Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Look: Apple TV, Take Two

Here's what's new with the Apple TV device that makes it much more useful.

Lately I've promoted the notion of an updated Apple TV as one of this young year's most significant products. But I can understand how those who'd never used the thing might have been less-than-enamored of the device. After all, it apparently didn't support 5.1 audio, its storage space was limited, there was the general (and incorrect) perception that it couldn't play HD content, and, most confounding of all, it depended on a computer for its care and feeding.

My, how things have changed.

Should Steve Jobs' presentation have blotted the functionality of the "original" Apple TV from your memory, allow me to compare and contrast that original device with the "Take Two" update announced during Jobs' address.


Okay, easily done. The 40GB Apple TV sold for $299 and Wednesday Apple shaved $70 from the price tag. The 160GB Apple TV, which those of us who preferred to stream our content thought bore more storage than necessary, moved from $399 to $329; another $70 price drop. (People who invested in the early days of the Apple TV will be rewarded not by a $70 rebate but by receiving the new "Take Two" software update as a free download in two weeks.)


For the most part, you had to move content to the original Apple TV from your computer (streaming YouTube videos and previews from the iTunes Store being the exception). So, if you wanted to play music in your iTunes library, you either copied or streamed it from a computer on the network. Likewise with TV shows and movies purchased from the iTunes Store.

Speaking of content, the selection of movies you could purchase from the iTunes Store was pretty slim. The major studios simply didn't take to the iTunes Store the way Apple had hoped. Rentals, on the other hand, are another matter. The iTunes Store will have movies for rent from all the major motion picture companies, a refreshing change after a year of offerings largely from Disney and its subsidiaries.

The Unnecessary Umbilical

With the updated Apple TV and enhanced iTunes Store, Apple has cut the cord. In a couple of week you will be able to sit on your couch and, with Apple remote control in hand, rent a movie or purchase a TV episode or hunk of music from the iTunes Store.

5.1 Audio

The original Apple TV supposedly didn't support 5.1 surround sound, but that wasn't quite true. If you encoded a video's audio track in exactly the right way, you could get the Apple TV to output 5.1 audio. However, Apple explained that it didn't pass Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound--and audio standard routinely used in commercial movies--through the Apple TV. It now does.

With the updated Apple TV, you can string an optical audio cable between your Apple TV and a digital audio input on your 5.1 AV receiver and videos that include 5.1 soundtracks will play in all their surround-sound glory.


There was also some debate over the original Apple TV's ability to play HD content. If you could find such content and get it onto the Apple TV--an high-def podcast, for example--it would play in a form that fell within the HD specification.

The Take Two Apple TV has the same video specifications. So what's changed? The availability of content. Unlike in the past, the iTunes Store will brim with HD content in the form of rental movies and high-definition video podcasts. Although the Apple TV is limited to displaying 720p HD video at 24 frames per second, guess what? Movies play at 24 frames per second.

Streaming Internet Media

Shortly after the Apple TV's release, Apple updated the device so it could stream YouTube content. The updated Apple TV not only continues to stream YouTube videos but can now also stream pictures from a .Mac or Flickr account.

Streaming Local Media

While you could store media on the Apple TV's hard drive, the device's ability to stream music and audio quickly over a fast broadband or Ethernet connection was impressive enough that savvier Apple TV owners kept their media on their computers and simply streamed it to the Apple TV connected to their television. If you wanted to play media directly from the Apple TV's hard drive, you still had the option by switching sources.

The Apple TV continues to offer the ability to stream media or play it from the device's hard drive, but the updated interface discards the distinction between local and remote storage. Your media is your media--My Movies, for example--and the Apple TV doesn't force you to choose a source. You select what you need and Apple TV plays it--either streaming content stored on a computer or media stored on the Apple TV's drive. Better yet, it can automatically determine which media will work better when stored on the Apple TV's hard drive and sync your media accordingly.

Getting It

Those with strong opinions about the Apple TV fell into two categories--those who had one and loved it, and those who had never laid hands on the thing and didn't understand its appeal. The Take Two Apple TV, with its ability to obtain great looking and sounding content, from the comfort of the couch, is likely to draw many of those from the latter group into the former.

For more Macintosh computing news, visit Macworld. Story copyright © 2007 Mac Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.,141433-c,convergencedevices/article.html#

Killing Skin-Cancer Stem Cells

Harvard researchers are developing the first drug that specifically targets cancer stem cells.

Roots of cancer: Not all melanoma cells (above) are equal. Some are capable of generating new tumors.
Credit: Children’s Hospital Boston

Harvard Medical School researchers have identified a class of cells that initiates skin-cancer melanomas; they are also developing a therapy that specifically targets these cells. In a major study, the researchers characterized these cells and linked them to disease progression in humans. They also demonstrated that an antibody targeting these cells slows tumor growth in mice. The work may lead to new treatments for resistant melanoma. It also has broader implications for cancer biology.

There is a growing consensus amongst cancer biologists that not all cancer cells are equal. There is a hierarchy of cells inside a tumor, and only a few cells, called cancer stem cells, are capable of generating new tumors. Such tumor-initiating cells have been identified in many cancers, including those of the colon, brain, and breast. These cells are also thought to play an important role in chemotherapy resistance and cancer recurrence.

Previously, researchers had connected the presence of cancer stem cells with breast-cancer patient outcomes. Now the Harvard team has demonstrated a second important connection between cancer stem cells and clinical impacts, linking the presence of such cells with the speed at which the disease progresses in humans.

"We've defined for the first time a direct link between cancer stem cells and cancer progression," says Markus Frank, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who led the melanoma research.

This research grew out of Frank's study of a protein made by some melanomas that confers resistance to chemotherapy. In a paper published today in the journal Nature, Frank and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, report that human melanoma cells that make this protein can be characterized as cancer stem cells because they generate tumors when implanted in mice. Examining melanoma biopsies, they found that tumors expressing this protein were more aggressive.

Frank's group also demonstrated that an antibody specifically targeting the melanoma stem-cell protein slowed tumor growth in mice. Many other researchers are working on therapies that attack cancer stem cells, but Frank believes that his group is the first to develop such an antibody.

"Most current therapies target the bulk cells of the tumor," he says. "Resistant stem cells are left behind," allowing the tumor to come back after therapy seems to be progressing. Frank and other researchers hope that therapies that specifically target cancer stem cells can completely eradicate tumors.

Robert Weinberg, a founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, MA, and director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, agrees that the Harvard work adds to the growing evidence of cancer stem cells' importance. "We don't really understand how tumors renew themselves, or how to treat many tumors," he says. Some researchers remain unconvinced, Weinberg says, but he and many others think that cancer stem cells may hold the answers to these questions. Cancer stem cells are "going to be very important," he predicts. Slowly but surely, he believes, the evidence is building.

Frank says that much remains to be learned about the newly identified melanoma stem cells. It's not clear, for example, whether the protein that the Harvard researchers have been focusing on causes the cells to act as cancer stem cells, or whether this protein is simply a marker for these cells. Further studies of their gene-expression patterns will tell the researchers more about what makes them different from normal melanoma cells. In the meantime, the Harvard researchers will continue to develop their antibody in hopes of taking it to human trials.

Better Bugs for Making Butanol

Engineered E. coli proves efficient at churning out the biofuel.

Butanol bugs: Through a series of genetic modifications, scientists programmed E. coli to make butanol efficiently, bringing the biofuel closer to commercialization.
Credit: Wilson Wong, UCLA

In a push to find better biofuels to reduce gasoline consumption and lower greenhouse-gas emissions, scientists have genetically engineered E. coli that is highly efficient in producing butanol, a promising new type of biofuel. The new technology could speed up the development of butanol biofuels into a cost-effective alternative to ethanol.

While ethanol is the main biofuel on the market today, energy firms are increasingly looking to alternatives such as butanol. "It has many attractive properties," says Jim McMillan, manager of biorefining process R&D at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Bioenergy Center, in Golden, CO. Because butanol packs more energy per gallon than ethanol does, cars running on butanol get better mileage. And, unlike ethanol, it doesn't mix with water, so it can be shipped in existing petroleum pipelines without causing problems.

A number of research groups are engineering microbes that can convert sugar from various feedstocks into butanol. Most of these groups rely on the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, which naturally makes a form of butanol called 1-butanol. "But Clostridium is not easy to deal with," says James Liao, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It grows slowly, it's very fastidious, and it's not easy to genetically manipulate." Despite decades of tinkering by scientists, the microbe still can't produce enough butanol to make it economically viable as a transportation fuel, Liao says.

Instead, he and his colleagues turned to E. coli. Although the bacterium does not produce butanol naturally, it is easy to modify and grows fast. Instead of tweaking the pathway that the microbes employ for fermenting sugar into alcohol, Liao reasoned that he could program E. coli to produce butanol by diverting some of the microorganism's metabolites into alcohol production. These metabolites, called keto acids, are involved in the synthesis of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

To make butanol from keto acids, the researchers inserted two different nonnative genes into E. coli. The first gene came from a microbe commonly used in the production of cheese. The gene codes for an enzyme that converts keto acids into aldehydes. The second gene, derived from yeast, codes for an enzyme that converts aldehydes into butanol.

Initially, when linked together in E. coli, the two genes allowed the microbe to produce small amounts of butanol. With further genetic modifications, Liao was able to dramatically increase the efficiency of the process. For instance, deleting certain genes and boosting the activity of others increased the amount of keto acids available for conversion into butanol. With all the combined manipulations, the engineered microbes achieved an efficiency high enough for industrial use, says Liao.

Gevo, a biofuels startup based in Pasadena, CA, has acquired an exclusive license to commercialize Liao's technology. (Liao is on the company's scientific advisory board.) "It's a real breakthrough," says Mathew Peters, Gevo's chief scientific officer. Not only did Liao improve the efficiency of the process, but he also designed his microbes to produce a particular form of butanol called isobutanol. "We believe isobutanol is a superior fuel," says Peters. Compared with 1-butanol, isobutanol has a higher octane number, which reduces knocking in the vehicle's engine.

What's more, the biochemical pathway Liao designed for making isobutanol can be transferred to other microbes. In addition to investigating E. coli, Gevo is looking at different microorganisms that could be modified in the same way. "We're interested in any organism that will make the process cheaper," says Peters.

Gevo isn't alone in its pursuit of a better butanol-producing bug. In June 2006, BP and DuPont joined efforts to develop butanol. .

Last June, BP and DuPont, along with Associated British Foods, announced their plans to build a biobutanol pilot plant at an existing BP site in England. The plant, which will use sugar beet as a feedstock, is expected to begin operations in 2009, with the ultimate goal of commercializing butanol after 2010.

According to Peters, Gevo plans to make a decision by the end of the year on whether to go ahead with its own plans to build a butanol plant. In the meantime, certain technological hurdles still need to be overcome to make butanol cost competitive, he says. Mainly, the microbes need to get faster at producing butanol, and their tolerance to isobutanol, which is toxic to the organisms, must improve. Still, Peters expects Gevo to resolve these issues in the coming months.

The Air Car Preps for Market

Some still question the vehicle's chances of success, despite a boost from India.

Air car: MDI says that its MiniCat compressed-air car (above) can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour and has a range of up to 125 miles.
Credit: Motor Development International

A French-designed car that's propelled by compressed air and claims speeds of more than 60 miles per hour is expected to go into commercial production as early as this summer, although skeptics of the technology aren't holding their breath.

Using compressed air, they argue, may mean zero tailpipe emissions, but it's unlikely to provide enough range or speed to appeal to the masses, particularly in North America. "Compressed air does not contain much energy--that's the killer," says Larry Rinek, senior research analyst for automotive technologies at consultancy Frost & Sullivan. "This is more a nice garage project for a Popular Science subscriber."

But the dream lives on. Motor Development International (MDI), based near Nice, France, has developed several prototypes of its Compressed Air Technology (CAT) car since its first engine was created 14 years ago. Now company founder Guy Negre, an aeronautics engineer who developed a high-performance racing engine for Formula 1 in the late 1980s, is counting on India's largest carmaker, Tata Motors, to bring his highly anticipated Air Car to market later this year.

The Air Car was supposed to hit the streets years ago, but its release always seems just around the corner. MDI announced in 2002 that the cars would be used to replace taxis in Mexico City, but nothing resulted.

Tata's involvement this time around, combined with the fact that oil recently hit $100 a barrel, could change the game. India's largest automaker announced last February that it had struck a deal with MDI to further develop and refine Negre's compressed-air engine technology, with the intention of producing and selling the emission-free cars in India. It has since been reported that Tata invested nearly $30 million in MDI as part of the agreement.

"The recent manufacturing push is in response to the contract that MDI signed with Tata," confirmed Kevin Haydon, a spokesman for Zero Pollution Motors, based in New Paltz, NY. He says that the company plans to manufacture CAT vehicles in parts of the United States around 2010, through a license with MDI.

Zero Pollution has even entered the car in the multicity Automotive X Prize competition, where in 2009 more than 30 teams--including electric carmakers Tesla Motors, Phoenix Motorcars, and Malcolm Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles--will compete on the fuel efficiency of their vehicle designs.

The Air Car may do better than fuel-cell cars, but experts say that using grid power to charge a battery-powered electric vehicle is much more efficient than using electricity to compress and store the same amount of energy in a tank. "The main problem is that air gets hot when you compress it, so much of the energy input goes into raising the temperature of the air as you try to raise the pressure," explains Doug Nelson, a professor of mechanical engineering and an expert on advanced vehicle systems at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

According to its website, MDI insists that, compared with the most prevalent cars on the road--those powered by gasoline--its air engine is "far superior in terms of energy used and thermodynamics."

At the core of all CAT models is a four-piston engine powered by compressed air that is stored in tanks at 4,500 pounds per square inch. The lightweight tanks, a thermoplastic container surrounded by a carbon-fiber shell, are made by Airbus Industries and hold nearly 3,200 cubic feet of air.

To propel the vehicle, compressed air from the tanks is injected into a small chamber, where it expands and cools. This expansion drives a downstroke of the piston. But as the ambient temperature begins to reheat the air in the first chamber, that air is forced into a second neighboring chamber, where it expands again to drive an upstroke. Using ambient heat helps capture more of the energy in the compressed air, ultimately improving the efficiency and expanding the range of MDI's Air Car. And compared with four-stroke combustion engines, in which half of the strokes are wasted to pull air and fuel into the chamber, the air engine makes use of every stroke.

Ulf Bossel, a mechanical engineer consulting in Switzerland and organizer of the European Fuel Cell Forum, is cautiously optimistic. "I think there's something to it," says Bossel, one of the few who has performed a comprehensive analysis of MDI's approach. Even though one of MDI's compressed-air tanks would carry the energy equivalent of just one gallon of gasoline, the use of that air in the engine is 90 percent efficient.

The energy balance would improve substantially, he argues, if the compressed-air systems located at filling stations or in car owners' garages were designed so that any waste heat during compression could be captured and used to produce domestic hot water, for example. If the compressors could interact with the grid and be programmed to only compress and store air during off-peak hours, or when solar and wind energy are in greater supply, the emissions profile of the Air Car would also improve.

"If you use clean electricity, it's an absolutely clean system," says Bossel, adding that compressed-air systems, despite being less efficient than battery-powered cars, have the advantage of being simple, cheaper to manufacture, and unconstrained by the degradation problems associated with current battery systems. "Still, there are some thermodynamic tricks you have to do," he says.

To increase the range of the vehicle, MDI is also coming out with an optional dual-mode system that allows the car to run on fossil or biofuels--either when its speed exceeds 35 miles per hour or when the compressed-air tanks are empty. When in fuel mode, the car's moto-alternator refills the tank with compressed air as the vehicle moves.

MDI says that in air-only, zero-emission mode in urban settings, the car has a range of up to 125 miles, but that drops to about 50 miles when it is driven at faster speeds up to 60 miles per hour. A full charge of air, including the electricity used to compress it, is expected to cost less than $3. In the dual-mode version, with assistance from fuel, speeds can reach 100 miles per hour, and range expands to 900 miles on less than a gallon of fuel (although the faster one goes, the shorter the range).

The idea is for the car to provide zero pollution when driven in cities, and lower emissions when driven faster, as in suburban and rural settings. "It's a little more like a hybrid," says Haydon. "The new innovation will make it more appealing to the average buyer. In terms of the carbon dioxide emissions, it will have five times less than the average vehicle."

The first CAT car to be produced is called the OneCAT, a "utilitarian" car for urban and rural driving that's specifically designed for use in overcongested cities and priced in a range ($5,100 to $7,800) within reach of consumers in a developing economy, such as India.

The ultralight bodies of the vehicles would be made of glued-together fiberglass and injected foam, and the aluminum chassis would also be glued, not welded, to simplify manufacturing.

Before production of the CAT can begin in India, likely followed later by Spain and Australia, MDI says that it must start mass production of the cars at its factory in France. A spokeswoman at MDI's marketing office in Barcelona says that this will likely happen in September 2008.

But Frost & Sullivan's Rinek believes that there's limited chance that major automakers in the United States will take the Air Car seriously. He points to the need to build an infrastructure of compressor stations and the need to comply with strict safety standards. (The Air Car cannot be fueled using the air pumps currently found at some gas stations.)

"In North America, it's basically a nonstarter," says Rinek, admitting that there are limited niche markets. "The only potential, if any, would be for an inner-city, short-commute vehicle with an ultra-greenie owner."

3-D Design for the Masses

Dryad's new user interface aims to make it easier for novices to create realistic objects for virtual worlds.

Digital arboretum: Dryad, a program that demonstrates a new user interface developed by the Stanford University Virtual Worlds Group, allows the user to design a 3-D virtual tree by exploring a map.
Credit: Vladlen Koltun, Pat Hanrahan, Jerry Talton, Daniel Gibson, Chris Platz

Recent years have seen an explosion in user-generated content of all types on the Web, but the explosion has been most intense where the content is relatively easy to produce. While users are welcome to design flora and artifacts for virtual worlds such as Second Life, modeling 3-D content is still fairly difficult for the inexperienced. A new technique called collaborative design-space exploration, developed by the Virtual Worlds Group at Stanford University, aims to make it easy for anyone to create 3-D designs for virtual worlds. The group has prototyped its interface in a program called Dryad, which allows users to design trees, and plans to extend it for use with other types of objects.

Vladlen Koltun, an assistant professor at Stanford who heads the group, says that he hopes design programs like Dryad will one day make it easy for anyone to create compelling content for virtual worlds, without having to learn a scripting language, or how to use a sophisticated 3-D modeling tool. He particularly hopes to make it easier for academics without computer-science expertise, for whom "content creation is one of the bottlenecks," to put together virtual worlds for educational or experimental purposes.

Most 3-D modeling requires the user to start by modifying polygons and sticking them together, as if she were manipulating lumps of clay. When Dryad opens up, a user instead sees an overhead view of a broad selection of possible trees. The trees may look as if they were culled from forests, mountaintops, bayous, and alien planets. The user can then pan through the space or zoom in and out using an interactive map interface similar to that found in programs such as Google Maps. When the user sees a tree she likes, zooming in on it produces a new map with a new set of trees whose features resemble those of the one she selected. The closer the user zooms in, the more similar to each other the trees on the map will be. The user can click one of the visible trees to select it, or click a space between trees to see a new tree that blends the characteristics of surrounding trees. For finer control, the user can flip to a screen with "scrubber bars"--sliding switches that cover a continuous range of values--where she can adjust 100 different characteristics of the tree one at a time. While the scrubber bars are standard fare for 3-D design, the map is not. "The idea is, you always have something in front of you," says Koltun, adding that inexperienced users are commonly intimidated by having to start from scratch. "The map interface guides you to regions of the space that you might have overlooked, and shows you ideas of what you can make." The interface allows users to design a near-infinite variety of trees, Koltun says.

Although the interface appears simple, there's a lot of sophisticated math behind it. In order to make the user feel as though she is exploring the space of possible designs, Koltun says, the software has to represent the 100 different parameters governing the appearance of the trees on two-dimensional maps. Those 100 parameters translate mathematically into a space of 100 dimensions. Koltun explains that every choice the user makes causes the program to choose a curved two-dimensional slice of the true space, in a process similar to that used to draw a line of best fit for a set of points in a scatterplot. Naturally, some information is lost in the process, but since the slice curves through multiple dimensions, it allows the user to make changes to far more than two parameters at once.

The researchers also designed the program to intelligently decide which possible trees to display to users. "Showing a set of random designs would be awful," Koltun says, explaining that choosing random values for the 100 possible parameters would likely result in distorted, unappealing trees. So in determining which trees to display, the program is guided by the selections of previous users.

Dryad isn't the only way for users to create 3-D designs. Second Life has a scripting language that can produce anything from a tree to a Zamboni, but it's a language that the user has to learn. Interactive Data Visualization's SpeedTree is a sophisticated tree-design tool that players of Unreal Tournament 3 can use to design trees for customized gaming environments. But company president Michael Sechrest explains that the tool is geared to players with an interest in game development, called modders, and it hasn't been adjusted for ease of use.

Peter Phillips, technical director for Millions of Us, an agency that specializes in creating content for virtual worlds, considers Dryad "a really promising tool to allow inexperienced people to create personalized content." He adds that "one of the things that looks unnatural in MMOs [massively multiplayer online worlds] is when we see repeated identical objects." Phillips thinks that tools such as Dryad can solve that problem by making it easy for people to tailor objects to their personal tastes. While he considers the map interface a good approach, he says that the current version of Dryad has some performance shortcomings.

Right now, Dryad is available for Windows and Macintosh systems, and the Stanford group is working on a Linux version. Koltun notes that Dryad is only a demonstration of a type of design interface, and he says that the group plans to extend the concept to allow users to design human forms and other objects commonly found in virtual worlds.