Polarization sharpens computer's sightIt's no problem for...


November 30, 1992|By Steve Auerweck

Polarization sharpens computer's sight

It's no problem for a toddler or even, heck, a frog. But simple vision -- being able to identify elements in a video image -- is among the most daunting challenges of computing.

Taking a clue from nature, Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Lawrence B. Wolff has built a camera that uses polarized light to present a "richer" picture to a computer trying to interpret an image.

Computer vision research "has been biased by the fact that people use color and intensity" to see, Dr. Wolff said. In fact, he said, "Polarization is a more general characteristic of light than intensity."

Waves of polarized light all have the same orientation. Light can be polarized when it passes through a filter -- the atmosphere is one -- or reflects off an object. By interpreting that polarization, Dr. Wolff's system can glean more information from a scene than mere light and dark would provide.

Dr. Wolff's camera uses liquid crystals to rotate the plane of polarization. A Sun workstation with Data Cube image-processing circuit boards grabs three images and processes them to show either the physical traits of the objects in the scene or a "map" equating different polarization to different colors.

The resulting image can distinguish electrically conductive materials from non-conductors, for example, and reflections from the objects themselves. Automated industrial inspection and robot guidance are two fields where Dr. Wolff's research might pay off.

Dr. Wolff has a $339,000, three-year contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to continue his work, and he's also received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Tempest in Columbia:ACC buys Delta Data

ACC Systems hopes its acquisition of Delta Data Systems will the start of a tempestuous relationship.

The two Columbia companies, which merged recently, sell computer and communications equipment, much of it to the military. While ACC has dealt mainly in communications gear, such as network access systems, Delta Data has focused on extra-rugged and "TEMPEST"-certified computers.

TEMPEST computer equipment has been shielded with special metals and screening that prevent the equipment from leaking data signals that can be used by an enemy -- military or corporate. Without the sort of protection Delta Data provides, an ACC spokesman said, a computer screen can be read by a well-equipped spy for up to 12 hours after the machine is shut off.

ACC also gains Delta's lab for detecting electromagnetic radiation from computers. The demand for such testing has grown with stricter federal regulation of broadcast interference from dataequipment.

Delta Data, which will retain its name as a division of ACC, had been operating under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law, having been spun off by TeleVideo Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif. It had 33 employees at the time of the sale, according to Vernon Barnes, ACC's chief financial officer; 19 were hired back by ACC.

ACC, which did not disclose the sale price, said the combined companies expect revenue of $12 million in fiscal 1993.

Competition brings cheaper software

You may be a skeptic, after that spree through the local computer bazaar, but software is getting cheaper.

The Software Publishers Association said last week that while unit sales of application software in North America grew by 30 percent in the third quarter, dollar volume was up just 11.6 percent.

Retail sales in the quarter were an estimated $1.43 billion; for the first three quarters, sales were $4.15 billion, up 17.5 percent over the 1991 period.

Growth in international sales by U.S. software companies was even stronger -- 27.4 percent for the quarter and 20.6 percent for the year to date.

Even in the face of a 16 percent sales decline, DOS remains the largest-selling format for personal computer applications.

Word processors and spreadsheets remain the leading categories, accounting for nearly a third of all software sales. Home education software was the fastest-growing category, with sales up 57 percent over the 1991 period.

Michigan company provides "chairware"

Dozens of manufacturers now make "ergonomically correct" chairs for those who spend long hours at computer keyboards. One, Haworth Inc. of Holland, Mich., has a novel way to sell its wares to the computer-bound.

Instead of an instruction tag, it attaches a bright fuchsia-wrapped floppy disk to each of its Accolade-series chairs. Slip the disk into a PC and you'll see an animated instruction booklet.

Penthouse magazine says it with Flowers

One booth at the recent Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas would have put President-elect Bill Clinton's support for high-technology to the test.

Penthouse magazine, plugging its new on-line computer service, offered the chance to chat, via electronic mail, with Gennifer Flowers, the singer who caused a sensation by saying she'd had an affair with Mr. Clinton.

Penthouse is luring customers with the promise of "realtime graphics that permit nearly instantaneous viewing of photos" -- including Ms. Flowers'.

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