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THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : A Mouse That Won't Need a Pad

October 04, 1995|KATHLEEN WIEGNER

Invented centuries ago, gyroscopes are used to detect the motion and position of objects such as ships and airplanes. To this day, the artificial horizon, based on a gyroscope, is a pilot's most valuable instrument. And now Gyration, a 6-year-old company in Saratoga, Calif., believes that putting a gyroscope into a computer mouse could make it equally valuable for business presenters--and, eventually, for couch potatoes in front of their interactive TV sets.

Gyration this week introduced its GyroPoint Desk, which combines standard on-the-desk mouse features with two gyroscopes that sense the motion of a user's wrist and move the cursor in the corresponding direction. Unlike a conventional mouse, GyroPoint can be waved in the air much like a TV remote, giving a user a full 360 degrees of motion.

A presenter could, for example, hold the device in his hand from any location or position in a room and still control the cursor as if she were rolling a mouse on a mouse pad. While GyroPoint Desk is still attached to the computer, another version is wireless.

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Stealth Faxes: How many people read a fax before it reaches your hands? Nobody really knows. The hotel receptionist, or the clerk at the copy shop? Your co-workers, your boss, your competitors? While faxes are convenient, they are sadly lacking when it comes to privacy.

Engineers at the University of Rochester in New York hope to be able to fix that problem with a bit of encryption that would render faxes nothing more than a random pattern of black and white dots. Hidden within the pattern is a message, but only the person with special customized plastic sheet could read it.

The key to the encryption is in the way the fax printer lays down the dots. The number of ways to arrange the dots is almost infinite, so different people in the same office could have his or her own custom decoding sheet. The encoding software is installed on the machine that sends the fax: It is not necessary on the receiving machine, since all fax machines do a digital handshake at the beginning and that is all the software requires.

The Rochester researchers are currently working on refining the technology and looking for a company to license and develop it.

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Fuel-Cell Reform: Electric cars are still beset with a number of technical problems. But researchers at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago have developed a device for fuel cells that they believe could bring electric cars closer to practical use for daily driving.

Unlike batteries that produce electricity only as long as they are charged, fuel cells produce electricity as long as they have fuel and never need recharging. The main problem in using fuel cells for powering cars is that they use hydrogen, a very light gas that is difficult to store. Currently available hydrogen-storage technologies are so heavy and bulky that they would limit the driving range of any car that uses them.

The Argonne device, called an "on-board methanol reformer," releases the hydrogen bound up in methanol and feeds it into a fuel cell. The reformer is small enough to fit under the hood of a compact car beside a 50-kilowatt fuel cell. Argonne's reformer would combine methanol with oxygen from the air to produce a hydrogen-rich mixture of gases that would be injected into the fuel cell.

The reformer is also flexible enough to respond well to frequent start-ups and shutdowns. And the design is simple and inexpensive to manufacture. It consists of a cylinder packed with a common catalyst. A nozzle sprays liquid methanol into the cylinder and an ignition source starts it.

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Weed Whackers: Weed-specific chemicals which are more environmentally friendly are better than broad-acting herbicides that wipe out everything in their path, right? Maybe not, according to Robert Harvey, a weed expert and professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recent speech to the American Chemical Society, Harvey contended that using more weed-specific chemicals is almost certain to lead to greater problems of weed resistance to chemical herbicides.

The widely-used broad-acting triazine family, introduced in the 1950s, has come under attack because the herbicide persists in the environment and poses problems of surface and ground water contamination. As a result, the use of triazines has been increasingly restricted, and industry is gradually phasing these chemicals out. Filling their place is a new family of chemical compounds that are potentially safer and act far more selectively weeds.

But more weeds are naturally resistant to the new herbicides, which work by inhibiting the enzymes responsible for the development of essential amino acid chains in plants, than to the triazines.

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