors. Years ago in Poland I started working with a professor who impressed on me the need to approach a problem in a systematic manner, but never to close your mind to possibly important avenues that could be hidden in the details.

How did you get from Poland to Pittsburgh?

I was a postdoc in 1978–79 at the University of Florida. I returned to Poland expecting change when [the trade union movement] Solidarity happened. But that hope was not realized. I spent a year in Paris. A professor leaving Carnegie Mellon told me I should apply for his position, as it had good funding and support in a nice city. Pittsburgh is a very good example of the green spirit. It was one of the most polluted US cities; now it is one of the cleanest.

What's your approach to advising students?

Even though I generally have 10–15 graduate students and 5 postdocs, I try to interact with each on a one-to-one basis. We also have group meetings weekly and meet twice a year with our industry consortium members. Sometimes even a first-year graduate student can teach someone from industry how to do something better.

What's the importance of exposing graduate students to industry?

Maybe half will go to industry. So I hold regular group meetings, like in industry, to discuss progress on longer-term objectives. I also teach them to consider more than one part of the problem: not just synthesis but also characterization and the search for potential applications.

News Story Courtesy Nature


Friday, October 9, 2009

Building a Better Password

Tough to remember but easy to crack, passwords are the weak link in computer security. Billions hang in the balance.

My password is gr8199. I've been using it for more than a decade, ever since a Web site first required me to create a string of six to 12 characters, with a mixture of letters and numbers. At that moment the only sequence I could think of had to do with the Wayne Gretzky vanity license plate my family happened to be considering: the Great One, No. 99, which yielded gr8199. As the requirements for passwords evolved over the years, I added extra nines, cobbled on a question mark, and blended it with my alternate password (which is, insanely, my Social Security number). Until last week, gr8199 and its descendants got you into my laptop, my e-mail, my Scrabble, my bank accounts, my blog, my work PC, my health insurance, Facebook, Skype, Snapfish, Hulu, my tax returns, and at least 39 other sites across the Internet. I can tell you my secret code because I'm changing it; I'm changing it because I'm telling you. My password system is a mess—and I bet yours is, too.

If you're a typical Web user—and these days, what office worker doesn't spend all day plugged in to the browser?—you have 6.5 passwords, each of which is used at four sites, and you're forced to type one eight times per day. Your employer likely makes you create a brand-new code every 90 days. At one point or another, you've probably scrawled a password on a Post-it, e-mailed one to yourself, or made other security-breaching concessions to the fundamental impossibility of memorizing so many strings of gobbledygook. Today we don't have passwords so much as coping systems.

Companies spend billions of dollars protecting their computer systems, and passwords are a linchpin. With so much riding on Americans' faulty passwords, there has to be a better way to make our technology secure—and it's taking shape inside Carnegie Mellon University's cyber-security-research department. There is no password 2.0 in the wings, no genius breakthrough to secure our stuff forever. But for the past five years a few members of CyLab, as it's known, have been studying not just the mathematical theory behind passwords but the way humans actually use them. Their findings suggest there's a lot we can do to make this part of our lives far less of a hassle—and in my case, to move far beyond gr8199.

Though it's housed in an otherwise nondescript building on the north side of Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus, parts of CyLab resemble James Bond's Q Branch. The biometrics lab in particular is hard at work taking the fiction out of science-fiction movies like Minority Report. The workspace is a hive of activity, with 15 students bent over all manner of gadgetry; it's like a high-school shop class, but with prototype face-tracking cameras instead of band saws. This is where Carnegie Mellon wows its visitors, with toys that can read a person's fingerprint from across the room, reverse-engineer a 3-D model of a face from a simple 2-D snapshot, and recognize a moving iris at 13 meters. Nearly every gadget here would give a civil libertarian a stroke.

With their futuristic sexiness and fat military funding, biometrics and bleeding-edge cryptography have long drawn the best minds in computer security. But for average consumers, biometrics has also been among the biggest letdowns in security. The fingerprint scanners available on some laptops are essentially novelties, for example, and voice authentication has never been reliable or secure enough to function on its own. Cost is also a huge obstacle: unless you work at the CIA, your employer isn't likely to buy you an iris reader any time soon. "Biometrics never caught on, and it never will," says Richard Power, a CyLab fellow who rails about the lack of progress—he calls it a "lost decade"—in computer security.

For regular people accessing Web sites and PCs, passwords are what we're stuck with, primarily because they're simple and cheap. Among computer researchers, passwords are a key aspect of a burgeoning field known as "usable security." At Carnegie Mellon, the scientists who've pioneered the discipline work not in a lab but upstairs in a wing that looks no different from most universities' English or history departments. Look closer, though, and you'll see signs that this is no ordinary place. The doors are all marked with 2-D bar codes; a professor enters his office by snapping a photo with his cell phone. Click!goes the phone; thunk! slides the bolt. It's more secure than a physical key, which can be stolen and copied, and no less handy.

The academics here are rethinking basic questions about what makes something—an office, a Web site—secure, without driving its owner crazy. And their findings call into question many of the recent security advances in the banking, e-mail, and other critical systems you log into every day. Researchers here fault virtually everything your corporate IT department tells you about strong passwords. And they take the radical stance that you, the user, should be listened to when passwords become overbearing, not yelled at when you forget them.

As an academic discipline, usable security—a blend of computer science and psychology—is only about five years old. "When we first started waving the flag, not many people paid attention," says Carnegie Mellon professor Lorrie Cranor. "It's gratifying that people are starting to." Cranor may be more responsible than anyone else for establishing the field. She founded CyLab's Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory and an annual symposium; she also edited the major textbook on the subject and teaches one of the few usable-security-specific courses in the nation. Polite and warm, Cranor strives to be user-friendly herself: when she gets too technical while describing her work to a decidedly non-Ph.D. NEWSWEEK reporter, she pauses, laughs ("Were you expecting a more usable definition?"), and resumes the discussion in geek-free English. Her interest in patterns and complexity extends outside the lab: she's a master quilter whose designs have been featured on the covers of textbooks and journals.

Much of Cranor's work involves poking holes in the conventional wisdom about how users should choose and remember passwords. Take one common tip that Internet users hear: to make a super-strong password, think of a phrase, and string together the first letter of each word. The result is called a mnemonic password. The famous Ghostbusters line "Dogs and cats, living together!" becomes, with a few substitutions, "D&c,lt!"—a sequence to make an IT director swoon. It's easy to remember, and who could guess it?

In fact, Cranor can. In a 2006 study, her team asked 144 volunteers to come up with mnemonic passwords. Guessing that the subjects would summon well-known phrases from memory, the researchers built a simple program to crawl the Web for famous quotes, ad slogans, song lyrics, and nursery rhymes, quickly amassing 249,000 entries. By security standards, that's a relatively small universe of phrases upon which to base passwords. Using that list, their crude program cracked 4 percent of the mnemonics, which weren't so unique after all—two subjects chose the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle—suggesting that motivated hackers could fare even better.

Instead of a mnemonic password, research suggests that users are better off constructing passwords out of the phrase itself—a passphrase. As the technologist Thomas Baekdal notes, a short but hard-to-remember string like "J4fS<2" can be broken by what is called a brute-force attack (in which a computer attempts "a," then "ab," then "abc," and so on) in 219 years, while a long but easy-to-remember phrase like "du-bi-du-bi-dub" will stand for 531,855,448,467 years. (Two hundred nineteen years is actually very good, but the lesson remains: simpler can be stronger.) The idea of passphrases isn't new. But no one has ever told you about it, because over the years, complexity—mandating a mix of letters, numbers, and punctuation that AT&T researcher William Cheswick derides as "eye-of-newt, witches'-brew password fascism"—somehow became the sole determinant of password strength.

What drives Cheswick and other researchers particularly nuts is that the "dictionary" attacks that these complicated passwords are supposed to repel have been largely supplanted by "phishing," which tricks users through deceptive e-mails and look-alike Web sites into unwittingly handing over passwords directly to hackers. For all the hoops the users have to jump through, researchers say they're mostly fighting the last war. "Users have this secret feeling that they don't need these rules, and they're right," says Cheswick, who is known as one of the fathers of Internet security.

That hasn't stopped Web sites from continuing to foist increasingly complex requirements on users. And a natural consequence of passwords that are more complicated, and that require periodic resets, is that people forget them more frequently. To deal with that, many sites—notably free Web e-mail services—have adopted "security questions" such as "Where did you go to elementary school?" and "What is your pet's name?" In theory, answering such questions proves that you are you. In practice, it's riddled with flaws. Last fall, Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account, gov.palin@yahoo.com, was hacked by a student in Tennessee who knew from rudimentary Web searches her birth date, ZIP code, and that she had met her husband in high school. And in July, Twitter executives were embarrassed by a similar attack, which resulted in the theft of some 300 internal documents, including strategy memos and financial forecasts. A May 2009 study from Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon eviscerated the -security-question strategies employed by three of the top four Web-mail providers, finding that subjects could guess their acquaintances' AOL and Yahoo challenges more than a quarter of the time. Hacking isn't the only problem caused by the spread of these questions: according to the study, one in five subjects forgot the answers to their own questions in six months.

One way humans deal with password overload is to rely on a single password and simple variants for nearly every electronic interface in their lives—as I did. That's highly problematic because if that all-powerful password is cracked at just one site, it gives a hacker the keys to the kingdom. That's why Adrian Perrig, the technical director at Carnegie Mellon's CyLab, promotes disposable passwords: generated by special devices, people use these passwords once, then throw them away. It used to be expensive for companies to give employees special fobs that could synchronize with a server and make one-time passwords possible, but nowadays we all carry a device capable of this task: a cell phone. RSA, the company that manufactured the most recognizable model of password fob, now bakes the technology directly into BlackBerrys.

Perrig's scheme is dubbed Phoolproof Phishing Prevention. Using this system, a user enters his log-in name at a given site, and in a moment, his phone beeps with a text message containing a temporary password. A criminal can steal your password silently. But if he snatches your cell phone, you'll know right away. Another benefit: if a hacker is listening in on an unsecured wireless network, or through a nasty piece of malware called a keylogger, the password is no good after the one session. Last December, Bank of America became the first major U.S. bank to let customers link mobile phones (or, for $20, a wallet-size card) to their accounts, a breakthrough in Internet banking. So far, though, only a fraction of customers have opted in.

Another promising direction might be image-based passwords. No, not that personalized icon that greets your log-in at Bank of America, Vanguard, and many other banking sites; it's a nice marketing trick, but has little security benefit. "We saw that and laughed at it right from the beginning," says Cranor; one study showed that all a phisher needed to do was insert a sentence like "Our image server is down; please log in anyway" into a fake Web page, and people would do so. Paul van Oorschot, a professor of computer science at Carle-ton University in Ottawa, has developed schemes that replace text entry with mouse clicks on certain pixels in an image—say, the headlight of a sports car. This approach has flaws, usable-security proponents say, and hasn't been tested enough. But it's cheap, and resistant to phishing.

As often happens with academic research, it has taken some time for the industry to take notice. But lately, people inside tech companies have begun paying more attention to the usable-security work being done at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere. Cormac Herley, a Ph.D. at Microsoft Research, recently published two papers questioning the industry's accepted wisdom on security: "Do Strong Web Passwords Accomplish Anything?" (conclusion: sometimes, but not really) and "Passwords: If We're So Smart, Why Are We Still Using Them?" The latter paper concludes that in the short to medium term, passwords, flawed as they are, are here to stay. "Right now, we all agree that the password system is terrible, yet how much money is it costing companies?" van Oorschot asks. "Are they feeling enough pain that they're willing to do anything about it?"

For now, the answer is no. And as Bank of America's customers have shown, even if a more secure option exists, many won't opt for it. But as time goes on, the combination of a major security breach and users' growing fatigue at juggling so many passwords will likely make the world more receptive to the innovations being cooked up at Carnegie Mellon. Until then, we'll all have to keep on trying to remember our own variations of gr8199.

News Story Courtesy Newsweek


Friday, October 9, 2009

Robotics firm Seegrid Corp. expanding Pittsburgh area presence

Seegrid Corp., a robotics firm working to help automate distribution centers for a wide range of major companies, is consolidating its manufacturing operations into the Pittsburgh area with a new 30,150-square-foot facility in RIDC Park West in Findlay Township.

The new hub will allow the company to move two of its three offices in Massachusetts into one building here.

“It’s kind of a watershed moment,” said CEO Scott Friedman, who described Seegrid’s client base as the uncarpeted side of the Fortune 500. “We’re scaling our operation around our sales.”

The company expects to occupy the new building by Thanksgiving. The facility will include the company’s manufacturing and administrative headquarters as well as sales and marketing. Seegrid was drawn to the location by its proximity to the airport and the access it creates for the company’s growing, national client base.

News Story Courtesy Pittsburgh Business Times


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Carnegie Speech Company Closes $2.2 Million A-2 Finance Round

Carnegie Speech Company today announced that it has closed a $2.2 million A-2 financing round. Proceeds of the round, along with an additional strategic partnership and technology development agreement with In-Q-Tel, the independent strategic investment firm that identifies innovative technology solutions to support the CIA and the broader US Intelligence Community, will be applied toward international and domestic US marketing, sales and distribution initiatives.

Carnegie Speech Company is a leading provider of software for assessing and teaching spoken languages to non-native speakers. With a suite of spoken language training products featuring artificial intelligence and speech recognition technologies under global license from Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Speech enables cost-effective, scalable and personalized spoken language training that maximizes language learning effectiveness while minimizing training time and expense.

“This investment round will enable Carnegie Speech to expand our sales, distribution and marketing initiatives in promising business sectors and geographies,” said Angela Kennedy, CEO of Carnegie Speech. “We see significant demand in Corporate Training, Government, Aviation and Global Education sectors and will apply these funds toward capitalizing on these opportunities.”

Carnegie Speech’s suite of language training software, including Carnegie Speech AssessmentTM, NativeAccent®, SpeakIraqiTM Phrasal and SpeakIraqiTM Advanced, SpeakRussianTM, SpeakFarsiTM and Climb Level 4TM, is internet enabled to be accessible any time - anywhere. With patent pending Pinpoint speech evaluation, targeted remediation and personalized curriculum featured in all its products, Carnegie Speech is positioned to capitalize on worldwide demand for spoken language instruction.

“We are pleased that the investment community has supported Carnegie Speech with this current round of financing,” said Angela Kennedy. “We are well aware of the significant challenges of raising funds in this economy, and appreciate the confidence our investors have in Carnegie Speech’s business plan, market opportunity and management team.”

Press Release and Pictures Courtesy Carnegie Speech 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Maker of computerized bone cutter locks in financing

Medical device startup Blue Belt Technologies Inc. of East Liberty has closed on $2.4 million in financing led by private investors, and including the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and Innovation Works.

The money is in new investments and the conversion of existing notes. Blue Belt is a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff developing "smart" surgical instruments for orthopaedic and neurosurgery procedures.

CEO Craig S. Markovitz said the financing will go toward preparing the company's Precision Freehand Sculptor, a handheld, computer-assisted bone cutting tool, for federal approval and to prepare it and other products for the market.

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Google Acquires reCaptcha To Power Scanning For Google Books And Google News

Google has acquired reCAPTCHA, an open source technology that provides CAPTCHAs to prevent spam and fraud. Captchas are those security questions you find on Web sites that require you to decipher and type words or numbers and detects whether the user is a human.

Here’s what Google wrote in a blog post about the announcement:

"CAPTCHAs are designed to allow humans in but prevent malicious programs from scalping tickets or obtain millions of email accounts for spamming. But there’s a twist — the words in many of the CAPTCHAs provided by reCAPTCHA come from scanned archival newspapers and old books. Computers find it hard to recognize these words because the ink and paper have degraded over time, but by typing them in as a CAPTCHA, crowds teach computers to read the scanned text."

Google says that reCAPTCHA’s technology improves the process that converts scanned images into plain text, known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). It sounds like Google will be using the technology to power massive scanning projects for Google Books and Google News Archive Search as well as for fraud and spam prevention.

In May, the New York Times reported that Google was developing their own type of captcha and also took notice of the potential of reCAPTCHA’s technology. Sounds like Google found it more effective to acquire reCAPTCHA’s technology instead of reinventing the wheel.

News Story Courtesy Tech Crunch 


September 12, 2009

CMU professor's super adhesive inspired by the gecko

Prior to becoming the British-accented spokesman for Geico insurance and dancing mascot for SoBe beverages, the gecko was an ordinary creature, found locally in Western Pennsylvania zoos and pet stores.

Scientists for years have been fascinated with the animal, not because of its accent or dance-floor moves, but because of its toes. The billions of hairs on the gecko's toes give the animal the gravity-defying ability to climb the smoothest of surfaces, vertical or horizontal, and to be able to hang by even a single toe, if needed.

Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Metin Sitti is an authority on what he calls the gecko's "one-sided Velcro" adhesive ability.

"It's not like glue, it's not a liquid, it's a temporary attachment," said Sitti, who is head of the university's NanoRobotics Laboratory and is on the faculty of CMU's Robotics Institute.

In January, Sitti was confident enough in his research and findings that he formed nanoGriptech LLC, hoping to commercialize the gecko's adhesive ability. In just nine months, the fledgling company has received $450,000 in funding from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, along with Air Force Research Laboratory funds funneled through the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center.

Sitti says a gecko's toes have millions of very small hairs, each one-tenth the width of a human hair. At the end of each hair are hundreds of saucerlike structures known as spatula, each 500 to 1,000 times smaller than a human hair's width.

Weak forces of attraction hold each spatula to a surface, but when the weak force from millions of hairs are combined, a powerful bond is created, allowing the gecko to stick to nearly anything.

Sitti uses microfabrication, manufacturing on an ultra-small scale to create mold templates, which are filled with polymers to create the hair-like appendages. To make the spatula, a drop of polymer is placed on a fiber, then pressed to a nonstick surface, followed by curing the tip.

Starting at the University of California-Berkeley and continuing when he joined the CMU faculty in 2002, Sitti has been working to replicate the gecko-like adhesive in the laboratory and commercialize it.

"We've been in business about three years and during that time, we've had about 75 proposals for funding and awarded about 14," said Alan Brown, the NanoMaterials Commercialization Center's director. "Our criteria is a technology must be unique and there must be a market for product applications. This is a great idea, it's patentable and it has those partners."

One partner is Bayer MaterialScience LLC, which provides the substance that makes the pseudo-Gecko-hairs adhesive work.

"We were introduced to Dr. Sitti through our new business group, which identifies and creates new business opportunities beyond our existing portfolio of products," said Karsten Danielmeier, vice president Business Development, Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties for Bayer MaterialScience.

Danielmeier said Bayer was looking at the super adhesive to give robots the ability to climb over any obstacle to fulfill its particular mission.

Mine Safety Appliances Co. of O'Hara is working with Sitti on developing his adhesive for face mask sealant applications.

Sitti refused to reveal the name of his third partner, but a news release from the state's Innovation Partnership said Baltimore-based clothing manufacturer Under Armour Inc. is interested in the adhesive for fastening gloves, shoes, and clothing. A spokesman for the publicly-held company couldn't be reached.

Sitti said his product can be used anywhere Velcro is pressed into action. Unlike Velcro, which requires two cloth pieces, one comprised of very small hooks and other surface made of clinging pile, the nanoGriptech adhesive is a single surface.

While just getting nanoGriptech off the ground, with office space in Oakland and three to five of his students serving as original employees, Sitti intends to keep the company in Pittsburgh.

"I am in the first stage of commercialization, prototyping specific product applications with our partners," Sitti said. "After this stage is completed, in one or two years, we will move toward large-scale manufacturing." He added that about 5,000 square feet of space is needed for large-scale manufacturing of the super adhesive.

"The company will be focused on the design and manufacture of the adhesive, and we want to make sure the company will make products here and sell them here," Sitti said.

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CMU robotics projects sorts plants for less

The co-owner of a large California nursery hires 1,000 workers each season to trim and sort strawberry plants for shipment to berry producers.

But her problem is getting proper documentation for the immigrant work force, then assuring that those 1,000 "trimmers" sort the plants uniformly. Another concern for Liz Elwood Ponce of the Lassen Canyon Nursery in Redding, Calif., is the high cost of the labor force.

The situation made her stop and think.

There must be a company or university somewhere that could produce a strawberry-plant sorting machine to make the process faster and cheaper with better results.

And her Internet search spat out the name of one research university that seemed eminently qualified to create a robotic sorting machine to usher her business into the modern era.

Ms. Ponce's call to the Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville drew immediate interest, especially when NREC officials learned she represented a consortium of five nurseries willing to sponsor the project.

Christopher Fromme, the NREC project's manager and lead engineer, said vision technology already exists to grade fruits, vegetables and berries. But no such technology existed to sort strawberry plants, or any other plants, for that matter. That's because of variations in each plant and changes that occur with age.

"That's why we're doing it," Mr. Fromme said. "We don't get the easy problems."

And this project wasn't easy.

But NREC already has completed the first and most difficult step in a five-phase project. The prototype classifies and sorts harvest plants more consistently and faster than workers can, with a comparable error rate, according to an NREC news release.

While the technology being used is proprietary, Mr. Fromme said it accomplishes the task with machine learning. That means a human sorter tutors it, then the equipment takes over with robotic technology and computer formulas known as algorithms to replicate what the human does.

"The machine learning with vision-system technology is the unique aspect in that the system is taught what to do by expert human sorters," Mr. Fromme said. "We are attempting to transfer expert knowledge from person to machine."

In short, the equipment evaluates root structures, crown size and number of petioles among other features to gauge whether the plant meets quality standards.

The equipment is necessary because strawberry producers replace all plants each season to maximize yields and quality.

That also means the nurseries can sell only those plants that meet producers' standards. Plants, which are shipped with their roots bare, must be harvested, trimmed, sorted, packaged and placed in boxes.

Mr. Fromme said each strawberry plant, much like a snowflake, is unique. A conveyor transports the plants through the machine, which classifies the plants according to size, variety and stage of growth. It also decides which ones qualify for shipment and which ones must be discarded.

The NREC team, Mr. Fromme said, put the robotic equipment through a field test for 10 days last October under realistic conditions. A news release notes that it sorted more than 75,000 plants at a rate of 5,000 plants an hour -- a speed several times faster than humans can achieve.

But NREC officials aren't yet satisfied. They hope to boost sorting speeds to 20,000 to 30,000 plants per hour, with an error rate equal to or better than what humans can achieve.

While the technology would reduce the workforce at each nursery, Mr. Fromme said higher-paying jobs would be created to build, operate and maintain the equipment.

With the prototype completed, the NREC team will focus on adding other robotic equipment that will require changes in the harvesting process. For instance, strawberry plants have entwined roots and runners that connect the plants underground. "New equipment is necessary to break up the plants to be separated from other plants without damaging them," Mr. Fromme said.

It could take five years to get the entire system in operation.

"They will get a very quick return on their investment," Mr. Fromme predicted for the five sponsoring nurseries that raise about 85 percent of the strawberry plants used in California. "That's the beauty of the system. We spent a lot of time making this as simple as we could. We made a lot of trade decisions that will make this system agriculturally robust."

Meanwhile, Mr. Fromme said the machine-learning approach that NREC developed could apply to other plants that are shipped with bare roots (or without soil). Those could include roses, flower bulbs, peonies and asparagus among other flowers, fruits and vegetables.

And, in retrospect, Ms. Ponce said, she picked the right university to solve plant production problems for her Lassen Canyon Nursery -- the largest such nursery in California with 1,000 acres in production

"This is a great project, and I'm really looking forward to what they will come up with in the end," Ms. Ponce said of NREC. "I hope it meets expectations."

In the meantime, she's thankful Mr. Fromme responded to her Internet search with genuine interest.

"Lucky me," she said.

Press Release and Pictures Courtesy Pittsburgh Post Gazette 


Saturday, September 12, 2009

CMU professor's super adhesive inspired by the gecko

Prior to becoming the British-accented spokesman for Geico insurance and dancing mascot for SoBe beverages, the gecko was an ordinary creature, found locally in Western Pennsylvania zoos and pet stores.

Scientists for years have been fascinated with the animal, not because of its accent or dance-floor moves, but because of its toes. The billions of hairs on the gecko's toes give the animal the gravity-defying ability to climb the smoothest of surfaces, vertical or horizontal, and to be able to hang by even a single toe, if needed.

Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Metin Sitti is an authority on what he calls the gecko's "one-sided Velcro" adhesive ability.

"It's not like glue, it's not a liquid, it's a temporary attachment," said Sitti, who is head of the university's NanoRobotics Laboratory and is on the faculty of CMU's Robotics Institute.

In January, Sitti was confident enough in his research and findings that he formed nanoGriptech LLC, hoping to commercialize the gecko's adhesive ability. In just nine months, the fledgling company has received $450,000 in funding from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, along with Air Force Research Laboratory funds funneled through the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center.

Sitti says a gecko's toes have millions of very small hairs, each one-tenth the width of a human hair. At the end of each hair are hundreds of saucerlike structures known as spatula, each 500 to 1,000 times smaller than a human hair's width.

Weak forces of attraction hold each spatula to a surface, but when the weak force from millions of hairs are combined, a powerful bond is created, allowing the gecko to stick to nearly anything.

Sitti uses microfabrication, manufacturing on an ultra-small scale to create mold templates, which are filled with polymers to create the hair-like appendages. To make the spatula, a drop of polymer is placed on a fiber, then pressed to a nonstick surface, followed by curing the tip.

Starting at the University of California-Berkeley and continuing when he joined the CMU faculty in 2002, Sitti has been working to replicate the gecko-like adhesive in the laboratory and commercialize it.

"We've been in business about three years and during that time, we've had about 75 proposals for funding and awarded about 14," said Alan Brown, the NanoMaterials Commercialization Center's director. "Our criteria is a technology must be unique and there must be a market for product applications. This is a great idea, it's patentable and it has those partners."

One partner is Bayer MaterialScience LLC, which provides the substance that makes the pseudo-Gecko-hairs adhesive work.

"We were introduced to Dr. Sitti through our new business group, which identifies and creates new business opportunities beyond our existing portfolio of products," said Karsten Danielmeier, vice president Business Development, Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties for Bayer MaterialScience.

Danielmeier said Bayer was looking at the super adhesive to give robots the ability to climb over any obstacle to fulfill its particular mission.

Mine Safety Appliances Co. of O'Hara is working with Sitti on developing his adhesive for face mask sealant applications.

Sitti refused to reveal the name of his third partner, but a news release from the state's Innovation Partnership said Baltimore-based clothing manufacturer Under Armour Inc. is interested in the adhesive for fastening gloves, shoes, and clothing. A spokesman for the publicly-held company couldn't be reached.

Sitti said his product can be used anywhere Velcro is pressed into action. Unlike Velcro, which requires two cloth pieces, one comprised of very small hooks and other surface made of clinging pile, the nanoGriptech adhesive is a single surface.

While just getting nanoGriptech off the ground, with office space in Oakland and three to five of his students serving as original employees, Sitti intends to keep the company in Pittsburgh.

"I am in the first stage of commercialization, prototyping specific product applications with our partners," Sitti said. "After this stage is completed, in one or two years, we will move toward large-scale manufacturing." He added that about 5,000 square feet of space is needed for large-scale manufacturing of the super adhesive.

"The company will be focused on the design and manufacture of the adhesive, and we want to make sure the company will make products here and sell them here," Sitti said.

News Story Courtesy Trib Total Media 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CMU robotics projects sorts plants for less

The co-owner of a large California nursery hires 1,000 workers each season to trim and sort strawberry plants for shipment to berry producers.

But her problem is getting proper documentation for the immigrant work force, then assuring that those 1,000 "trimmers" sort the plants uniformly. Another concern for Liz Elwood Ponce of the Lassen Canyon Nursery in Redding, Calif., is the high cost of the labor force.

The situation made her stop and think.

There must be a company or university somewhere that could produce a strawberry-plant sorting machine to make the process faster and cheaper with better results.

And her Internet search spat out the name of one research university that seemed eminently qualified to create a robotic sorting machine to usher her business into the modern era.

Ms. Ponce's call to the Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville drew immediate interest, especially when NREC officials learned she represented a consortium of five nurseries willing to sponsor the project.

Christopher Fromme, the NREC project's manager and lead engineer, said vision technology already exists to grade fruits, vegetables and berries. But no such technology existed to sort strawberry plants, or any other plants, for that matter. That's because of variations in each plant and changes that occur with age.

"That's why we're doing it," Mr. Fromme said. "We don't get the easy problems."

And this project wasn't easy.

But NREC already has completed the first and most difficult step in a five-phase project. The prototype classifies and sorts harvest plants more consistently and faster than workers can, with a comparable error rate, according to an NREC news release.

While the technology being used is proprietary, Mr. Fromme said it accomplishes the task with machine learning. That means a human sorter tutors it, then the equipment takes over with robotic technology and computer formulas known as algorithms to replicate what the human does.

"The machine learning with vision-system technology is the unique aspect in that the system is taught what to do by expert human sorters," Mr. Fromme said. "We are attempting to transfer expert knowledge from person to machine."

In short, the equipment evaluates root structures, crown size and number of petioles among other features to gauge whether the plant meets quality standards.

The equipment is necessary because strawberry producers replace all plants each season to maximize yields and quality.

That also means the nurseries can sell only those plants that meet producers' standards. Plants, which are shipped with their roots bare, must be harvested, trimmed, sorted, packaged and placed in boxes.

Mr. Fromme said each strawberry plant, much like a snowflake, is unique. A conveyor transports the plants through the machine, which classifies the plants according to size, variety and stage of growth. It also decides which ones qualify for shipment and which ones must be discarded.

The NREC team, Mr. Fromme said, put the robotic equipment through a field test for 10 days last October under realistic conditions. A news release notes that it sorted more than 75,000 plants at a rate of 5,000 plants an hour -- a speed several times faster than humans can achieve.

But NREC officials aren't yet satisfied. They hope to boost sorting speeds to 20,000 to 30,000 plants per hour, with an error rate equal to or better than what humans can achieve.

While the technology would reduce the workforce at each nursery, Mr. Fromme said higher-paying jobs would be created to build, operate and maintain the equipment.

With the prototype completed, the NREC team will focus on adding other robotic equipment that will require changes in the harvesting process. For instance, strawberry plants have entwined roots and runners that connect the plants underground. "New equipment is necessary to break up the plants to be separated from other plants without damaging them," Mr. Fromme said.

It could take five years to get the entire system in operation.

"They will get a very quick return on their investment," Mr. Fromme predicted for the five sponsoring nurseries that raise about 85 percent of the strawberry plants used in California. "That's the beauty of the system. We spent a lot of time making this as simple as we could. We made a lot of trade decisions that will make this system agriculturally robust."

Meanwhile, Mr. Fromme said the machine-learning approach that NREC developed could apply to other plants that are shipped with bare roots (or without soil). Those could include roses, flower bulbs, peonies and asparagus among other flowers, fruits and vegetables.

And, in retrospect, Ms. Ponce said, she picked the right university to solve plant production problems for her Lassen Canyon Nursery -- the largest such nursery in California with 1,000 acres in production

"This is a great project, and I'm really looking forward to what they will come up with in the end," Ms. Ponce said of NREC. "I hope it meets expectations."

In the meantime, she's thankful Mr. Fromme responded to her Internet search with genuine interest.

"Lucky me," she said.

Press Release and Pictures Courtesy Pittsburgh Post Gazette 


Monday, August 24, 2009

Bosch to Acquire Akustica, Inc.

  • Bosch continues investment in innovative technology
  • Akustica’s promising MEMS technology will complement the current technology portfolio of Bosch, the leading supplier of MEMS sensors.
  • Expands product offering for consumer electronics market

Pittsburgh - Robert Bosch North America agreed today to acquire Akustica, Inc., an innovator in the application of CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems) technology in the consumer electronics market. Terms of the agreement will not be disclosed.

Akustica, which was founded in 2001, is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The company develops and sells a complete portfolio of digital and analog micro electromechanical microphones featuring CMOS MEMS technology. This innovative technology allows the integration of transducer elements and associated integrated circuits on a single Silicon chip. Bosch is the world leader in MEMS sensors and, with this acquisition, further strengthens its position in this market.

“The strategic acquisition of Akustica with their outstanding application of sophisticated MEMS technology complements our growing semiconductor business and ideally complements our ongoing MEMS activities” said Dr. Stefan Kampmann, executive vice president, Bosch Automotive Electronics. “We look forward to working together with the Akustica team to continue to develop this important business area.”

To date Akustica, which developed and sold the world’s first digital MEMS microphone, has sold over 5 million microphones in the global market. All of the company’s 36 associates will be employed by Bosch.

According to Joseph A. Jacobson, president and chief executive officer, Akustica, Inc., “We are excited to join the market leader in MEMS sensors and be a part of Bosch's expansion in commercialization of consumer MEMS products. The strength of our combined technology, manufacturing capability, and talent will allow us to continue delivering innovative and differentiating sensor product solutions.”

Press Release and Pictures Courtesy Akustica 


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In-Q-Tel Investment in Carnegie Speech to Enhance Spoken-Language Training Software for the U.S. Intelligence Community

Carnegie Speech, the global provider of software for assessing and teaching spoken-language to non-native speakers, today announced a strategic partnership and technology development agreement with In-Q-Tel, the independent strategic investment firm that identifies innovative technology solutions to support the mission of the CIA and the broader U.S. Intelligence Community.

Carnegie Speech's exclusive global license to speech recognition and artificial intelligence technologies from Carnegie Mellon University enables cost-effective, scalable and personalized spoken-language assessment and training that maximizes language learning effectiveness while minimizing training time.

"Through our relationship with In-Q-Tel, government agencies will have access to software that enables rapid learning and understanding of words and phrases," says Angela Kennedy, Carnegie Speech President & CEO. "Our language tutorials have improved spoken-language proficiency in a variety of industry sectors in countries around the world. We are confident that our software, with its pinpoint speech evaluation, targeted remediation, and personalized curriculum, will deliver similar benefits to U.S. government agencies."

Carnegie Speech software uses a combination of speech recognition and proprietary pinpointing technology that models a user's speaking characteristics to analyze speech proficiency and develop a personalized spoken-language training curriculum for each student. Carnegie Speech's technology compares each student's spoken language against a composite statistical model of native speakers' speech to pinpoint errors and give detailed and effective remediation instruction.

"There is high demand for Carnegie Speech's spoken language training software," said Troy M. Pearsall, Executive Vice President of Architecture and Engineering at In-Q-Tel. "Our strategic partnership with Carnegie Speech will provide technology capabilities that can enhance the government's efforts to quickly and accurately assess and teach spoken-language to non-native speakers."

Carnegie Speech's spoken language training products operate on a variety of technical platforms, including Windows Desktop, LAN, Web and IVR. The company's product line includes:

Carnegie Speech Assessment™ evaluates speech by analyzing student variance from native speakers' phonemes, prosody, fluency, grammar and vocabulary.

  • NativeAccent® precisely pinpoints where speech errors are made and develops personalized training curricula in English pronunciation, pace and pausing, word stress, pitch, intonation, duration, fluency, and grammar.
  • SpeakIraqi™ Phrasal teaches novice students to speak key Iraqi words and phrases intelligibly.
  • SpeakIraqi Advanced teachers Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) speakers to speak Iraqi Arabic in a fluent manner.
  • SpeakRussian™ improves spoken-Russian among English speakers with Advanced Beginner or Intermediate spoken-Russian skills.
  • SpeakFarsi™ trains English speakers in Farsi Climb Level 4™ is a web-based spoken English training solution for pilots and air traffic controllers seeking to meet International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) spoken-English standards.

Press Release Courtesy Carnegie Speech 


Friday, July 24, 2009

Cardiorobotics closes $11.6 Million in Financing

Cardiorobotics, Inc., a medical device company developing snake robot technologies for use in a wide range of surgical and interventional applications has closed on an $11.6 Million private equity Series A round of financing. The round was lead by Eagle Ventures and its co-investors, The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and The Slater Technology Fund and affiliated investors.

Funds raised in this round will support the advancement of the clinical product, a clinical feasibility trial on humans, and completion of commercial product for regulatory approval in the United States and the European Union.

“This investment will be used to advance our core product, the cardioARM™, toward commercialization,” said Dr. Samuel Straface, Cardiorobotics, Inc., president and Chief Executive Officer. “We’re pleased to have Eagle Ventures, The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, and The Slater Technology Fund and affiliated investors share our vision in providing single-port off-pump treatments for patients with heart arrhythmias.”

“I am impressed by the combination of the breakthrough technology platform, experienced entrepreneurial leadership, and high commercialization potential of the cardioARM™,” said Mel Pirchesky, president and Chief Executive Officer of Eagle Ventures. “In particular, I was very impressed by the leadership’s talent and really amazed to learn that the Company’s system could convert a complex heart procedure that requires a heart-lung machine into a single-port, minimally invasive one of about an hour’s duration without the heart-lung machine.”

Cardiorobotics’ is the global leader in snake robotics for minimally-invasive cardiac interventions, allowing minimally invasive treatments for patients suffering with heart arrhythmias. Cardiac surgery is currently the Gold Standard invasive treatment option for patients with chronic heart arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, but requires a large breastplate incision to access the heart as well as general endotracheal anesthesia. The heart-lung machine that is required for open-heart surgery (e.g. valve repair) adds further morbidity. Performing a single-port epicardial (outside the heart) intervention in a less invasive manner will dramatically improve patient recovery and significantly decrease risks involved with the current procedures.

Press Release Courtesy Cardiorobotics Inc.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Oakland firm refines rover designed to land on lunar soil, win $20M

Executives of Astrobotic Technology in Oakland believe they are a bit closer to winning a $20 million race to the moon.

Company Chairman William "Red" L. Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor, and his colleagues on Monday showed off their third prototype of a robot they plan to send to the moon in May 2011.

The winner of the Google Lunar X PRIZE awarded by a California nonprofit that encourages innovation will be the first robot to land on the moon, travel 500 meters on the lunar surface and send images and data back to Earth.

Forty years ago yesterday, Apollo 11 astronauts became the first humans to land on the moon.

What's special about this prototype, said Astrobotic spokesman David Gump, is that it should be able to withstand the intense heat a lunar day exerts.

"Before we weren't solving the problem of the robot cooking itself at noon," Gump said. That's a particularly significant problem because the Astrobotic team plans to drop the Red Rover robot at Apollo 11's landing site, which is at the moon's equator. Temperatures there rise above 270 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There's a lot of heat coming from the sun and a lot of heat bouncing off the lunar soil," Gump said.

The Red Rover will diffuse heat in two ways. First, it will keep a cool side aimed away from the sun to radiate heat off to the black sky, Gump said. Secondly, by using composite structures made from carbon fiber tape and resin, the robot will be able to transmit heat from its hot to cold side more efficiently.

Nineteen teams with members from 35 countries are developing robots, said Will Pomerantz, senior director for space prizes for the X PRIZE Foundation in Playa Vista, Calif. Teams must be at least 90 percent privately funded. To collect the full $20 million, the goal must be achieved by Dec. 31, 2012.

"The contest is coming extremely well," Pomerantz said. "It's been a little under two years since we announced it and we're a lot farther than we thought we'd be. It was designed to be a six- or seven-year journey. The teams are more diverse, better and bringing more talent to the table."

Whittaker credits the nature of the contest.

He likens it to the $25,000 Raymond Orteig offered for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris, which Charles Lindbergh won in 1927.

"Flying was a nascent technology," Whittaker said. "It couldn't attract a passenger service or investment by Wall Street. All that changed instantly in that moment of actualization. Flying became a darling experience. Everyone wanted to fly or take a flight. It gave rise to the vision of intercontinental flight and improved the quality of airplanes."

That's what's about to happen once the Lunar X PRIZE teams figure out how to reach the moon without the help of NASA, said Bob Richards, CEO of Odyssey Moon, an Isle of Man company working to commercialize lunar travel.

"We're going to make the moon relevant," Richards said. "We view the moon as an eighth continent that's largely been unexplored. Its proximity to Earth means it's close enough to have an economy. The Earth and moon will be like two islands in an archipelago."

Pictures Courtesy Astrobotic Technology Press Release Courtesy Trib Total Media


Thursday, July 9, 2009

When Robots Invaded the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, left, and Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr, Director of the National Science Foundation, center, get a demonstration of assistive device technologies from University of Pittsburgh graduate student Garrett Grindle.
QoLT makes a splash as students and faculty present QoLT's latest research on Capitol Hill July 8, 2009. Scalpels that a surgeon uses to excise small tumors but never actually touches. Robots that can take the place of lab rats in clinical trials. Cars that can drive themselves through busy streets. These were just some of the cutting-edge technologies on display at the Hart Senate Office Building last week as the National Science Foundation presented a luncheon briefing and open house for Senate members and their staff on cyber-physical systems (CPS), an emerging technological field that incorporates computing power to improve virtually every facet of modern life.

The event brought together over 50 researchers and students who are conducting CPS research across the country, giving them the opportunity to inform policymakers on Capital Hill about how that research may impact many of the challenges the federal government is grappling with, including making health care more efficient and effective, revitalizing the auto industry and revamping the U.S. economy.
News Story Courtesy NSF
Pictures Courtesy NSF
Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT) 

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bossa Nova Robotics Unveils Personal Entertainment Robots

After two years of development, Bossa Nova Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based robotics company and spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) Robotics Institute, today unveiled its first line of personal entertainment robots. Combining the magic of agile robots with a rich play experience, Bossa Nova presented two interactive and enriching biped robots modeled after the way kids play: Prime-8, a fast-paced gorilla robot, and Penbo, an adorable penguin with baby robot.

Bossa Nova's launch comes on the heels of the opening of Carnegie Science Center’s roboworld™, the world’s largest permanent robotics exhibition and further establishes Pittsburgh’s position as the nation's hub for robotics education, research and development. Penbo and Prime-8 will be used in roboworld’s innovative Robot Workshop to help visitors understand the many uses of robotic technology beyond familiar industrial environments and experience the many ways robots are already in their homes.

Bossa Nova's robots evolved from RHex, a fast-moving, agile, hexapod robot developed from 1999 – 2004 as a collaboration between the CMU Robotics Institute and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). RHex provided the platform for Bossa Nova's Ani-Motion Robotics™ technology - a lifelike robotic mechanism loosely based on animalistic locomotion. With a vision to bring personal robots to every home, Bossa Nova spent four years further developing the RHex technology to make it affordable and capable of age-appropriate robot-human interactivity.

Underlining Bossa Nova's research and product development is the Japan Robotics Association's forecast that the market for personal and lifestyle robots will grow to $15 billion by 2015. According to United States ABI Research, approximately 75% of the market is attributed to entertainment robotics with the majority of sales driven by children's robots.

"The technology behind Prime-8 and Penbo has only previously been seen in multi-million dollar research projects," said Sarjoun Skaff, CEO, Bossa Nova, PhD Robotics, CMU. "To make this kind of technology available to the public is a dream come true and what we've seen in all our focus groups is that both kids and adults are impressed by Penbo and Prime-8's technology and lifelike movements."

Continued Skaff, "Children’s robotics is just the start, in the future we envisage creating Bossa Nova robots that will change the way we work, play, learn and stay safe.”

Not your primitive primate, Prime-8 mimics the way boys play. Prime-8’s intense interactivity is powered by a battery of sensors that allow him to respond to people and his environment. Outbound sight and sound sensors help Prime-8 maneuver around obstacles, respond to questions with grunts and growls, and express himself. A fast-paced, powerful and fun gorilla robot, Prime-8's strong personality radically transforms from a friendly, funny gorilla with warm blue eyes to a ‘Gone Bananas!’ robot, beating the floor and roaring from the top of his lungs, with circuits crackling and furious red eyes.

On the other end of the robot spectrum is Penbo, an adorable interactive and waddling penguin robot who surprises little girls when she lays an egg. When the egg is opened, out comes Bebe - a tiny baby penguin that will chirp and communicate with its mother. Penbo is aware of her surroundings, loves to dance, plays games and talks with Baby in Penguish, her own language; she responds to touch with blinking eyes, flapping wings, and cooing sounds and is a perfect robot companion for little girls to nurture.

Both Prime-8 and Penbo are available online now and will be on shelves at retailers nationwide for the holiday season.

Press Release and Pictures Courtesy Bossa Nova Robotics


Friday, June 26, 2009

Deeplocal Develops Chalkbot

Chalkbot was a key element in Nike’s LIVESTRONG campaign for the 2009 Tour de France. Supporters in the U.S. and France texted inspirational messages for bicyclists that were printed in yellow chalk by Chalkbot on the roads of the Tour. View the Nike/Livestrong page featuring DeepLocal.....

Deeplocal is an innovation studio that helps companies rapidly develop and implement new technologies by applying the ingenuity of art to the challenges of business. Having spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s art and technology research lab, Deeplocal’s client list includes Nike, GigaPan.org, TheMotherhood.com, Kennywood, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Port Authority of Allegheny County, and more. Find more information at http://www.deeplocal.com

Support from the Studio for Creative Inquiry, a Carnegie Mellon research center for artists and technologists housed in the College of Fine Arts, provided crucial development assistance in the early formation stages of DeepLocal, as has initial investment from Idea Foundry, and coaching from regional investors and entrepreneurs. Deeplocal was named to the Top 40 under 40 startups of 2007 by American Venture Magazine.

Story and Pictures Courtesy Deeplocal


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Carnegie Learning Receives Best in Tech Award from Scholastic Administrator Magazine

Carnegie Learning, Inc. has received the Best in Tech Award for the 2008–2009 school year from Scholastic Administrator Magazine, the company reports. This competitive national award recognizes Carnegie Learning® Math Programs as a leading Supplemental Math Solution.

Carnegie Learning and the Best in Tech Award Winners from the 2008—2009 year will be recognized at a formal awards ceremony at the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2009.

Scholastic Administrator is a resource for a quarter-million results-driven school leaders. The monthly print publication and Web site focus on leadership for education executives and insight and analysis into what's next in education.

This is the second national award for Carnegie Learning this month. Carnegie Learning® Adaptive Math software was recognized as the Best Mathematics Instructional Solution by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), which presented Carnegie Learning with a CODiE Award on May 5.

“This is an exciting time for Carnegie Learning and the districts we serve,” said Dennis Ciccone, Chief Executive Officer of Carnegie Learning, Inc. “The bar has been raised on the quality of education resources and effectiveness in teaching and learning. It is an honor to be recognized by Scholastic Administrator and the SIIA, two organizations that look closely at education strategy and help the industry stay focused on innovation and improvement.”

Carnegie Learning® Math Solutions provide students with highly individualized, self-paced math instruction. These research-based programs are implemented as Response to Intervention (RTI) and supplemental math programs, as well as core, full-year courses that prepare students with 21st Century learning skills. Based on more than two decades of cognitive science research at Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Learning provides rigorous instructional resources, ongoing formative assessment, and Professional Development programs that help both students and teachers to succeed.

Press Release Courtesy Carnegie Learning


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wild Pockets, Crispy Gamer and Microsof Will Host a Free 24-Hour Bay Area Game Jam

Wild Pockets (www.wildpockets.com), currently in open beta, is giving indie and casual game developers a powerful platform to create Web-based games for free. Using Wild Pockets browser-based tools, developers can create elaborate games, interactive training, and 3-D advertising, which can then be posted easily on just about any Web site by using an embed tag similar to YouTube videos.

Wild Pockets is working together with Crispy Gamer (www.crispygamer.com) and Microsoft to host the Bay Area Game Jam, which will be held at the Microsoft Campus in Mountain View, CA on April 4 and 5. This 24-hour game creation event is open to game developers of all skill levels, backgrounds and disciplines; space is limited to the first 200 registrants. It is recommended that participants form teams of 2 to 5 developers.

The Bay Area Game Jam keynote speakers are Aaron Tarnow of Wild Pockets and Andrew Sheppard of Hi5. The judging panel is comprised of the following industry veterans: Anne-Marie Rousselt of Microsoft, Robert Ashley of Crispy Gamer and A Life Well Wasted, Jamil Moledina of EA, Jameson Hsu of Mochi Media, Andrew Sheppard of Hi5 and Alan Yu of Ngmoco. Developers will compete for fun, fame and prizes, including a grand prize of $2,500 in cash. Featured live entertainment includes the band The OneUps (http://www.theoneups.com/) famous for their loose interpretations of classic gaming tunes in a jazz / funk style, and the Megas (http://www.themegas.com/), an independent video game cover band based on the Capcom game, Mega Man 2.; they will perform on April 4 starting at 10 p.m.

“We believe that it is important to break down the barriers to entry for indie developers, and especially in this tough economic environment,” said Shanna Tellerman, CEO of Wild Pockets. “With the help of our very generous sponsors, we’re able to provide participants with 24 hours of free networking, food, fun and entertainment, plus some really fantastic prizes. “

“Wild Pockets opens the door to would-be game developers who lack the financial freedom to pursue their dream of making a game. And, we know our audience of gamers will be interested to play these games for free on our site,” said Chris Heldman, CEO of Crispy Gamer.

“We are excited to host the 24-hour Bay Area Game Jam at our Microsoft campus in Mountain View,” said Anne-Marie Roussel, senior director of digital media in the Strategic and Emerging Business Group at Microsoft Corp. “Sim Ops is part of Microsoft’s Accelerator program, which is designed to foster the success of high-potential start-ups. We view their Wild Pockets product as truly innovative for the game developer community.” Crispy Gamer has a deep editorial bench of games journalists aiming to provide independent, intellectual and entertaining coverage of the videogame landscape.

Crispy Gamer has also differentiated itself by taking a bold stance in refusing to accept advertising from game publishers, setting a benchmark for fearless and credible industry reporting. Crispy Gamer is averaging over 1 million monthly unique visitors.

All completed games from the Bay Area Game Jam will be available at wildpockets.com and crispygamer.com. For more information and to register for the Bay Area Game Jam, visit http://www.wildpockets.com/sfgamejam/.

Press Release Courtesy Wild Pockets