Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Philips feminizes the LCD TV

With its 'Design Collection' of LCD TV's the Dutch electronics giant is cottoning on to the fact that style sells. It is actually focusing some of its design efforts around market research that suggests that for 98% of female consumers style is an important factor in the buying process.

Andrea Ragnetti, Philips' consumer lifestyle guru is at the forefront of a growing trend within large consumer focused organisations who have recognized the increasing importance of female buying power.

Three new LCD TV series' the 7000, 5000 and 3000 certainly lean towards a more 'femmine' style without being overtly directed towards the fairer sex. The new panels however have substance to back up the style with

The top of the range 1080p 7000 series comes equipped with 120Hz processing, an extremely rapid 2 millisecond response time along with an impressive 4 HDMI (v1.3) inputs.

The new panels will feature Philips' proprietary HD Digital Natural Motion technology (HD DNM) which has been designed to reduce on-screen juddering, while Motion Estimation Motion Compensation (MEMC) acts to further smooth motion by inserting compensating frames within faster scenes.

With a growing reputation for producing some of the most technologically advanced LCD TV's around, Philips' like other manufacturers have begun to realize the importance of psychological aspects and how they affect their bottom line.

The demise of HD DVD?

Without wanting to sound too premature about the possible demise of the HD DVD High Definition format, more bad news continues to suggest that its rival Blu-ray may well emerge as the dominant format.

This week, the market research group Gartner indicated that it believed that the format war would be resolved in 2008 with Blu-ray emerging as the victor. It also suggested that Toshiba's strategy of cutting HD DVD player prices would simply delay the inevitable.

HD DVD was dealt what many believe to be a fatal blow earlier this month with the announcement from Warner Brothers that it would no longer be producing HD DVD versions of its films. With around 20% of all DVD sales, the big Hollywood studio's decision was certainly a huge set back for the HD DVD format.

More bad news for HD DVD has emerged this week in the UK with Woolworths announcing that it would no longer be offering HD DVD films in its stores after March this year. The stores decision is based on Blu-ray outselling its rival 10:1 over the Christmas period, with a company spokesperson pointing to the fact that the 750,000 (Blu-ray playing) PS3's in the UK give the format a significantly larger user base than HD DVD.

If a single format emerges, it will be good news for consumers who up until this point have been reluctant to commit to High Definition DVD, and for the industry in general which will surely see an explosion in public interest. Barry Meyer, chairman of Warner Bros had previously warned that "the window of opportunity for high-definition DVD could be missed if format confusion continues to linger,"

Ultra Slim LCD TV's from Sharp

At a mere 3.44 cm wide, three new Aquos LCD TV's from Sharp are destined to become the slimmest screens commercially available, for a while at least.

The 37in, 42in and 46in screens represent a trend in demand for larger slimmer panels which owe as much to consumer demand for high style as for the latest technological wizardry. This is not to say that the new panels from Sharp are not very well specified.

The AQUOS X Series feature Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution panels, 120Hz processing, thin-profile 3-way 8-speaker system and 1-Bit digital amplifier along with 3 HDMI (v1.3) inputs.

Available to Japanese consumers this March it looks like that the X series will be available in the UK some time this year. No dates or prices available as yet.

Detecting Asthma Irritants

A portable sensor array measures air quality to discern the causes of asthma attacks.

Detecting irritants: Mark Jones (above) is the lead engineer for the development of a sensor system (below) that measures five types of chemicals known to cause asthma attacks. The device, approximately the size of a large cell phone, will be used to continuously monitor a person’s exposure levels to find the cause of attacks.
Credit: Courtesy of Kitty Ray Swain

Researchers at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) in Atlanta have developed a portable sensor system to monitor the air quality for people suffering from asthma. The device is a combination of sensors that measure the level of chemicals in the air thought to cause asthma attacks, such as ozone, volatile organic compounds, and formaldehyde. It is lightweight and small enough to fit into a patient's pocket, so exposure levels can be continuously monitored.

The only way that we are going to understand how environmental factors affect asthma is if we can measure a person's exposures on a day-to-day basis, says Charlene Bayer, the leader of the Environmental Exposures and Analysis Group at GTRI and the sensor system's principal investigator. "To do so, we need a device like this that can hold numerous sensors in a small, portable package.".

An estimated 20 million Americans suffer from asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and identifying the triggers of an attack is currently a guessing game. "There are a few devices on the market that measure one or two chemicals, but they are stationary and the size of a desktop computer," says Mark Jones, the chief executive officer of Keehi Technologies and the lead engineer developing the sensor system.

Currently, the only way to control an asthma attack is with medication, or "trigger avoidance." In 2007, the total health-care costs of asthma in the United States were approximately $19.7 billion, according to the NIH.

"Research has shown that if you can reduce the triggering of an asthma attack, you will reduce the impact of the disease," says Mark Millard, the director of the Baylor Martha Foster Lung Care Center at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, TX. The new sensor system, he says, is really trying to answer the question, "What are the triggers for people with asthma?"

The device is about the size of a cell phone and contains a total of five sensors that measure different possible asthma triggers: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, and total volatile organic compounds--the brew of chemicals that are emitted as gases from products such as paints, cleaning supplies, and building materials. The device also includes temperature and humidity sensors and a clock, to put a time stamp on the measurements. The researchers used sensors already on the market and kept the device small by outfitting the sensors on a two-sided circuit board.

Establishing a timeline is important for late-phase reactions, says Millard, since reactions to compounds such as formaldehyde may happen four to six hours after a patient is exposed. "Now we can look at the data and know that a patient was exposed to a lot of those compounds and that could be the trigger."

To measure the air quality, a small motor in the device sucks in air through an intake hose. Before the air passes over the sensors, it encounters a small filter that removes particulates, such as dust and pollen. The mass of the filter is measured before and after a sampling period to determine the total amount of particles. The air is then evenly distributed over the sensors.

"It takes about 30 seconds for the air to pass through the device and the data to be stored, and then it goes to sleep for another minute. In one hour it takes approximately 50 or 60 samples," says Jones.

The device can be worn for up to 24 hours before the particle filter needs to be replaced and the memory on the device is full. The data can be downloaded from the sensor system onto a computer.

Millard says the device is unique and innovative, but that he would like to see its capabilities expanded to measure tobacco smoke. He would also like to be able to separate out the particle measurements so they can be measured in real time--an upgrade that Bayer says will be introduced once the device is commercialized. Bayer would also like to get more specific readings on the different volatile organic compounds.

"We would like to get to the point where we can pop certain sensors in and out so a patient can target it towards their particular needs," says Bayer. "Asthma is a very complicated disease and there are a number of different airborne exposures that can exacerbate an asthma attack. This technology will allow us to find the source of exacerbation and understand the health impacts," she says.

The researchers at GTRI are currently in talks with an undisclosed company to commercialize the device, says Bayer. The initial target users will be asthma patients but the device will be open for use by others who want to study environmental exposures.

Genetic Variant Predicts Heart Disease Risk

A newly identified risk factor for heart disease also seems to indicate which patients will benefit from popular statin therapies.

Heartsick: There have been many false leads in identifying risk genes for heart disease, so the burden of proof for those studies should be much higher than usually required, some experts say.
Credit: Technology Review

Testing for a genetic variation could predict the likelihood that a patient will respond well to certain statins. But some researchers say it's too soon to use the variation to determine treatment.

Researchers from Celera reported yesterday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that a single substitution in the sequence of a gene called KIF6 makes people both more susceptible to heart attacks and more responsive to certain drugs that lower cholesterol. Though there is no known biological explanation linking the variation to heart disease, the study found that it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 55 percent.

Celera, the company best known for sequencing the human genome, examined 35 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in 30,000 patients. Of those, "KIF6 is by far the most significant," says Thomas J. White, chief scientific officer at Celera. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the study population was found to carry the KIF6 variant. (According to the study, these findings take into account other factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.)

The researchers also found that carriers of the KIF6 variant responded better to the cholesterol-lowering drugs pravastatin (Pravachol) and atorvastatin (Lipitor). For example, among patients with the genetic variation, those who took pravastatin were 37 percent less likely to experience a heart attack than those who took the placebo. Those without the genetic variation who took the drug were only 14 percent less likely to experience a heart attack than those who took the placebo. Statins are big sellers for the pharmaceutical industry. In 2006, Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, brought in $13 billion in global sales.

"This is one of the first studies to show an interaction with therapy" and genotype, says Marc Sabatine, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a coauthor on one of the papers. "That is very exciting to see."

Surprisingly, the researchers found that KIF6 doesn't appear to work by lowering levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol, the standard by which drugs used to prevent heart attacks are normally measured. White says that KIF6 may instead act by stabilizing "vulnerable plaques," which are particularly prone to triggering heart attacks.

Celera is developing a diagnostic that would test for the KIF6 variant and expects to launch it in a few months.

But some experts caution that it may be premature to introduce such diagnostic tests before there is further confirmation of KIF6's role in heart disease.

"Even if there are beneficial results, the standard should be that you need to document that knowing the genetic information is clinically useful," says Sekar Kathiresan, director of preventive cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Coronary heart disease caused one of every five deaths in the United States in 2006, so scientists have for quite some time been on the hunt for genes linked to heart attacks.

Rapid advances in technology have made that task much easier. At the same time, many of the genetic links to heart disease identified so far haven't held up on further analysis. At present, the only credible link is to a variant of the gene 9p21, identified last year by the Icelandic company deCODE Genetics, says Kathiresan. DeCODE offers a $200 diagnostic test for the 9p21 variant. (See "Gene Variant Linked to Heart Disease.")

A second gene, PCSK9, also looks promising, Kathiresan adds. "Nearly everything else is in the realm of 'possible but not definite.'"

It's good that KIF6 has been identified as a potential risk factor in several different studies, Kathiresan says. In each of the studies, he notes, there is less than a one-in-20 probability that the finding is a result of chance, which is generally considered an acceptable threshold for statistical significance.

But because of the high possibility of false positives, the threshold for genome-wide association studies should be much higher, on the order of one in 20 million, Kathiresan says. Both the 9p21 and the PCSK9 pass that test, he says.

"The key issue here is we don't know if these [KIF6 studies] are real results," Kathiresan says. "You need to show that it is clinically useful, and they have not crossed that threshold."

Smart Badges Track Human Behavior

MIT researchers used conference badges to collect data on people's interactions and visualize the social network.
Social sense: MIT researchers tracked people’s social interactions at a conference using a smart badge (top) that incorporated an infrared sensor, wireless radio, accelerometer, and microphone to log people’s behaviors. The result was a social network (bottom), produced in real time, which showed who had spoken to whom during the course of the event.
Credit: Ben Waber

In the corporate and academic worlds, conferences and networking events are necessary. But while some people trade business cards with aplomb, others clump with coworkers, rarely venturing beyond the safety of their pre-existing social circle. New research from MIT's Media Lab has shown that a sensor-laden conference badge might be able to help people venture out, form new connections, and gain insight into how they interact with others at such events.

Ben Waber, an MIT researcher who worked on the project (and blogged about it here), gave souped-up badges to 70 participants at a Media Lab event. These badges use an infrared sensor to gather data about face-to-face interactions, a wireless radio to collect data regarding proximity to other badges and send it to a central computer, an accelerometer to track motion of the participant, and a microphone to monitor speech patterns. At the event, the data from the infrared sensors was wirelessly transmitted to a computer that crunched the numbers, producing a real-time visualization of the event's social graph.

This project illustrates the increasing popularity of sociometrics, a discipline in which sensors collect fine-grained data during social interactions and software makes sense of it. Waber works with MIT professor Sandy Pentland, who is credited with much of the early work in sociometrics and coining the term "reality mining." (See "What Your Cell Phone Knows About You" and "The iPhone's Untapped Potential.") But Waber and Pentland aren't alone. Researchers at Intel are using sensors to help monitor the health and behavior of the elderly. And others are using position data gleaned from cell phones to help develop more-comprehensive models of how disease spreads.

In addition, an MIT spin-off company, nTag, provides smart badges similar to Waber's that automatically send out and receive "e-cards." While nTag's badges don't collect motion and voice data, they are capable displaying data as real-time visualizations of the social network at a conference, says Rick Borovoy, cofounder and chief technology office of the company.

Borovoy says that revealing a social network, in particular, can change the dynamics at a conference. "It creates a sense of community and identity, and it's a way to subtly intervene and disrupt conventional networking patterns," he says. Borovoy says that nTag has found that showing people their networking patterns on a social graph is enough to change them. "You think people know their patterns, but often they don't," he says.

Waber says that the smart badges used in his experiment, which are about the size of a deck of cards but weigh less, can do more than just show face-to-face interactions and display a real-time social graph, and he has plans to look at the rest of the data to see what patterns emerge. For example, since the wireless radio can sense proximity and voice data, it's possible to infer when a person is engaged in a group discussion and who the expert is.

Also, accelerometer data could indicate activity at the conference. Waber says that if a conference organizer is running around, it could indicate that he needs help getting things done. This could indicate that the organizer should plan for more help at certain times during an event.

Some experts suspect that, within the next few years, smart badges won't be confined to conferences and events. "We think that eventually everyone will have a smart badge with them all the time: their cell phone," says Alex Kass, a researcher who leads reality-mining projects at Accenture, a technology firm. "Cell phones will transmit some kind of identity or interesting information to the people around you; y