This time of year, it’s difficult not to write about the upcoming NAB event. The "Transition to Digital' e-mail box is brimming with press releases touting new products that are better, faster, brighter, shinier and less expensive than their predecessors. Displays are getting larger; hardware is getting smaller. This year’s NAB promises to be great. It always is.
On the other hand, there’s news of some highly significant technology leaps that are much greater than anything to be found in this year’s Las Vegas Convention Center exhibits. Rewind to a few short years ago, when a product rocked the broadcast industry that wasn’t officially on display at NAB. That product was the iPhone and smartphones in general.
Today, iPhones and smartphones are as ubiquitous in the pockets of broadcast engineers as tweaking screwdrivers once were. Nearly every modern piece of broadcast electronics can be accessed, controlled and tweaked with an iPhone or smart phone. They’re also handy for capturing HD video and high-resolution photos. Trips to the transmitter or studio to make a simple adjustment or change a setting are becoming old school memories. The near future promises more significant changes in the way we live and work that likely won’t be on display at this year’s NAB.
I recently bought some new prescription glasses. They brought high definition to my eyes, and friends tell me they look great. Too bad my new frames will be short-lived because I can’t wait for their imminent replacement.
I’m talking about a product you may have heard of called Google Glass. In brief, Google Glass is similar to an Internet-connected smartphone without the touch screen. Instead, Google Glass is controlled entirely by voice commands. A heads-up display screen is built into the rim above the wearer’s right eye, and it runs on Google’s Android OS. Like a smartphone, Google Glass can take still pictures, record video and search online. The wearer simply tells it what to do.
Google Glass was first demonstrated at a Google press conference last June. At that time, Google was addressing bugs and working on improving its battery life. The product began development in a mysterious low profile division of Google in 2010. Today, that division is known as Google X.
Google Glass is leading the way to a new technology concept known as wearable computing. Right now, some developers already own the first version of Google Glass, known as “Explorer,” which was sold at a Google developer conference last year. A couple of weeks ago, Google announced a 50 words-or-less-type contest to offer Explorer glasses to “bold, creative individuals” at $1500 each. (Sorry, the deadline ended last week.) Up to 8000 people will be selected through the contest and notified later this month. Winners can pick up their Google Glass in Los Angeles, the Bay area or New York. Some of those proud new owners will undoubtedly show up wearing them at this year’s NAB.
By next year, a newer version of Google Glass will be available at a lower price to all consumers. My prediction is that Google Glass will be the ultimate fashion statement in 2014, particularly at next year’s NAB. The official Google Glass demo video can be seen here.
Speaking of battery life, my second prediction for NAB 2014 will be the introduction of some graphene-based products. What is graphene? It is a one atom thickness of pure carbon, with atoms arranged in a two-dimensional hexagonal honeycomb lattice pattern. It’s also the next big thing, not only for the broadcast industry, but for the world. In fact, the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to two scientists at the University of Manchester for their groundbreaking graphene experiments.
Actually, tiny bits of graphene are created with every graphite pencil mark. Graphene is the world’s thinnest material, one carbon atom thick. A thickness of two carbon atoms isn’t graphene. Some basic properties of graphene were first identified in the mid-1800s. More detailed scientific investigation began nearly 100 years ago, but it remained on the back shelf because of the virtual impossibility to obtain it in any larger scale.
A few years ago, scientists at the University of Manchester created graphene using common household adhesive tape to split graphite crystals into thinner and thinner layers, down to one atom thickness. Various other techniques have been tried, such as lithography, with little cost-effective success.
More recently, researchers at UCLA discovered how to make graphene by coating a DVD with a solution of graphite oxide and water and literally burning it in a consumer-grade Light Scribe DVD burner. The laser light oxidizes the solution, and the result is a removable layer of graphene. Using this technique, UCLA researchers produced more than 100 micro-supercapacitors on one disk in less than 30 minutes.
The awesome properties of graphene are sometimes called “CERN on a desk,” referring to the Swiss Hadron Collider. This name comes from the fact that electrons in graphene are virtually massless like photons, and can travel long distances without scattering. Electrons and holes travel near light speed. Graphene is also extremely strong, transparent like atomic-level chicken wire and highly conductive.
There is a growing list of amazing doors graphene promises to open. It can be the material of ultra-fast transistors and ultra-sensitive photodetectors. It can make a gas sensor capable of detecting a single gas molecule. It can drastically improve LCD displays, solar cells and touch screens. The list seems nearly endless, but what appears most promising in the near term are supercapacitors.
A supercapacitor is like a battery, but it can be charged and discharged 100 to 1000 times faster than a battery. Batteries store a large amount of energy, but they are slow to charge and discharge. Typical capacitors are quick to charge and discharge, but they store little energy. A supercapacitor combines the best of both. It charges and discharges like a capacitor and stores a large amount of energy like a battery. Imagine a professional video camera battery that fully charges in seconds. Imagine an electric vehicle that charges in about one minute. That’s what physicists are predicting.
Unlike toxic batteries, graphene is a harmless carbon-based organic substance that can be disposed of in the trash or even in a compost bin and later used for fertilizer. Single layer graphene acts as a metallic conductor. Applying external electric fields to bi-layer graphene makes it act like a semiconductor.
Graphene is one of the hottest topics in physics labs around the world, and new discoveries are being announced at an unbelievable pace. There’s too much information about graphene on the Internet to recommend one or two sites. Search for graphene, and prepare to spend some time reviewing and challenging your knowledge of electron-level physics.
Speaking of Google, a very interesting newly patented product was unveiled at Google’s “Solve for X” conference this time last year. That product is a spray-on antenna introduced by Sandy, UT-based Chamtech Enterprises. It’s not just an antenna in the traditional sense. Originally developed to help intelligence gathering operations camouflage antennas, the spray has no reflectivity and can be lightly over-sprayed with non-metallic paint for added concealment. As stated on Chamtech’s website, the product is “ideal for operations that require the ability to 'Hide in Plain Sight' (HiPS).” That could be big news for those who don’t like towers or cities that won’t allow cellular and microwave towers to be built but complain about signal coverage.
While the genesis of the product and research is rather spooky, its design and abilities are amazing. It’s better than copper because it doesn’t waste energy generating heat. In fact, it is a passive RF amplifier. It can be used as a transmitting antenna or to enhance reception. In its first field test for the government, a tree was sprayed and used as an antenna to transmit a VHF signal. A government team tested the results and found it worked better than a “good standard antenna.” The next day they replicated the results and realized that it worked better than the government’s best antenna.
A different test was conducted with an iPhone in a Faraday cage. Nanoparticles were sprayed on the iPhone antenna and compared to the standard antenna’s performance. The antenna sprayed with nanoparticles displayed a 20dBm improvement. A video of the Solve for X spray-on antenna presentation is available here.
The spray-on material contains nanoparticles that act as nanocapacitors that align themselves to create an antenna when spread out in the correct pattern. The nanocapacitors create a wireless antenna for RF devices nearby, such as cell phones and RFID tags. Or, it also can be connected by wire directly to a transmitter or receiver. Chamtech developed the technology that makes the particles spread out properly on vertical surfaces. The company is also looking into using the technology to achieve similar improvements in motor windings and electrical transmission lines. Chamtech is currently in the process of exploring various OEM agreements to bring the benefits of the product to the commercial marketplace.