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Developments to Watch
HIGH ANXIETY FROM HIGH-DEFINITION TV
AS THE WIRELESS UNIVERSE EXPANDS, WEIRD NEW CASES of electromagnetic interference are surfacing. On Feb. 27, immediately after WFAA-TV in Dallas began its first transmission of high-definition television, 12 pocket-size heart-monitoring devices used by patients at nearby Baylor University Medical Center went on the blink. The devices relay electrocardiogram signals to a central station, where nurses monitor the patterns on computer screens. The nurses became alarmed when screens they were watching repeatedly went blank. Troubleshooters quickly traced the problem to the HDTV signals, which occupied the same slice of radio spectrum as some of the older heart monitors used at the hospital.
No patients were affected, and WFAA halted broadcasts while the hospital replaced the old monitors. But more incidents of this sort seem likely as HDTV and other forms of wireless digital communications proliferate. Last year, equipment at a cable-TV facility in Virginia was thrown out of whack by emissions from microwave ovens at a fast-food restaurant. Cell-phone signals have also been known to cause interference at cable-TV facilities as well as disrupting antilock brakes and other electronic systems in cars.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
A GOOD DAY FOR LAB RATS
IN TODAY'S AUTOMATED LABS, drug researchers can produce thousands of compounds that promise relief for various diseases. But about 98% eventually fail due to toxicity, high production costs, or ineffectiveness in human trials. So the challenge is to determine which candidates are in the other 2%.
Soon, artificial-intelligence software developed by Multicase Inc. and the University of Pittsburgh may improve the odds by predicting the toxicity of chemical compounds. Multicase, a spin-off of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, is now working with the Food & Drug Administration, which is compiling toxicity databases drawn from hundreds of animal studies. Combined with the AI software, the databases will serve as "virtual animals" for screening new drugs. The first FDA databases, now nearing completion, are designed to help predict which compounds may cause birth defects and fertility problems in animals. Based on that, some compounds could be nixed without costly trials.
These tools won't eliminate the need for lab animals. But they could help the FDA fine-tune decisions on how much testing is necessary. That would let the pharmaceutical industry slash months or years from its development cycle--thus saving a bundle. Multicase's systems entail a one-time cost of $56,000 to $100,000; each animal test series can easily run that much or more. Multi- case expects approval of the software within two years. Johanna KnapschaeferEDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
NOW THAT'S USING YOUR HEAD
QUADRIPLEGICS WERE THE initial target audience for this product (photo) from Video Computer, a PC maker in Turin, Italy. The headset uses infrared transmitters and receivers to detect movement of the wearer's head and translate that motion into on-screen cursor movements.
In the U.S. market, however, Video Computer hopes to win over a different audience: computer gamers. Their main challenge is having to execute dozens of commands at high speed with just 10 fingers. Whether they use a joystick or keyboard, gamers often rely on one set of finger motions to move through 3-D space on the screen and a separate set to change the view. The headset, which replaces a joystick in any PC game, will eliminate at least one of those command sets. To look left--whether your character on the screen is standing still or creeping forward--all you need to do is rotate your head slightly to the left. In flight simulations, the headset will make it easier for pilots to keep an eye on the enemy while maneuvering their mock planes in game space. The headset also comes with a microphone, so gamers can talk to their Internet comrades while killing their foes. UR Gear will retail for $99 when available in the second quarter.Paul EngReturn to top