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It's Not There, But It's No Mirage


Developments to Watch

IT'S NOT THERE, BUT IT'S NO MIRAGE

FOR CLOSE TO ONE YEAR, Seattle's tiny Microvision Inc. has been shipping an unusual breed of head-mounted display to high-paying military customers. Known as a VRD, for virtual retinal display, the gizmo uses a laser, special lenses, and a high-speed scanning mechanism to "paint" moving images directly onto the eye's retina.

Used in flight simulations, the VRD enables a pilot to study maps, pictures, and computer-generated images while manning the plane's controls. The pilot can see his or her whole environment through a clear viewing lens in front of one or both eyes. At the same time, the pilot can study superimposed digital images that appear to float several feet in front of the VRD.

Today, the light source for a full-color VRD takes up most of a midsize suitcase. The scanners and optics are also bulky. But Microvision CEO Richard F. Rutkowski says they'll shrink drastically over the coming year and a half. By the end of September, he'll unveil a prototype in which the scanning assembly will be etched onto a sliver of silicon measuring 0.5 cubic centimeters--just one-hundredth its current size.

In 12 to 18 months, Rutkowski predicts, today's bulky light source will be replaced by tiny laser diodes or light-emitting diodes, which could be fabricated along with the scanner on a single slice of silicon. That would open up consumer applications, such as a pop-up lens on a cellular phone for videoconferencing on the fly.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

SHEDDING LIGHT ON DAMAGED DNA

ASSAULTED BY RADIATION OR TOXINS, pairs of nucleotides that form the rungs of ladder-like DNA molecules can break. Sometimes, the assault is deliberate, as when doctors attack a tumor with radiation or drugs. Or the harm might be environmental and lead to cancer or birth defects.

To better measure such damage, scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of North Carolina say they have a new assay that is up to 100,000 times more sensitive than existing tests. They mix samples of DNA with a genetically engineered antibody that attaches itself to radiation-damaged DNA. Then a second antibody is introduced that bears a fluorescent tag. This molecule binds to the first antibody and marks the damaged site. The mixture is then passed through fine glass tubes and excited by a laser. The greater the damage, the more light issues from the illuminated samples. By using different antibodies, researchers say they can tailor the test to recognize gene damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants as well as radiation.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

FINGERPRINTS FOR ONLINE SECURITY

DOUBLE-TIERED SECURITY TECHNOLOGY KNOWN AS "PUBLIC KEY ENCRYPTION" can keep E-mail messages and other files safe from most prying eyes. Based on complex mathematics, these systems enable message senders to scramble messages using a key made public by the intended recipient. When the message arrives, the recipient unlocks it with a second, private key. But there's a basic problem with this method. The private key is generally a long string of numbers that is not easily memorized. So it is often stored somewhere on a computer hard drive, where it is vulnerable to hackers.

How can a user's private key be kept both handy and secure? Mytec Technologies Inc. in Toronto has patented a method for linking the user's private key to his or her fingerprint. A scrambled image of the user's fingerprint is tied to the code that forms the private key. The results are stored on the user's desktop PC, portable computer, or palmtop. To activate the key, the user simply places one finger on a small, detachable scanner. Only a correct match will unscramble the key.

A fingerprint, by itself, doesn't contain enough data to function as a private key, says Colin Soutar, director of research and development at Mytec. But used in combination with existing schemes, it could provide secure access to the office network or private Internet accounts. It could also help safeguard credit-card purchases on the Web.Paul JudgeReturn to top


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