Another Old Technology Dies
It's hard to imagine the end of something that's been going on for 108 years, but that happened last week when the last paper player piano roll came off the assembly line at QRS Music Technologies. The company was the last one to make player piano rolls, which were immensely popular in the early twentieth century. The technology, cutting edge in its era, let users listen to a piano being expertly played without someone actually playing it; instead, the perforations in the roll told the piano which notes to play.
As with everything else affected by technology, however, the player piano isn't dead; it's simply changed in form. QRS Music Technologies is still in the player piano business, but now it uses CDs to run the musical instruments. And QRS will lay off half of its Buffalo staff (five out of ten employees) in connection with discontinuing the paper rolls. Demand for the rolls had gone down to 50,000 a year, so that end of the business was no longer profitable.
There is still hope for fans of the old technology, though. The production equipment for the paper rolls is being sent to the company's Seneca, PA plant, and they hope to resume production there at some point. It will be a challenge, though, as one machine dates back to the 1880s, and much of the rest of the aging equipment is cantankerous, according to Bob Berkman, manager of the firm's Buffalo office. Also, no one is making player pianos anymore.
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Making Technology More Accessible to the Blind
Imagine using a cell phone's touch screen or typing in a Captcha.
Now imagine that you're blind. Suddenly these very simple tasks
become almost impossible. Many engineers don't concern themselves
with this problem -- unless, like Google engineer T. V. Raman, they're
blind themselves. Raman has a few good ideas to help other technically
savvy blind people ideas which could help the sighted as well.
Raman's current project involves making touch screen phones accessible to the blind. He approaches the project by asking How should something work when the user is not looking at the screen? He and Charles Chen, another Google engineer, are working together on this project after having collaborated fruitfully on other accessibility-related objects. Raman's T-Mobile G1 is their current prototype and testing ground.
To dial a number, Raman uses software on the phone that detects relative positions. It interprets the first spot where he touches the screen as a five, which sits at the center of a regular phone pad. Raman can dial any other number simply by sliding his finger in its direction: straight up for a 2, straight down for a nine, to the left for a 4, and so on. Raman can erase mistaken digits by shaking the phone, which is capable of detecting motion. These and other projects will help the blind and those with lower vision use the technologies that the rest of us take for granted.
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Not a Flying Car, But Close
It looks a little like a sea monster, but the Icon A5 is much more. Created by an F-16 pilot and a skateboard designer, the plane recently conducted its maiden flight. The dream child of Icon Aircraft, its wings fold up at the push of a button, making it easy to store and trailer. Priced at a comparatively cheap $139,000, it is supposed to let anyone become a barnstormer in style.
The aircraft was made possible, in part, by the Federal Aviation Administration's creation in 2004 of a whole new category of flying machine: light-sport aircraft. Planes in this category must have only one engine, with a maximum airspeed of 138 miles per hour, stay below 10,000 feet, and fly only during the day. Best of all, if you want to pilot one of these babies, you only need 20 hours of instruction. The changes could put the fun back in flying, and open it up to far more people.
And how did the test flight go? Perfectly. From wide loops to circles, it did everything the pilot asked of it. No surprises at all, he said when he climbed out of the cockpit. There's a lot of testing still to do, but that report was good news for the engineers, better news for Icon Aircraft, and perhaps the best news of all for the Ferrari set who want to go airborne on their own.
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