Category Archives: Wired

How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck

My final story for Wired.com appeared August 31. It’s a look at some of the work that the scientists and engineers in Microsoft’s research division are doing to create the computer interface — and communications screens — of the future.

REDMOND, Washington — Deep inside Microsoft is the brain of a mad scientist.

You might not think so, given the banality of the company’s ubiquitous products: Windows, Office, Hotmail, Exchange Server, Active Directory. The days are long past when this kind of software could light up anyone’s imagination, except maybe an accountant’s.

But Microsoft has an innovative side that’s still capable of producing surprises. In fact, Microsoft spends more than $9 billion a year, and employs tens of thousands of people in research and development alone. While most of that goes toward coding the next versions of the company’s major products, a lot gets funneled into pure research and cutting-edge engineering.

Much of that work happens in Building 99 and Studio B here on Microsoft’s campus.

Building 99 is a think tank in the classic sense: It’s a beautifully-designed building packed to the gills with hundreds of scientists — about half of Microsoft’s researchers work here. In the middle is a tall, airy atrium designed by the architect to facilitate collaboration and the kind of chance meetings that can lead to serendipitous discoveries.

Many of the brainiacs who work in Building 99 are researching areas of computer science that may not have relevance to Microsoft’s bottom line for years, if ever. Heck, they may not have relevance to anything, ever, but the fundamental premise of basic research is that for every dozen, or hundred, or thousand off-the-wall projects, there’s one invention that turns out to be fabulously important and lucrative.

In fact, you only need one hit to make billions of dollars in research pay off, even if you waste the rest of the good ideas. As Malcolm Gladwell argued recently, Xerox, which is often derided for failing to take advantage of a series of amazing inventions at its Palo Alto Research Center, actually saw huge returns from just one invention: the laser printer. Against that, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Xerox PARC was home to hundreds of useless research projects, or that Xerox never figured out what to do with some of its research, like the graphical user interface.

Continue reading: How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck | Wired.com

Infiniti Hybrid Is a Green Sedan for Silver Foxes

 

 

If you’re old enough to remember the energy policies of the Carter administration, green enough to have donated to the Nature Conservancy and young enough to get a rush of testosterone from dusting that polo-shirt-wearing jerk in his BMW, Nissan has the car for you.

And though its styling walks a fine line between “grandpa’s luxury sedan” and “soccer mom sports car,” the 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid pulls off this delicate balancing act with grace.

The result isn’t superb on looks. As you’d expect, meeting so many different design goals results in a car that looks a little, well, melted-together. It’s not going to make anyone’s heart race on the inside, either, with slightly old-fashioned styling exemplified by the quaint analog clock in the dash.

But it is one fun ride.

Full review: Infiniti Hybrid Is a Green Sedan for Silver Foxes | Product Reviews | Wired.com.

How to Make a Clock Run for 10,000 Years

Photo of West Texas landscape with sun rising over a ridge in the foreground

The 10,000 year clock will look out over a spaceport and the West Texas desert.

High on a rocky ridge in the desert, nestled among the brush, is the topmost part of a clock that has been ticking for thousands of years.

It looks out over the ruins of a spaceport, built by a rich man whose name was forgotten long ago.

Most of the clock is deep inside the mountain, below the ridgeline. To get there, you hike for days through the heat; the only sounds are the buzzing of flies and the whisper of the occasional breeze. You climb up through the brush, then pass through a hidden door into the darkness and silence of the clock chamber. Far above your head, in the darkness, a massive pendulum swings slowly back and forth, making the clock tick once every 10 seconds.

No one knows who built it, or why. They built it well, and even now it keeps perfect time. All we know of these strange people is that they were obsessed with the future.

Why else would they build something that had no purpose except to mark time for thousands of years?

* * *

The rich man is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and he has indeed started construction on a clock that he hopes will run for 10,000 years.

For Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, the clock is not just the ultimate prestige timepiece. It’s a symbol of the power of long-term thinking. His hope is that building it will change the way humanity thinks about time, encouraging our distant descendants to take a longer view than we have.

Full story: How to Make a Clock Run for 10,000 Years | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Or clock here to read the whole story on one page.

May 25, 1945: Sci-Fi Author Predicts Future by Inventing It

1945: Arthur C. Clarke begins privately circulating copies of a paper that proposes using space satellites for global communications.

It was a bold suggestion for 1945, as the war was just winding down and most people were undoubtedly more concerned about the necessities of life than they were with beaming radio waves down from space. But Clarke, a physicist and budding science-fiction author, had his head firmly in the future. The paper, “The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications,” suggests that space stations could be used for broadcasting television signals (.pdf).

The Space-station was originally conceived as a refueling depot for ships leaving the Earth. As such it may fill an important though transient role in the conquest of space, during the period when chemical fuels are employed…. However, there is at least one purpose for which the station is ideally suited and indeed has no practical alternative. This is the provision of world-wide ultra-high-frequency radio services, including television.

(Television itself was barely a commercial reality at this point, so that’s some forward thinking.)

Clarke followed up on this private paper with an article published in October 1945 in Wireless World titled, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” The paper discusses how rocket technology, such as that used in German V-2s during the war, could be turned to peaceful ends by launching artificial satellites into orbit. All you needed, Clarke argued, was a rocket capable of pushing a payload past an orbital-insertion velocity of 8 km/second [5 miles/second].

However, the smallest orbits — such as those that would be used by the Russian Sputnik satellites in the following decade — would circle the earth in about 90 minutes. Because of basic orbital mechanics, the farther out you could get a satellite, the slower its orbit around the Earth would be. At one point, about 42,000 km [about 26,100 miles] from the center of the Earth, the satellite’s orbit would be exactly 24 hours, the same as the Earth’s rotation. Clarke wrote, in Wireless World:

A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth’s equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set.

Clarke wasn’t the first to propose such an orbit, known as geostationary, but his essay did popularize the idea. And while it may have seemed far-fetched in 1945, it was less than 12 years before Sputnik and only 17 years before the first TV broadcast satellite, Telstar. Then, in 1965, Intelsat began launching the first satellite system based on geostationary satellites, and there are more than 300 such satellites in Clarke orbits today. The future of communications evolved much as Clarke had foreseen it.

Although Clarke eventually became more famous as a science-fiction author, penning such classics as 2001and Childhood’s End, he regarded his satellite proposal as more significant. I interviewed Clarke for a profile inMobile PC magazine’s March 2004 issue. The headline referred to him as “The Father of the Star Child.” He replied with this note, handwritten on a reprint of his original Wireless World story:

Appreciate the write-up in March … but I think being ‘father’ of the COMSAT more important than the Star Child!

 

Original post: May 25, 1945: Sci-Fi Author Predicts Future by Inventing It | This Day In Tech | Wired.com.

DIY Lasers Are Irresistibly Dangerous

 

Decades after its birth, the laser is still irresistibly cool.

How many other fifty-somethings can you say that about?

Even though lasers are as common as dirt now, appearing in everything from DVD players to supermarket scanners to computer mice, there’s still a certain appeal to a beam of coherent, monochromatic light. Especially if it’s dangerously powerful.

So it’s no surprise that people can’t resist playing with lasers, building their own, customizing them and, of course, setting stuff on fire with them.

Theodore Maiman probably never foresaw the ways his creation would be used when he first turned it on in 1960. But then again, he might be happy to know that someone has come up with actual laser rayguns.

Pulse Laser Gun Mk II
At the top of the do-it-yourself laser pyramid is this amazing pulse gun, capable of pumping out 1 megawatt of coherent light in short pulses.

As the video shows, that’s enough to punch holes in plastic and, of course, pop balloons. Add a focusing lens and the beam of laser light creates a tiny, intensely hot ball of plasma that can burn holes in aluminum and char wood.

It weighs almost 2 pounds, but has a self-contained battery pack capable of 50 shots. It may not be practical as a weapon, but like other powerful lasers, it’s very, very dangerous.

Full gallery, with lots of snarky copy: DIY Lasers Are Irresistibly Dangerous | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.