July 9, 2008

I got my first chance to use a Nintendo Wii a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had 4 other couples over for dinner.  We bowled and we boxed, and our guests left sweaty and sore.  For a few hundred dollars, the electronics technology that goes into the playstation is pretty amazing, not to mention the physical workout one can get.

The Wii Remote, in particular, has captured the imagination of many games developers, and some have garnered a bit of fame making the Wii do things that it was never intended to do.  Take Carnegie Mellon PhD Johnny Lee, for example.  As one of the more (if not most) notable Wii special effects developers, he’s not only created some really neat software but then he puts it on YouTube for all to see.

The links from Johnny Lee’s website at CMU to other sites get pretty techy, pretty quickly, and are even for me a bit overwhelming and dry.  However, what fascinates me is the capability built into the Wii Remote:  A 1024×768 infrared camera with hardware blob detection and a 3-axis accelerometer, both running at 100 Hz sampling.  All in a device weighing a few ounces.  For about $39.99 retail.

Even if you don’t understand infrared, blobs and accelerometers, suffice it to say that this technology combination appeals to many:  space exploration, especially the use of robotic spacewalkers, just got easier and cheaper.  Intelligent automobiles that not only know how to maintain proper stopping distance from the car in front but also understand lane changes.  Total immersion into a 3D virtual realm running off a standard video display.  Completely foldable, interactive displays.  Motion capture.

All of this innovation has led both Microsoft and Sony on a fast track to catch up and maybe surpass Nintendo’s capabilities.  As a result of this competition the games industry will shortly turn Bioshock and Unreal Tournament into your grandmother’s Oldsmobile overnight.

After years of ho-hum single-person shoot ’em ups, gaming is interesting again.


The Quiet Crisis

June 7, 2008

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $3 million over five years to a group of Upstate colleges, aimed at increasing the number of minority students in STEM degree programs.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The NSF grants are in response to the so-called Quiet Crisis – the threat to the ability of the United States to innovate, due to looming shortage in the nation’s STEM workforce.  Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, puts it in pretty plain English:

The crisis stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and its production of them. As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s prepares to retire, our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientific and technical talent to step into research laboratories, software and other design centers, refineries, defense installations, science policy offices, manufacturing shop floors and high-tech startups.

We ignore this gap at our peril.

I know of no engineer that needs to retire at age 65 if he or she doesn’t want to.  Even in the Buffalo area, which does not have a significantly large high-tech workforce, the demand for good engineers and scientists outstrips the supply.  Companies like Moog struggle to fill job openings.  My own company has been challenged of late to find qualified candidates for the engineering job openings that we’ve posted.

Minorities in particular are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.  The NSF-funded program hopes to increase minority enrollment in the Upstate college consortium and provide additional support through scholarships, mentoring and research opportunities.

The U.S. cannot afford to become a technological backwater.