Format Wars, the Next Generation
First there was VCR versus Betamax. Then came HD DVD versus Blu-ray.
Now, if last month's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is any indication,
it won't be too long before we can fulfill that science fiction
dream of watching 3D TV - assuming we can get past the inevitable
Companies are eager to climb on the bandwagon of 3D TV, but there
are at least three competing technologies vying for king of the
mountain. Even worse, video that has been filmed and processed for
one format usually can't be played on the others. The approach that
currently seems most likely to win the war is used by Panasonic,
Hyundai, and satellite broadcaster Sky. It requires the viewer to
wear polarizing eyeglasses while a fast-running home theater projector
shows alternating left and right images.
The system can already be purchased in Japan, where limited 3D
broadcasting began last year. Panasonic has been pushing to add
3D playback to the Blu-ray standard. Ideally, this could lead to
a single format that could be played on any 2D or 3D TV. But don't
hold your breath; with Blu-ray uptake still relatively slow, and
a digital TV transition to get past in the US, it will be some time
before you need those cool 3D specs at home.
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Hunting for More Earths
Pencil the following date into your calendar: March 5, 2009. That's
the date that NASA plans to launch the $550 million Kepler telescope,
with the goal of finding planets about the size of our own, orbiting
stars about the size of our sun, at about the same distance and
taking about the same time to complete their orbits. The theory
is that such a system is most likely to support life, perhaps even
intelligent life similar to us.
"The whole mission was designed around this goal," explained
William Cochran, an astronomer and Kepler co-investigator. "If
we find no Earth-like planets, then we can say with great confidence
that Earths like ours are rare." Indeed, despite recent discoveries
of literally hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, most have
been much larger than Earth. Size is not the only issue; as far
as we know, to be able to support life, water must be able to exist
as a liquid on the surface of a planet - which implies both a certain
minimum atmosphere and an orbit at a fairly specific distance from
a star, to maintain the proper temperature.
Observations from Kepler could help us to predict how common life,
perhaps even intelligent life, is in the universe. It takes a different
approach to its search. Instead of looking for a star that “wobbles”
due to the pull of a planet, Kepler will try to detect the slight
dimming of light that will occur when a planet moves between us
and its star. This is a better approach for spotting Earth-like
planets, because their gravitational pull would be too weak for
us to detect the related wobble in their stars. Kepler will start
its three-and-a-half-year long mission with 100,000 stars under
its watchful eye; its first results could be made public as early
as next fall.
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A Helping Hand for Learning Piano
What if you could put on a pair of gloves and play the piano perfectly?
Researchers at Georgia Tech haven't gone that far yet, but they
have created a glove that helps musicians learn how to play. It
vibrates to inform its wearer which finger should be hitting the
keys at any given moment. The vibrations help engage muscle memory.
Kevin Huang, the Georgia Tech grad student who originated the idea,
speaks of literally being able to feel the notes. His design wirelessly
marries a battery-powered golf glove with vibrating motors to a
PC with software that gives directions for a number of songs. The
PC controls jolts to the vibrating motors. Those working on the
glove say it can be synchronized with music players such as iPods,
which would free music students from having to sit in front of the
piano to build their muscle memory; they would be able to do it
just about anywhere.
In a pilot study of the glove, some users learned basic songs faster.
For those impatient to get past those first faltering steps of learning
an instrument, this glove could be exactly what they're looking
for. The next step: a wristband to help students learn how to play
woodwind instruments, too.
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